Masdar: The challenges we face making solar energy viable

Gemasolar is a concentratig solar thermal power project undertaken by the engineering firm Sener and the company Masdar, funded by the emirate of Abu Dhabi, which has invested heavily in renewable energy, aware that its large oil reserves will be exhausted someday.

In making renewable energy and clean technologies a viable alternative to fossil fuels, we face three fundamental challenges.

Firstly, technology: do we actually have the systems, materials and parts necessary to harness efficiently the almost limitless available energy from sun, wind and waves and distribute it to homes, offices and factories?

The second is cost: research and development is very expensive, and there is no guarantee of success. Judging by US patents, only one or two of every 100 inventions is successful.

And the marketplace for renewable energy is still very small, so solar, wind and biofuel all face significant diseconomies of scale relative to traditional hydrocarbon fuels, as well as huge infrastructure investment barriers to market.

The final core area of discussion is policy. The international community is committed to finding solutions to global warming, resource depletion and energy security.

But how best to use incentives, taxation and legislation to develop technology, build a marketplace and affect change?

It will take years before we have all the answers. But already it is clear that there are a handful of absolutely fundamental enablers.

One is the ability to store energy. In the past this was not an issue – there was plenty of wood, coal, oil and gas.

But the sun does not always shine and the wind does not always blow.

Meanwhile, demand for power is continuous; there is no way that an intermittent supply would work. Our energy has to be 24/7. So we need to store the energy generated by the sun, for example, during the day, to power homes and factories at night.

But today’s batteries are still barely capable of running a car, let alone powering a community through the night. This is a challenge that Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, recently described as "a mind-blowing problem … and more demanding by a factor of 100 than any other battery challenge we have today."

The good news is the search for a solution has taken a significant step forward in recent months.

For the first time, there is now a concentrated solar energy plant, Gemasolar in Spain, that is capable of producing electricity 24 hours a day.

It is a truly extraordinary achievement, the result of a joint venture between Masdar, Abu Dhabi’s holistic renewable energy initiative, and Sener, a Spanish engineering and construction company.

The plant has overcome the solar energy storage problem by combining two key technologies.

The first is a 185-hectare field of mirrors that concentrates the sun’s rays onto a single area at the top of a 100m tower in the centre of the field.

The second is a system that pumps molten salt through the tower to absorb the heat generated at the top. This salt, stored in large tanks on the ground and connected to a steam turbine, releases its energy over time. In effect, it is a 15-hour battery.

The Gemasolar plant has been operational since June and has already delivered its first uninterrupted 24 hours of electricity.

It will eventually supply electricity to 25,000 homes in the Andalucia region of Spain. It is expected to save more than 30,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions every year.

Gemasolar was the right investment at the right time. It has proved that concentrated solar power is a realistic and reliable option.

So, we have the technology. What of policy and cost? This is where countries and companies around the world have to take notice. There is now a great opportunity that we have to make the most of.

Countries with available land and plenty of sun, such as Spain, the US, Australia, parts of Africa, and the UAE, need to put in measures to support the broader deployment of these systems.

State funding to support research and development, focused on this technology, is needed to drive micro-innovation that will refine efficiency and cost.

Marketplace incentives such as feed-in tariffs – payments for contributing power to the grid – and renewables obligations will also be required to drive adoption of molten salt storage.

We also want to see investment-friendly environments that encourage the funding necessary for these huge projects, even in dire economic times.

In this light, it is worth bearing in mind that the construction of Gemasolar generated jobs in an area of high unemployment. These sites create jobs.

As the first of its type, Gemasolar inevitably required considerable investment. In a market of one, there were limited suppliers for required components such as the salt, receivers and pumps. But as the plants multiply, we can expect huge economies of scale.

The design will get better, too. We are already looking at ways to improve storage facilities, and maximise the generating benefits through multiple towers. These studies need to be supported and accelerated, to make future plants more cost-effective.

Abu Dhabi has played a leading role globally in developing a concentrating solar power plant that has such importance for the world. But where we and Spain have led the way, others must now follow to ensure this breakthrough model for 24 hour energy production from the sun can be rapidly deployed all over the world.

Dr Sultan Al Jaber is the chief executive officer of Masdar,