Infrastructure in the UAE is extremely well developed following a period of rapid progress that saw the construction of residential, tourism, industrial and commercial facilities on a massive scale, radically altering the urban environment in the UAE. At the same time, reassessment of the country's needs and the realities of global markets have refocussed the UAE’ s imaginative development plans, which continue to be spearheaded by far-reaching urban planning initiatives such as Abu Dhabi’s Emirate-wide Vision 2030. Nevertheless, infrastructure in education and health care, tourist facilities, electricity and water generation, telecommunications, ports and airports continue to receive a major injection of capital. New roads and bridges are being constructed and public transport systems installed. Business Monitor International estimates that the UAE is currently investing Dh213 billion (US58 billion) on roads and bridges alone, including projects underway and in the planning stage.
A recent WEF report (Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report) has rated the UAE's infrastructure as among the best in the world. The country came second in quality of roads, third in quality of air transport, fifth in port infrastructure and eight in ground transport network.
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. Many new electricity generation plants have been built in recent years to keep up with burgeoning requirements, whilst desalination continues to be the main source of potable water in a country that has few natural sources.
Business Monitor International (BMI) estimated total power generation in the UAE in 2012 at 90.48 terrawatt hours (TWh), representing a year-on-year rise of nearly 4 per cent. Abu Dhabi Water and Electricity Company (Adec) expects peak power demand withing the capital to rise from 6,885 megawatts (MW) in 2010 to 11,200 MW by 2015 and to reach 15,500 MW by 2020. BMI also forecasts a sharp increase in annual power demand throughout the federation over the 2012–2021 period, with an anticipated average annual increase in consumption of 5.6 per cent. Consumption of 81 TWh, it claims, will rise to 133.5 TWh by 2021. Overall, the UAE is expected to invest more than Dh29.36 billion in electricity generation over the coming eight years.
To meet this rising demand in a sustainable manner, the UAE is focussing on developing a balanced energy mix that will include renewables, traditional hydrocarbons and nuclear energy.
The country is in a unique position to leverage its resources to advance the economic, social and environmental benefits of clean energy. Masdar, launched in Abu Dhabi in 2006, is entrusted with this task, which not only involves strategic investment in research as well as clean technology companies and large-scale renewable power projects at home and abroad, but also hosting of the UN body, the International Renewable Energy Organization (IRENA).
Abu Dhabi has recently completed the largest concentrated solar power (CSP) plant and the first utility-scale commercial solar project in the Middle East. The US$700 million, 2.5 square kilometre plant has the capacity to feed 100 MW of electricity into the national grid, enough to supply 20,000 homes. Shams 1 is a joint venture between Masdar (60 per cent), Total (20 per cent) and Abengoa (20 per cent). A second solar facility, Nour 1, is also in the pipeline for Abu Dhabi. The emirate hopes to source 7 per cent of all power generation from renewables by 2020, including thousands of rooftop solar panels and a wind farm on Sir Bani Yas.
The first 13 MW phase of the planned 1,000 MW Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park is also due to be completed in 2013. By 2030, Dubai aims to generate at least 5 per cent of its energy from renewables, 12 per cent from clean coal and 12 per cent from nuclear power. Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (Dewa) envisages that distributed rooftop solar power sources will make a practical contribution to Dubai's power needs.
To meet its considerable future energy needs and reduce its carbon emissions, the UAE has instituted a comprehensive civil nuclear energy programme under the direct supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Emirates Nuclear Energy Energy Corporation (Enec) will implement the UAE nuclear energy programme, paying particular attention to training Emirati specialist in the field, Korea Electric Power Corporation (Kepco) is designing, building and will help to operate the nuclear plants.
In mid-July 2012, the Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation (Fanr) granted a construction licence to Enec for two of the four advanced pressurised water reactors planned for Barakah in the west of Abu Dhabi. In the third quarter of 2012, it signed deals with six companies to supply uranium over a 15-year period: ConverDyn of the US, Canada's UraniumOne, Urenco from the UK with Rio Tinto, Russia's Tenex and France's Areva. These companies will provide enriched uranium to Kepco Nuclear Fuels, which will then make the fuel assemblies for the four planned units. The US$20 billion plant will start generating 1,400 MW of electricity by 2017. It is estimated that Abu Dhabi will derive 23 per cent of its electricity from nuclear sources by 2020. This is expected to reduce 12 million metric tonnes of CO2eq per annum.
However, the country isn't just focussing on increasing capacity. Energy efficiency and conservation are also high on the agenda. 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.
Individual corporations are assisting in this drive to reduce consumption. For instance, Dubai Aluminium (Dubal) is using steam produced by its captive co-generation and combined cycle power station to drive the UAE's first-ever absorption chiller using waster heat. Built on the rooftop of Dubal's desalination plant control building, the new absorption chiller replaces the electrically-driven vapour compression air-conditioning chillers used for comfort cooling of the building, thereby reduing energy consumption by approximately 626,800 kWh per year.
Efficiency standards are also vital in the pursuit of water security and there is little doubt that the energy-water nexus is one of the most challenging aspects of sustainable development, particularly in countries like the UAE, where extreme water scarcity has been met by huge investment in desalination, an energy-intensive process.
Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, emphasised the importance of water security to the country whilst launching the International Water Summit in Abu Dhabi: 'Water is more important than oil for the UAE', he commented. Today, the UAE produces more than 90 per cent of its potable water through desalination. The Emirate of Abu Dhabi alone desalinates about 900 million gallons of water per day using conventional fossil fuel technologies and the demand for water in Abu Dhabi increases annually by 5 to 6 per cent.
In the UAE, seawater desalination requires about ten times more energy than surface freshwater production and its costs are projected to increase by 300 per cent. It is crucial, therefore, that the country identifies a sustainable desalination solution to meet long-term water needs. Connecting desalination technologies to renewable energy is one such solution and this is exactly what is happening at Masdar.
Bridging the gap between research and development, Masdar has launched a pilot programme to test and develop advanced energy-efficient seawater desalination technologies that can be powered by renewable energy sources. The long-term goal of the programme is to have a facility at commercial scale by 2020. Masdar will coordinate the pilot programme with key Abu Dhabi stakeholders, such as Adwea, the Regulation and Supervision Bureau, the Environment Agency–Abu Dhabi (EAD), and the Abu Dhabi Sewerage Services Company.
Desalination plants powered by more conventional means are also focussing on energy efficiency. For example, the reverse osmosis desalination plant under construction at Al Qidfa in Fujairah will aim to set a new standard for energy efficiency in the region. The plant, part of an extenision to Fujairah F1, is aiming for a specific energy consumption of 3.7 kilowatt hours (kWh) for every cubic metre of water produced. This, it states, is a record for the Gulf region.
Groundwater, largely a non-renewable resource, is primarily used for agriculture and forestry in the UAE, but it is also conserved as a strategic reserve of fresh drinking water. Today, the UAE's supply of groundwater is facing increasing pressures. EAD has declared that Abu Dhabi has reached a 'tipping point' in its groundwater usage, and that the current rate of groundwater abstraction and use is unsustainable since most of the UAE's groundwater does not replenish. The UAE has set a target that, by 2030, it will substantially extend the lifespan of remaining usable groundwater supplies by prioritising where and how water is allocated and increasing efficiency. However, EAD recognised that this target is just a stepping-stone, and not the final solution. EAD is suggesting the adoption of three guiding principles:
1. All activities, existing and future, should be as water efficient as possible.
2. Agriculture and other activities reliant on water should be located in areas that have long-term and sustainable sources of water, whether groundwater or recycled water.
3. When allocating water for irrigation and where the infrastructure exists, or where it makes economic sense to develop the infrastructure, recycled water will be allocated first, then desalinated water and finally groundwater.
Government entities are already implementing new solutions to minimise water use in the agriculture sector and public spaces. The judicious use of recycled wastewater is crucial to this strategy. However, other developments are also assisting the conservation drive. In Abu Dhabi, there are already a number of pilot farms experimenting with more water-efficient irrigation techniques, including subsurface irrigation and in the UAE during 2012, the area of soil-less agricutural production increased by 12 per cent, mainly due to the use of hydroponics.