The complexity of a utility scale solar project can sometimes be daunting. Add to that a harsh natural environment and you have your work cut out for you. Nowhere is this more evident than at the Shams 1 concentrated solar power (CSP) plant outside of Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Situated in a sometimes harsh desert climate in which temperatures can easily soar above anyone’s comfort zone and the threat of sand storms looms large, the Shams 1 facility is proof positive that foresight and ingenuity have come together at the same time to showcase renewable energy in a new and exciting way.
The Shams 1 facility is a venture between Masdar, Total, and Abengoa Solar that became operational in 2013 and has a nameplate capacity of 100 MW, enough to power 20,000 homes in the UAE. This is not your average solar power plant with rows of photovoltaic panels. Instead, the Shams 1 facility uses concentrated solar power technology to use thermal heat to produce electricity.
At Shams 1, rows of parabolic troughs (essentially, big mirrors) focus the irradiation onto absorber tubes filled with heat transfer fluid. The heat transfer fluid is heated by the sun to a temperature of 393 degrees Centigrade. The heat transfer fluid then goes through a heat exchanger that transfers the heat to water. A separate booster heater, powered by natural gas, then boosts the temperature to 540 degrees Centigrade so that the steam generator will run in the most efficient manner. This process is a closed process as the water is recaptured and reused, a very important factor given the location of Shams 1 facility. Once the Shams 1 facility ramps up each morning, the power generation level is relatively constant as the parabolic troughs move to optimize the concentration of heat from the sun.
The facility can power the grid over 24 hours as thermal heat can be stored and used, with the assistance of natural gas, when the sun is not shining. Although the nameplate capacity is 100 MW, there have been occasions where the capacity hit 125 MW. The facility provides approximately 0.5 percent of power for the UAE. The facility will save an estimated 175,000 tons of CO2 every year, the equivalent of taking 15,000 cars off the road.
The Shams 1 facility is a great learning lab for the CSP industry given the requirements imposed on designing and executing the build-out of the facility. It can be a demonstration for other regions around the world which face desert like conditions including high temperatures and the need to conserve water.