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Solar Impulse 2 will inspire change

Using solar power to fly around the world heralds a greener future, says ABB's Frank Duggan.

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As Solar Impulse 2 soared over the United Arab Emirates on its historic journey around the world, it soaked up the same Middle Eastern sunrays as ABB projects that are now paving the way for renewables in the region.

When Dubai broke ground on its planned 1,000 megawatt solar power plant two years ago, it turned to ABB to integrate the energy into the grid. ABB’s task is to build a substation capable of handling the intermittent nature of solar power and plugging it smoothly into the UAE grid.

Down the coast in Abu Dhabi, where Solar Impulse 2 in March began the record-breaking flight without fossil fuel, ABB is partnering with Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, a research university, on a photovoltaic testing facility to develop solar systems that operate with optimum efficiency in harsh desert environments.

Spreading the word about the benefits of projects like these is one reason ABB forged an innovation and technology alliance last year with Solar Impulse: Countries of the Middle East, once associated solely with fossil fuels, are now poised to diversify their economies via projects that help solve local electricity needs without contributing to greenhouse gas emissions.

“Renewable energy has graduated from an expensive alternative to a competitive energy of choice,” was the opinion heard across the World Future Energy Summit held in January. “Oil prices no longer determine the fate of clean energy,” was the resounding message.

Renewables from the land of oil

ABB has long held a vision of the potential of renewables in the Middle East. Back in 1992, the company’s power transmission experts drew up a map showing the potential of harnessing renewable energy here, as well as in North Africa and Europe, to meet the power needs of millions of residents.

Nearly a quarter-century later, optimism is growing over the benefits of renewables: Clean energy, a diversified energy mix, preservation of local oil production for exports and access to electricity for multiple applications while localising expertise.

Apart from spreading the message about renewable projects and the need for a clean future, the partnership with Solar Impulse is a technological collaboration. To stay aloft, the aircraft has to obtain the absolute maximum amount of energy from each of the more than 17,000 solar cells that cover the plane’s wings, fuselage and tail. It has also had to develop batteries with optimum energy storage potential because it needs to capture and store enough solar energy during the day to power the plane overnight. These are key challenges for ABB, too, since we are continually working to improve power yields from renewables and exploring technologies for energy storage.

As part of our alliance, three ABB engineers are working with Solar Impulse, sharing know-how and technology: Nicolas Loretan and Stevan Marinkovic are part of the electrical and propulsion team, helping to extract maximum power yield from the solar cells and making sure the batteries are fully charged; Tamara Tursijan has, with ABB equipment, improved the reliability of the control system of the mobile hangar that will house the plane if it has to make unscheduled stops. She is accompanying the Solar Impulse team on its round-the-world journey.

We hope this journey inspires the next generation to consider a career in science and technology, and boosts faith in the ability of companies such as ABB to help solve energy challenges.

Frank Duggan is President, ABB, AMEA region.

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