Infrastructure in the UAE is extremely well developed. Nevertheless, to ensure accelerated growth, it continues to receive a major injection of capital. This is spearheaded by UAE Vision 2021, a national agenda with the stated intention that the UAE will be among 'the best in the world' in terms of quality of infrastructure in time for the its jubilee celebrations. Under the guidance of the UAE's Green Growth Strategy, the challenge is to ensure that this development takes place in a sustainable manner.
Far-reaching urban planning initiatives such as Abu Dhabi’s Emirate-wide Vision 2030, and Dubai Urban Development Master Plan 2020 are instrumental in achieving the UAE's goal. Abu Dhabi continues to develop the infrastructure required for a sophisticated capital city and many new projects in Dubai are driven by its hosting of the World Expo in 2020. Dh30 billion (US$8.174 billion) will be spent on infrastructure at the Expo site and in the city, ultimately benefitting generations to come.
From a federal perspective, the UAE plans to spend Dh6 billion (US$1.63 billion) on major infrastructure developments across the country, including road networks and federal buildings. In particular, there has been substantial investment by government and the 'Khalifa Initiative' in the emirates of Sharjah, Ajman, Umm al-Qaiwain, Ra's al-Khaimah and Fujairah, designed to ensure that inhabitants of these emirates should enjoy the same facilities as those living in the larger emirates of Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
Demand for electricity and water continues to grow at a fast pace in the UAE, driven by a steep rise in population, an expanding economy and climatic considerations. In fact, the country has one of the highest per capita consumption rates in the world for both water and electricity. According to the UAE State of Energy Report 2015, UAE residents use about 550 litres of water and 20 to 30 kilowatt-hours of electricity a day compared to the international average of 170 to 300 litres and 15 kWh per day. Many new electricity generation plants have been built in recent years to keep up with burgeoning demand. At present, there is over 27 gigawatts (GW) of installed capacity across the seven emirates utilising natural gas, the cleanest fossil fuel available, 50 per cent of which is imported. These power plants are relatively efficient and modern, the majority having been constructed within the last ten years. This means that the UAE currently has one of the lowest carbon intensities (CO2 emitted per kilowatt-hour) in electricity generation in the region and this is also below the global average.
Desalination continues to be a major source of potable water in a country that has few natural usable sources. Desalination is directly powered by electricity in the case of reverse osmosis (RO), or is a by-product of electricity generation through multiple-effect distillation (MED) and multi-stage flash distillation (MSF). In Abu Dhabi, gas-fired cogeneration power plants use the waste steam from electricity generation for thermal seawater distillation. Desalination capacity in Abu Dhabi increased 3.5 times from 1.17 Mm/day (258 MIGD) in 2000 to 4.16 Mm/day (918 MIGD) in 2013, and is expected to double by 2030.
However, the rate of increase in the demand for electricity is expected to slow to an average of 5.5 per cent a year up to 2030 and the rate of increase in water supplied to end-consumers is also expected to fall from its historic average growth of almost 10 per cent a year between 1998 and 2012 to around 2 per cent between 2014 and 2030.
The challenge is to meet demand for electricity and water in a sustainable manner both from an economic and environmental point of view. The UAE has one of the highest levels of per capita CO2 emissions in the world, at just under 20 tonnes per head of population in 2010. Electricity generation from fossil fuels is responsible for about half the UAE's greenhouse gas emissions.
To meet this challenge, UAE Vision 2021 sets national agenda targets for clean energy, water availability and productivity, reduction of carbon emissions and energy intensity. Greater conservation, energy diversification, the application of technology and innovation to energy and water generation, as well as overall energy efficiency are the key drivers in achieving these targets.
The UAE's diversified energy mix will include renewables, traditional hydrocarbons and nuclear energy. By 2020, Abu Dhabi predicts that 7 per cent of its energy will be generated by renewables and nearly 20 per cent of the country's energy needs will be met by nuclear energy, further reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Dubai has recently increased its target for clean energy production from 7 per cent in 2020, 25 per cent by 2030 and 75 per cent by 2050.
Solar energy is currently viewed as the most attractive renewable technology for the UAE as the country is blessed with abundant sunshine. Costs have also decreased substantially in recent years. In 2014, roughly 140 MW of solar power was being generated in the UAE. Abu Dhabi's Shams 1 is the largest concentrated solar power (CSP) plant and the first utility-scale commercial solar project in the Middle East and one of the largest in the world. The US$600 million, 2.5 square kilometre plant has the capacity to feed 100 MW of electricity into the national grid, enough to power 20,000 homes and divert 175,000 tonnes of CO2 per year from the atmosphere. The plant features several key innovations, including purpose-built booster heaters that use natural gas to increase the resulting steam from 380 degress Celsiius to 540 degrees Celsius, enhancing the steam turbine's efficiency and expanding energy production. The CSP plant also uses a dry cooling system to condense the exhaust steam flow, significantly decreasing the amount of water the plant uses compared to a similar facility. Shams 1 is a joint venture between Abu Dhabi's clean energy company Masdar (60 per cent), Total (20 per cent) and Abengoa (20 per cent). Masdar has also installed a 10 MW PV plant in Masdar City, a low-carbon development in the UAE capital. A second solar facility, Nour 1, is in the pipeline for Abu Dhabi.
Like Abu Dhabi, Dubai sees great potential in the development of solar energy.
The first 13 MW phase of the planned 1,000 MW Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park was inaugurated in 2013 and a 200 MW plant, part of the same complex, is currently under construction.The park will produce 5,000 MW by 2030. Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (Dewa) also envisages that distributed rooftop solar thermal and power sources will make a practical contribution to Dubai's power needs.
The UAE's comprehensive civil nuclear energy programme, which is under the direct supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), is being implemented by Emirates Nuclear Energy Energy Corporation (Enec). Korea Electric Power Corporation (Kepco) is designing, building, and will help to operate the nuclear plants in Barakah, Abu Dhabi. The first reactor generating 1,400 MW, will come online in 2017, with three more units launching between 2018 to 2021. Total capacity will be 5.6 GW of clean energy.
However, the country isn't just focussing on investing in low-carbon energy generation. Energy efficiency and reducing consumption are also high on the agenda. Local governments have taken measures to encourage energy efficiency in buildings through legislation, as well as mandatory and voluntary guidelines.The UAE has implemented the region's first mandatory sustainability codes, which reduce average water and energy consumption by a third; the first public lighting code, which cuts energy consumption by 67 per cent; the first air-conditioning performance standards, which eliminated the lowest-performing 20 per cent of units from the national market.
There is little doubt that the energy-water nexus is one of the most challenging aspects of sustainable development in this arid region. Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi emphasised the issue of water scarcity when he commented 'Water is more important than oil for the UAE'.
Using seawater to make freshwater may seem like a magic solution but as we have seen the economic and environmental costs are high. In addition to increased emissions, discharge of high saline brine and cooling water from desalination plants has negative effects on the marine environment. It is crucial, therefore, that the country identifies a sustainable desalination solution to meet long-term water needs.
In Abu Dhabi, Masdar has been give the task of exploring some of the options. Currently, four companies are developing and testing advanced energy-efficient seawater desalination technologies that can be powered by renewable energy sources at Masdar's pilot project in Ghantoot. These plants are already producing 1,500m3/day of potable water. Masdar's engineers will assess the operational efficiency and cost-effectiveness of the plants and will make their final recommendations by 2016. The long-term goal of the programme is to have a facility at commercial scale by 2020. The advanced RDT (Research, Development, Transformation) project will allow new technologies to be developed faster, leading to accelerated adoption and implementation by local utility service providers. The technologies developed by these projects also have the potential to be scaled up and exported to address sustainable access to water around the world
The UAE does have substantial groundwater resources (4,052,000 million cubic litres in aquifers), but most are unusable and groundwater resources are also largely non-renewable. Abu Dhabi uses 3.3 billion cubic metres of water each year. Two thirds of this is supplied by groundwater, much of it deposited during the last Ice Age. Over 70 per cent of all water in Abu Dhabi, mostly groundwater, is used for irrigating agriculture and forestry. However, total demand has long since outstripped natural recharge rates. EAD has declared that the country is facing a groundwater crisis and that at current rates of consumption, UAE groundwater could be depleted within the next two generations. In some areas usable groundwater is already depleted.
Stringent new measures are required to rectify the situation. EAD is advocating the adoption of a strict water budget to drive more sustainable water use. Government entities are already implementing solutions to minimise water use in the agriculture sector and public spaces. For example, Abu Dhabi is focussing on planting less water-intensive plants and crops. It is also pursuing irrigation methods that aim to reduce water consumption by 40 per cent. At the same time, it is increasing local production of fruits and vegetables using protected agriculture that conserves water and electricity. The judicious use of recycled wastewater in irrigation of forests and parks is also crucial to this strategy.
Increasing tariffs, which have been historically low, is another effective mechanism to curb over-consumption and increase efficiency., Conservation drives and awareness campaigns are also focussed on changing the behaviour of domestic users.