Julian Spector is a former editorial fellow at CityLab, where he covers climate change, energy, and clean tech.
The emirate wants to transition from extravagant consumption to cleanly powered extravagant consumption.
The city of Dubai faces more energy challenges than most. It’s extremely hot there, so they have to keep people cool when the temperature soars past 100 degrees. They have the world’s tallest building, which must generate one of the world’s longest electricity bills. And then there’s that mall with a ski resort and a flock of penguins. Those penguins need their snow.
To power all these services, the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, wants to go green in a characteristically monumental way. He wants to put solar panels on all the city’s rooftops by 2030.
That’s just one part of the new Dubai Clean Energy Strategy 2050, which Maktoum announced Saturday, according to UAE-based newspaper The National. The plan envisions Dubai generating 25 percent of its energy from clean sources by 2030, rising to 75 percent by 2050. That effort will be bolstered by the massive Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park, which is slated to generate 5,000 megawatts of electricity by 2030. (For context, the Solar Star plant in California, with a capacity of 579 megawatts, became the largest of its kind this June.)
“Our goal is to become the city with the smallest carbon footprint in the world by 2050,” Maktoum said in his announcement.
That mission will be a lot harder to achieve than putting solar panels on all the buildings, especially if Dubai only looks at the supply of energy. There’s still the demand issue: if you insist on building ski resorts in the desert, you’re going to consume more energy than a city that doesn’t; in fact, the UAE ranks among the highest per capita consumers of electricity in the world. An ecologically sustainable plan would have to rein in some of the more extravagant energy sinks, but then it wouldn’t really be Dubai anymore.
There could be financial motivation at work here, too. Dubai became rich by harnessing one natural asset in oil, and now its leaders will harness another in the sun. They might be taking a play from neighboring Saudi Arabia, which has been making big moves into solar power to prevent massive domestic oil consumption from eating into oil exports, as The Atlantic reported earlier this year. The UAE has the seventh largest natural gas reserves in the world, but became a net importer of natural gas in 2008, driven in part by soaring demand for electricity production. By cleaning up its internal energy portfolio, Dubai will leave more fossil fuels to sell elsewhere.