Dubai heads backwards to its clean energy future

Just what Dubai really needs to complete its attractions − a coal-burning power station? Really?  Image: By jpbowen, via Wikimedia Commons

A clean energy future is what Dubai says it’s aiming for. So why has it built a huge new coal-burning power station?

LONDON, 3 November, 2020 − Dubai, surrounded by desert but with its skyscrapers, luxury hotels, beach resorts and kilometres of shopping malls, promotes itself as a city with a clean energy future.

Yet when it comes to meeting the challenges posed by climate change, the Gulf state is going smartly backwards.

Within the next few months, what will be the Gulf’s first coal-fired power plant will start operations in the desert south of Dubai city.

The 2,400 MW Hassyan coal plant, when fully operational in 2023, aims to supply up to 20% of Dubai’s electricity, a big step towards a clean energy future.

The state-controlled Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA) describes the project as a clean coal facility fitted with the latest technology, including facilities for carbon capture and storage – the aim being to bury harmful greenhouse gas emissions from the plant deep underground.

“Talk of clean coal is a contradiction in terms. Burning coal is the most polluting way of producing energy. Carbon capture and storage is still a relatively untried way of coping with carbon emissions”

But a number of questions surround the plant’s operations. Under the Dubai clean energy strategy 2050, unveiled five years ago, the emirate aims to turn itself into what it calls a global clean energy centre by mid-century, with Dubai city having the smallest carbon footprint of any urban centre in the world.

As part of its clean energy future strategy, Dubai aims to produce 75% of its energy from what it calls clean sources by 2050.

Talk of clean coal is a contradiction in terms. Burning coal is the most polluting way of producing energy. No matter what equipment and technology is installed at the Hassyan plant, substantial carbon emissions will be produced.

Carbon capture and storage is still a relatively untried and disputed way of coping with carbon emissions: many power firms have shied away from implementing projects due to their complexity and great expense.

Cheaper solar

Then there is the question of the cost of the Dubai coal project. The Hassyan plant has a price tag of US$3.4bn (£2.5bn). Under prices agreed four years ago, DEWA agreed to buy electricity from Hassyan for about 5 US cents (£0.04) per kilowatt hour (kWh).

Since then solar power has expanded considerably in the emirate – with prices dropping to less that 2 US cents per kWh.

At present the bulk of Dubai’s electricity is sourced from gas-powered plants. Part of the reasoning behind the Hassyan project was worries over dependence on imports of gas from Qatar – now at loggerheads with the Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Though it awaits development, one of the world’s biggest gas fields was recently discovered in Dubai and neighbouring Abu Dhabi.

While many global financial institutions have turned their backs on funding for coal plants, China continues to be one of the biggest sponsors of coal projects around the world. China’s banks, including the state-owned Bank of China, have given loans to the Hassyan plant.

Much of the construction work there will be carried out by Chinese companies, including the giant Harbin Electrical International group.

Gulf penguins

Per capita emissions of climate-changing CO2 gases in Dubai and its fellow United Arab Emirates (UAE) states are among the highest in the world.

In order to meet ever-growing power needs, the first nuclear plant in the Arab world began operations in the UAE emirate of Abu Dhabi in August this year. The Barakah nuclear plant came on stream three years behind schedule and millions of dollars over budget.

And despite the talk of reducing emissions and clean energy targets, Dubai is still one of the most energy-wasteful territories on the planet: its desalination plants, air-conditioned shopping malls, skyscraper office blocks and luxury hotels use enormous amounts of energy, making a clean energy future a very ambitious goal.

The desert city even has an enclosed snow and ski complex, complete with a 1.5km ski slope – and penguins. − Climate News Network