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Abu Dhabi Plugs in Giant Concentrating Solar Plant

Abu Dhabi diversifies its energy with $600 million solar project.

The oil-rich sheikhdom of Abu Dhabi this week dedicated what it says is the largest concentrating solar power plant in the world, a sign that Middle Eastern countries are serious about developing their solar resources.

Desert power: Abu Dhabi puts the largest concentrating solar plant online. Credit: Masdar.

The 100-megawatt Shams 1 power plant covers two and half kilometers and generates electricity from over 700 rows of large reflective troughs. Mirrors on the parabolic troughs reflect light onto a tube carrying a synthetic oil, which is converting into steam to turn a conventional electricity-generating turbine.

The plant is part of Abu Dhabi’s effort to diversify its energy supply and develop renewable energy technologies for export, says Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, the CEO of Masdar, the state-owned renewable energy company. “From precious hydrocarbon exports to sophisticated renewable energy systems, we are balancing the energy mix and diversifying our economy–moving toward a more sustainable future,” Al Jaber says in a statement

The project was developed as a joint venture of Masdar, French energy company Total, and Abengoa Solar of Spain, which has a number of concentrating solar plants around the world. The $600 million project took three years to build and will power thousands of homes. It will use an air-cooling method to condense steam, a water-conserving measure.

The Middle East, with its ample sunlight, is emerging as a promising area for growth in the solar industry. Neighboring Saudi Arabia plans to generate one third of its electricity from solar in 20 years, which will allow it to divert more of oil and gas for export.

The Shams 1 plant is also a shot in the arm for concentrating solar thermal technology. Because of the rapid drop in solar photovoltaic prices, a number of utility-scale concentrating solar projects in the U.S. have been scrapped in favor of PV. Masdar says Shams 1, along with its other concentrating solar plants, represents one tenth of all installed concentrating solar thermal technology. It is also planning to develop a 100-megawatt photovoltaic plant

In the U.S., BrightSource Energy is currently constructing the 377-megawatt Ivanpah plant in southern California. BrightSource and Abengoa said this week they plan develop and finance a 500-megawatt project in southern California, called the Palen Solar Electric Generating System, using BrightSource Energy’s tower concentrating solar technology. One of the primary advantages of solar thermal power plants over PV is that the technology for energy storage, using molten salt, is well understood. 

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