The World’s Largest Solar Plant Shimmers In The Desert

But why is the oil-rich UAE investing in new ways to harness energy from the sun?

Last week Abu Dhabi, the home to the Emir and most of the UAE’s oil wealth, celebrated the opening of the largest solar plant on Earth. Shams 1, as the plant is called, is a development of 258,048 parabolic trough mirrors that produce enough energy to power 20,000 homes. The one-square-mile plant sits about 70 miles outside of Abu Dhabi, and took only two years to build.


The founder of the clean energy site CleanTechnica explains the engineering behind the development after visiting this spring:

It is a concentrated solar power (CSP) plant, but it is a bit unique. Very simply, here’s how the power plant works: 768 parabolic trough collectors track the sun from sunrise to sunset and use parabolic mirrors to focus the energy of the sun on a central tube containing oil. The concentrated heat is then passed through the system until it is used to boil water and produce steam, which drives a conventional turbine that generates electricity. Additionally, a middle step is the use of natural gas to ‘superheat’ the water. Project managers informed us that this accounts for about 20% of the heat.

Why does an oil-rich country like the UAE need a solar plant? To free up more oil to export. According to a report from Bloomberg, Shams 1 will allow the country to sell more of their fossil fuels abroad, especially to oil-hungry countries like China. Shams 1 is actually a joint venture between two European sustainable energy companies and the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company, also known as Masdar, the developer of the eponymous “sustainable city” outside of Abu Dhabi. It’s part of Masdar’s plan to make the UAE a clean-energy powerhouse over the next decade–other investments include a wind farm in the Seychelles and a wind turbine plant in Finland.

It’s an interesting reversal of normal thinking about renewable energy technology: rather than being driven by a social or moral obligation to develop clean energy, next-generation technologies are actually emerging as a way to increase the export of crude oil and gas from those lucky countries that have it.

Check out the remarkable photos of Shams 1 above–they were shot by Ryan Carter, a Canadian photographer who relocated to Abu Dhabi several years ago to become the official photographer of the Crown Prince Court. Head over to Motherboard for more on Shams 1.

About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.