Oil-Rich Gulf Countries Qatar and UAE Investing In ... Solar Power?


It might seem counter-intuitive that the most fossil fuel-rich region in the world is also investing billions of dollars in sustainable alternative energy solutions. But that is exactly what is happening in the Arabian Gulf, where governments and industries are working hard to protect their global leadership status in the energy field, while also striving to provide enough power for their booming populations. Qatar and the UAE are leading the way in expanding their portfolios to include sustainable building construction, alternative energy development, more efficient use of natural resources, and greenhouse gas-reducing practices.

Demand for power in the Middle East is projected to grow at more than 7% per year over the next decade. Qatar has already shown one of the fastest yearly growth rates in energy demand in the world at 13.4%. The region also has the fastest rising per capita greenhouse gas emissions in the world, growing 5 times faster than the global average between 1990-2005. Governments and investors are not only looking to provide for the growing power demand in the short-term, but to create long-term solutions with renewable sources that reduce impact on the environment.

Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, is a regional sustainability model with its forward-looking sustainability initiatives. The emirate launched a $22 billion project in 2006 to build a hyper-efficient carbon-neutral city, called Masdar City, along with a Masdar Institute to train green leaders and develop new sustainable technologies. Masdar's mission is to "become a leader in making renewable energy a real, viable business and Abu Dhabi a global centre of excellence in the renewable energy and clean technology category." The UAE has also paved the way in providing clean water for its residents, using a reverse-osmosis process called desalination to remove salt from sea water. Currently, desalination is responsible for 13.5 million tons of greenhouse gas emission per year, but the UAE is working to improve technologies to make it more efficient, specifically by making desalination operations powered by solar energy.

Speaking of solar energy, it shouldn't be surprising that this sector is one of the fastest growing in the Gulf. Wide expanses of empty lands and reliable desert heat make harnessing the sun a highly attractive venture. Plans are underway in Qatar for a $1 billion polysilicon manufacturing facility that will cover nearly 300 acres of land. Qatar's first solar test facility is also set to be completed this year, and research conducted their will attempt to identify solar technologies that are best-suited for Qatar. 

Sustainable building practices have more recently become a focus in the Gulf countries. The post-oil construction boom and the rapid erection of towering skyscrapers appears to have peaked, and governments are now introducing stringent regulations to govern new construction projects as well as improvements to existing buildings. New projects in Abu Dhabi must meet minimum standards for efficient use of resources in order to be awarded building permits. The Qatar Sustainability Assessment System is Qatar's home version of LEED, which both provide rating systems to assess the sustainability of buildings. Qatar currently ranks sixth in the world in green buildings. For its part, Qatar's World Cup organizing committees are also aiming to build all 12 stadiums based on a carbon-neutral model, primarily powered with solar energy.  

While government and business leaders may recognize the long-term necessity to "go green," creating a change in social mindsets can be difficult. This is especially true when many Gulf governments continue to subsidize fuel, clean water, and electricity for their residents at a fraction of the actual cost of production. Gulf cities are still in many minds the epitomes of excess and unfettered luxury, with their manmade islands, expansive swimming pools, and extravagant gas-guzzling cars. And there is still little incentive for the average Gulf citizen to mind their consumption and impact.

Gulf leaders, at least, are beginning to realize that the excessiveness of the status quo is not sustainable, and the impact of the cities on the environment could be dire. Heavy Gulf subsidies on water, oil, and electricity should be reduced so that citizens also begin to recognize the impact of their practices. The volatility of oil markets, global economic uncertainty, rising energy demands and diminishing supply, and the adverse impacts of climate change on coastal desert environments all make investing in sustainable solutions a smart move.

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