My apologies to my readers that EnergyMediaSociety has been slow this last month. I’ve been swamped, among other things, with a trip to Abu Dhabi as the guest of Masdar for the inauguration of the Shams 1 CSP plant – which was amazing.
I must admit that I was a bit skeptical about Shams 1. I hear a lot of plans for big projects in the Middle East and North Africa, and many of them take an inordinately long time to actually get built. Shams 1 took three years – but it is also the largest operational CSP plant in the world, in a region with little CSP development, and incorporating novel technology. I’m trying not to give too much away here, because there is an upcoming Solar Energy System of the Month that I am writing for Solar Server (my day job) that will go into more detail.
Shams 1 is a remarkable project in a remarkably forward-looking nation. It must be remembered that Masdar, who built Shams 1 with Abengoa and Total, also commissioned a 10 MW PV plant… in 2009. This was way ahead of its time for the region.
Despite this, the project has its detractors. Some excessively negative persons in the industry (who will remain nameless out of deference to their other work) say that the UAE should have used PV and not CSP. I must remind them that CSP plants take years to build, and that when Masdar set off on this venture in 2010 CSP and PV were much closer in cost. Should they have abandoned the project when the costs shifted, as so many other developers did? What purpose would that have served?
Second, the relatively high levelized cost of electricity (LCOE) is just that – relative. In the UAE, one must not only factor in cost versus conventional electricity, but also the opportunity cost of burning subsidized fossil fuels for generation, which fetch drastically higher prices on the international market (ESIA and PricewaterhouseCooper’s Sunrise in the Desert goes into this issue in detail).
Masdar also chose to build a plant that could provide electricity 24/7, something that PV cannot do without prohibitively expensive large-scale battery storage. While Masdar has said that this was required by the grid operator, I suspect that the reason was more to demonstrate proof of concept – Masdar was, after all, involved in the Gemasolar CSP plant as well, the first utility-scale solar plant to provide power to the grid 24 hours per day.
And finally, there are those purists that object to the use of natural gas, which I won’t really grace with a response. Because you can live in an ideologically pure fantasy world, or the real world, where Shams 1 is a huge step forward, not only for the region but CSP technology and the entire solar industry.
Masdar is a fascinating company and their work is both bold and broad. In a visit to Masdar City it became clear that they are looking at energy and environmental issues holistically – including large-scale pilot projects with solar cooling and energy-efficient design, while minimizing waste and preserving water.
Nations such as Germany and Denmark may be ahead in renewable energy deployment, but through Masdar the UAE is thinking about the future in a way that few other nations anywhere in the world are. They could rest on their vast fossil fuel wealth, but instead are looking beyond to create a positive vision for the future, and for that they deserve to be applauded.