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From 1971 to 2019: Energy Transformation in The UAE

While the UAE has historically benefited from this wealth of natural resources, it is currently at the forefront of revolutionising its energy landscape.

When one thinks about the United Arab Emirate’s resources, it is common for oil to come to mind. And while the UAE has historically benefited from this wealth of natural resources, it is currently at the forefront of revolutionizing its energy landscape.
For the first few decades of the 20th Century, the region known today as the UAE has been relatively poorly developed. Prospects for this area changed when oil was first discovered in 1958, prior to the unification of the Emirates by the late Sheikh Zayed Al Nahyan in 1971. At the time of electrification of the new country, reliance on fossil fuels was the only available choice. Jumping to the completely different nation in front of us in 2019, the UAE is investing in pioneering energy projects and innovative technologies on a global scale.
Until recently, the UAE was relying almost entirely on natural gas in the production of electricity. The last few years, however, have been a period of intense transformations, with the country harnessing the abundance of sunlight through its solar energy projects. Located in Abu Dhabi, Shams 1, the largest concentrated solar power plant in the world, commenced its operation in 2013. Last year, the project was outsized by Noor, another record-setting solar power plant. The Emirate of Dubai did not lag behind. Announced in 2012, Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park will become the largest generator of solar energy in the world from a single location by 2030.
Developments in the energy sector in the UAE are not limited to solar power. 2013 marked the beginning of the construction of the first nuclear power plant in the Arabian Peninsula. The site will be operational in 2020 and eventually will supply up to 25 percent of the UAE’s electricity supply. At the same time, Sharjah is going to host a waste-to-energy plant which will help the city to divert 100 percent of its waste from landfill.
The UAE’s energy transition is dramatic and unprecedented in the region. In 2018, the installed renewable energy capacity of the UAE was over two times more than all the other GCC member states combined. It is also the only country in the region that committed to a specific quantity of renewable energy in its contribution to the Paris Agreement.
“Many countries simply talk but here you see actions as well,” explained Professor Shakeel Kazmi, expert in environmental law and advisor to the Ministry of Climate Change of Pakistan. “The UAE was perhaps the first country in the developing world that through its own fund provided financial support to other developing countries for their renewable energy projects.”
These projects in the UAE are not only infrastructural developments, but also contribute to the greater vision of the country’s leadership. The UAE has hosted a multitude of international events, including the World Energy Congress in 2019, and launched the annual World Green Economy Summit.
Ray Hsu, Class of 2020, participated in both conferences and noted the proactive role of the government. “Usually the government is the one slacking behind because the regulation cannot keep up with the technological development,” Hsu said. “In UAE’s case, the government is taking the lead.''
Right now, the country is guided by the UAE Energy Strategy 2050, with hefty goals that include 50 percent of electricity coming from green sources by 2050; including 44 percent of energy from renewable energy sources, 6 percent from nuclear power as well as reductions in water and electricity consumption by 40 percent.
While these actions are significant from an environmental point of view, there are also important economic drivers behind them. High energy consumption prevents the UAE from exporting natural gas and oil, which in turn deprives the country from a pivotal source of income. Additionally, the higher the energy consumption, the more the government spends on subsidies of water and electricity.
In terms of future improvements, Kazmi noticed that there is a necessity for increased involvement of citizens and the private sector. “The biggest room for improvement has energy efficiency and saving energy. [...] There is a need for more aggressive incentives to make having an electric car a trend,” Kazmi explained as an example. “Once we give citizens education that there is cost behind using energy, then perhaps they will take more action and become partners for the government.”
The UAE is still at the beginning of its energy transformation. Yet, with lofty targets, it does not lag far behind countries that have utilized renewable sources for decades longer. With its visionary leadership, the country can be looked up to as an example, and hopefully, other countries in the region will follow its lead.
Beniamin Strzelecki is a columnist. Email him at
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