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UK firms look to power the UAE’s energy transition

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UK firm Desolenator's solar thermal desalination technology is helping Dubai Electricity & Water Authority reach its net-zero clean water goals

The UAE’s commitment to a net zero future is being increasingly recognised worldwide and capturing the attention of global partners including Britain.

A case in point is London-based Desolenator, the world’s first solar thermal desalination technology company, delivering net-zero clean water at scale to companies and communities.

It uniquely uses both solar-generated heat and electricity to power the desalination process.  

“There are two main reasons why the UAE is an attractive market for us. The first is that they really understand the value of water,” Alexei Levene, co-founder of Desolenator, told AGBI. 

“When you’re a startup trying to build a business in this space, you need to be in a place where people value what you do. The UAE also put some funding on the table and gave us an early-stage project. 

“There’s a level of support for innovation in our sector which you don’t find in most of Europe.

“A utility was open to work with us and to give us the space, support and finance to deliver our first large-scale plant.

“That isn’t what we’ve seen with other utilities in the world. They tend to be quite risk-averse.” 

The Emirates’ track record is bringing a heightened interest from companies like Levene’s.

The UAE recorded the largest increase in renewable energy capacity worldwide in a decade; surging from 13mw in 2011 to 2,540 megawatts in 2020, according to a report published in May by Australia-based aggregator Compare the Market.

Today, it is expanding its efforts to shift to greener technologies under its Net Zero 2050 Strategic Initiative. 

It calls for AED600 billion ($163 billion) to be invested in clean and renewable energy sources over the next three decades, in order to achieve its pledge of emitting zero emissions by 2050.

The initiative was announced in the run-up to the Glasgow Cop26 summit held in November last year. The UAE subsequently won the bid to host Cop28 in 2023.

More recently in June, Abu Dhabi’s Taqa, Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) and Abu Dhabi sovereign wealth fund Mubadala finalised the acquisition of Masdar, the UAE-government owned renewable energy company.

The acquisition marks the creation of a global clean energy powerhouse through the consolidation of the renewable energy and green hydrogen activities of these companies under the Masdar umbrella. 

The UAE can be influential in helping companies like Desolenator contribute to the aims of net zero.

Desolenator enrolled in a programme with the Dubai Future Accelerator program, launched in 2016.

It subsequently went on to form a public-private partnership (PPP) with the Dubai Electricity & Water Authority (DEWA). 

Initially Desolenator were making smaller systems but DEWA encouraged them to scale up. 

“DEWA said: ‘You need to do this 1,000 times bigger. That’s where the action is.’ 

“We said: ‘Ok sure, well, support us,’ and to their credit they did.

“We won our first contract to build a larger scale facility, which is now live and operational in Jebel Ali,” said Levene.  

In March this year, Desolenator and DEWA launched a new solar desalination plant at the latter’s primary desalination facility in Jebel Ali.

It aims to produce up to 20,000 litres/day of drinking water from sea water, to support Dubai’s realisation of net-zero sustainable desalination and water provision. 

After the successful completion of this project, Desolenator and DEWA intend to establish a joint venture company with the aim of commercialising this technology.

Given its abundance of both sunshine and sea water, the Gulf is an obvious market for Desolenator’s growth strategy. 

Boardwalk, Bridge, Building
ACWA Power signed a $5 billion deal with futuristic, zero-carbon city Neom to develop a hydrogen-based facility

“Solar power here is just such an untapped, underused resource.

“While desalination is one of the fastest-growing parts of the water production industry, the mainstream techniques being used are incredibly unsustainable.

“They produce huge amounts of carbon and so we wanted to change that piece of the puzzle,” explained Levene. 

He said the company hopes its work in the Gulf will initially demonstrate the potential of its technology in helping to combat climate change. 

Today, Desolenator is actively looking at establishing projects in Sharjah, as well as some of the smaller emirates, along with a project in Qatar. 

It is also looking at some projects further afield, in Kenya, as well as Barbados and some of the other Caribbean islands. 

Desolenator’s chairman is Paddy Padmanathan, vice-chairman and CEO of ACWA Power, which has been notably stepping up its commitment to hydrogen.

In July 2020, ACWA Power signed a $5 billion deal with Saudi Arabia’s NEOM and Air Products to develop a green hydrogen-based ammonia production facility located in the kingdom’s planned futuristic, zero-carbon city. 

Aiming to produce 240,000 million tonnes of green ammonia per year by the first quarter of 2026, it would make the facility the world’s largest hydrogen producer.

Britishvolt aims to help power the UAE

Pioneering battery technology developer Britishvolt is another UK company looking to tap into the UAE’s renewable offering. 

In June this year, the Northumberland-based business announced a two-year extension to its partnership with the University of Warwick and Warwick Manufacturing Group (WMG) to develop, test and scale up new battery technologies.

The multi-million-pound project will focus on developing new battery chemistries and cell designs intended to increase the power density and cycle life of the battery packs it produces for the UK electric vehicle (EV) market.

In May this year, Britishvolt participated at the first Electric Vehicle Innovation Summit (EVIS) in Abu Dhabi.

Person, Human, Lab
Electric vehicle battery pioneer Britishvolt works in Abu Dhabi on sustainable energy initiatives

There, it showcased its vision for electrified transportation and sustainable energy storage, both of which are central to the UAE’s decarbonisation plans.

Britishvolt has an office in Abu Dhabi, and is now looking to commercialise its offering there.

“The UAE has clear ambitions to be an integral player in the energy transition,” Ben Kilbey, chief communications officer at Britishvolt, told AGBI. 

“A key area of focus for Britishvolt in the region is stationary storage batteries, which are able to store renewable energy from solar.”

Kilbey references the Al Dhafra Solar PV IPP in Abu Dhabi, which is slated to become the world’s largest single-site solar power plant.

It uses 3.5 million solar panels to generate enough electricity for approximately 160,000 homes across the UAE. In doing so, it will mitigate 2.4 million tonnes of carbon dioxide annually.

“A region historically linked to the oil industry clearly sees the importance of a successful energy transition, both for clean air and sustainability and from a business perspective,” added Kilbey. 

“Like the UK, the UAE has some very impressive academia looking at the technologies essential for a sustainable future too. 

“The region is ideally suited to harvest renewable energy. Batteries will be essential to store it. The UAE is going to be a truly exciting region to potentially develop the Britishvolt business.”