Dubai + Acumen returns to Shelter tonight for its first panel discussion event of 2012. The topic this evening will be "Energy and Social Entrepreneurship." Energy innovators from Masdar Institute to Cummings Middle East will examine the energy problems facing the region and look at how social enterprises might lend a solution.
In January of this year, Shelter hosted panelists from Shell, Masdar Institute, Masdar Capital and Space Energy discuss the current status of Alternative Energy solutions in the region, from natural gas to solar power to biofuels.
You can prepare for tonight's event by reading up on that January conversation:
Alternative Energy: Its Not What You Think
The future of energy in the United Arab Emirates
Recent geopolitical events in the Middle East have shifted the media’s attention away from the most pressing environmental challenges that our society faces; however, the need for a more sustainable relationship with the planet is a serious concern for the Middle East region.
For the GCC, energy is at the core of the environmental crisis in the region. Demand for air conditioning, desalinated water, and electricity is increasing at significant rates. The Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA) already expects a 4% growth in water and electricity consumption in 2012.
As energy demands continue to increase, industry insiders are looking for solutions to power the next generation of UAE residents.
Representatives from Masdar Institute, Shell, Masdar Capital and Space Energy gathered at Shelter for a panel discussion on the future of energy in the UAE. It was not long before old stereotypes were debunked, proving that energy is a hot topic in the Middle East and new ideas are abundant.
Traditional Solar is not the Solution
Matteo Chiesa, the associate professor of mechanical engineering and material sciences with Masdar Institute, does not think traditional solar power generation technologies are the solution for the Emirates due to the typical daily and yearly UAE power demand curve .
“The UAE gets less [direct] sunlight than many of the other top solar-energy sites in the world,” Professor Chiesa explained.
At first glance, the hot desert climate of the Emirates would seem ideally suited to Solar Thermal energy, harnessing the solar radiation to generate electricity via a thermal pathway. Solar thermal technologies have emerged as a promising candidate for large scale power generation due to their capability to supply power constantly during day and night. This is a clear advantage compared to wind and solar photovoltaic to supply power to the UAE. But the sand particles and humidity that cloud the coastal atmosphere obscure direct sunlight, making it more challenging to concentrate the solar radiation and ultimately generate energy from solar. It is a challenge that Professor Chiesa and his team of researchers at Masdar Institute are working to meet modifying the optical design of the concentrators. Furthermore the need for more efficient storage solution is urgent to produce electricity 24 hours a day.
In addition to the thermal pathway, the group of Professor Chiesa is investigating the quantum pathway typically employed in photovoltaic systems. Professor Chiesa hopes to find a solution that will be able to efficiently generate electricity, regardless of the sand and dust in the atmosphere.
“We are looking at chemicals that can be energized by light at all wavelengths, not just visible light but the entire spectrum.” Professor Chiesa said. The research has the potential to offer a solution for high efficiency, round-the-clock solar-thermal energy in the UAE and in similar environments across the globe.
Shell promotes using less energy
The first words that you would expect to from an oil company panel member in the Middle East are probably not “we are concerned about the expected growth in demand for energy.” But Belinda Perriman, Business Development Manager with Shell International EP, spoke of "youth bulges" in the country and the region, the growing number of people with growing lifestyle expectations. "Together with excellent medical care extending life expectancy, there is a huge expected increase in energy demand,” Perriman said.
“A significant contribution can be made by being more energy efficient, teaching ourselves to use less and teaching those who are using too much to use less.” Perriman said.
The United Arab Emirates was built on the exploration, development and sale of fossil fuels. Despite a land area less than one-quarter the size of Germany, the UAE has the sixth largest natural reserves of oil in the world.
The United Arab Emirates also has the world’s fourth largest supply of natural gas.
Natural gas not only diversifies the energy profile of the United Arab Emirates but is also helping to reduce emissions. Because natural gas burns cleaner than liquid fuels like diesel, it releases fewer pollutants into the atmosphere, especially when it is used in modern, efficient gas turbines. And, since the infrastructure and technical know-how has already been developed, switching from burning coal or diesel for power to using natural gas is “the fastest way to reduce emissions whilst meeting energy needs,” Perriman said.
Shell is a leader in gas. But natural gas is just one of the many solutions that Perriman supports. “Natural gas is a step, but it is not an either-or. We need all the good renewable solutions as well. Shell has invested billions of dollars in the manufacture of energy efficient biofuels”
Cleaning up by storing under
Hector Hernandez supports renewable energy. In fact, his lab at Masdar Institute is home to several colonies of algae that he hopes can become sources of biofuels ideally adapted for the hot and salty Emirates.
But first, the professor, an expert in microbiology, has a problem to solve.
In recent years, carbon capture technologies have been introduced in coal mines and hydrocarbon reservoirs. Carbon capture is the process of collecting carbon dioxide waste and injecting it into deep underground storage centers, such as hydrocarbon reservoirs.
But what about the organisms inhabiting these regions before the carbon is injected? Professor Hernandez wants to find out how subterranean microorganisms respond to the presence of carbon dioxide in their environment.
“Anything could happen,” Professor Hernandez said. “The presence of microorganisms in storage environments could speed up the rate at which carbon precipitates from the liquid-gas mixture. A lot of stuff we are doing right now is basic. For me, its still a big black box.”
It is a big black box with a lot of potential. Carbon dioxide can be captured from all heavy industries, helping to reduce emissions. Captured carbon dioxide can also be used to push out more oil from oil reservoirs meaning that oil recovery has the potential to become both more efficient and environmentally neutral. Carbon precipitates are more stable than their liquid or gas cousins. And there are opportunities for solar as well: thermal solar panels can be used to generate energy from the heat released by the capture process.
As Perriman said, “Its not either-or. It is renewables and gas to reduce emissions. We all need to get cleaner. We need many sources of energy.”
People, Not Machines
For energy projects to reach a mass market, they need capital. Abu Dhabi-based Masdar Capital invests in energy ventures across the globe, promoting clean technology and sustainable energy practices.
In his work at Masdar Capital, Eswar Mani invests in people.
“There used to be a focus on the supply side,” Mani explains, “not on the people. We used to ask, “What can we make,” not “What do the people want?” Now we invest in projects that put the customer first.”
Putting the customer first can sometimes mean delivering electricity to the customer for the first time.
“We need to bring energy and electricity to the people who need it,” Mani says. “People need energy. Three more hours of electricity can mean that your children go to school longer, that your shops stay open a little longer, that you make just a little bit more money.”
It Pays to Educate
When you add up the perspectives of the panelists, it becomes clear that the technology for clean energy is available. Production costs are decreasing and efficiency is increasing. Now, the power to realize a sustainable energy future is in the hands of the people.
Masdar Capital is considering an investment in a company in Europe that tracks customers’ daily electricity usage and incentivizes them to be more energy efficient. Customers who stay under a daily limit get a discount on their total electricity bill. Customers who go over the limit pay a penalty.
The European program is an example of an increasing effort by energy insiders and entrepreneurs to curb electricity use in developed countries.
“Power generation is not the problem,” Mani said. “It is the electricity. It’s about our ability to augment our behavior. Social media and gaming have been very successful at that.”
“We need to develop our energy consciousness,” agreed Peter Sage, a venture capitalist with Space Energy, a project to bring electricity to earth via satellite.
For many, the most effective way to develop that consciousness is to increase electricity costs or to provide an itemized bill. However, in the Dubai, where the consumer pays a minimal “hook-up” fee, it is difficult to see the connection.
“What you actually pay to DEWA is the connection to the grid,” Professor Chiesa explained. “Its very small compared to what the power costs. It doesn’t matter if you leave you light on or off. In the summertime, plants work 2,500 hrs [to cover air conditioning demand]. You can’t pay that. But if we want to reduce consumption - if your cost is what you use… you’ll use less.”
Belinda Perriman is not waiting for legislation. “We are talking with the governments, providing information to help people make good decisions. And we are talking to local schools about sustainability. And we are talking to people.” Perriman said.
To Professor Hernandez, the solution to a secure energy future is in schools. “We need a workforce that is capable of understanding physics, mathematics, biology, chemistry in a way that will really allow us to push the boundaries.” Hernandez said. “[We need] people around the world who are capable… who can go into the labs or into the industry and see a good idea and be able to bring these ideas to life.”
The answer is education.
- Mary Ames
Educational Programs Manager//Shelter Dubai
Image available under CC License by Sharon Pruitt