Dubai, the most populous city in the United Arab Emirates, has announced plans for what will be the world’s largest solar plant. By 2020, it is expected to meet a quarter of the city’s national energy needs, and outpace the U.S. in terms of renewable energy generation.
It’s part of the city’s overall plan to be 75-percent renewable by 2050. That’s a big deal in a region with abundant oil supplies and plenty of money. But it’s also forward thinking: the project they’ve chosen makes a lot of sense in the region too—and has the capacity to deliver energy long after any oil supplies would ever run out.
Concentrated solar works a little differently than the cells you’ve probably seen on rooftops. Instead of cells, a massive array of mirrors reflect light toward a central point. At that point is a tower, and where the light is focused, power is generated by the heat from all the light powering a steam turbine.
It’s the perfect choice for somewhere hot that gets a lot of sunlight—similar to how Denmark depends on wind.
Total renewable energy coverage isn’t really a hypothetical anymore: last month Portugal was able to sustain all its energy needs for more than 100 consecutive hours, all just on a combination of solar, wind, and hydro power.
And other European countries have seen similar periods of total coverage. Germany sustained almost an entire day with renewable energy this year, and over 40 percent of Denmark’s energy output came from wind.
But in the Middle East, Dubai is clearly trying to take the lead. By association, it means that the Middle East, famous for its seemingly endless supplies of fossil fuels, is moving faster toward renewable energy than the U.S. is. Should we be embarrassed at the idea of being outpaced in renewables by the region best known for fossil fuels?
First, we need to understand the bigger picture. Consider this: the U.S. is currently producing about 13 percent of its total energy from renewable sources. That’s a mixture of hydro, solar, wind, geothermic, and biomass resources at work. And that’s more than most of the middle east—currently more than Dubai—and not terribly far off from Europe as a whole.
So is the U.S. getting beaten by Dubai? It’s hard to tell, because Dubai is much smaller, and their energy situation is much simpler to conceptualize.
While smaller countries can make projections and set goals, the U.S. problem is a more complicated one—and not just because of changing attitudes or decisions resting on the shoulders of yet-unelected lawmakers.
The U.S. is big—127 times bigger that Dubai, and uses 66 times as much power as the entirety of the United Arab Emirates. It’s more diverse in terms of both needs and renewable resources. Some parts don’t get as much sunlight, and some parts don’t get a lot of wind, and some parts don’t have enough water for hydroelectric power.
And to add to the complications, we don’t currently have predictions of what the future of U.S. energy will look like—none we can trust. While growth in renewable industry continues, there aren’t any clear predictions about where we’ll be in 2050. Could it be 75 percent? Sure. More? Sure. Less? According to the EIA it’s possible that it would be significantly less, but that information has come under fire.
In short, until we either create a master plan or actually make it to 2020 (and 2050 thereafter) we won’t really know what our renewable percentages will look like. In that sense, the only deficit we have in comparison with Europe and Dubai is the lack of a clear plan.