Heriot-Watt University Launches Dubai Solar Test Site

The research project is part of a host of activities and initiatives being undertaken by the university for COP28
Staff Reporter | UAE | Facilities Management

Research engineers at Heriot-Watt University in Dubai have launched a solar energy testing facility to help companies in the UK and other countries to develop and test new solar technologies. The rooftop Solar Energy Test Site will benefit from Dubai’s high levels of sunshine and has been installed on the South-West wing of the university’s campus in Dubai. This project forms part of the university’s commitment and host of activities leading up to COP28.

The UK government’s Department for Science, Innovation, and Technology (DSIT) has funded the project, with support from the British Embassy in the UAE. Professor Tadhg O'Donovan, an Irish solar expert at Heriot-Watt’s School of Engineering and Physical Sciences in Dubai, is leading the project.  He explained, “The availability of sun here, with very little cloud cover, means we are able to get very clean, repeatable testing conditions for solar panels in a way that isn’t possible in the UK and is limited in Europe. Heriot-Watt University has a track record of supporting UK-based companies to develop technology for the UK market and to explore opportunities in the Middle East – and this new facility builds on that.”

A Scottish company called Soltropy has already signed up to use the testing facility. Based in Glasgow, Soltropy has developed an affordable system for homes and businesses to heat water. It has received funding from the Scottish Food and Drink Net Zero Challenge Fund to install its technology on Heriot-Watt’s testing site for research and development purposes. The Fund has been set up to help food and drink companies work with universities and other research bodies to help them address sustainability challenges.

Soltropy managing director Stuart Speake said, “We have big ambitions to continue developing our technology, so it’s invaluable for us to have access to a site like this, where we have near ideal weather conditions and can measure performance with real-time weather and environmental data.” Nick Boucher, Head of the UK Science and Innovation Network for the Gulf Region said, “As part of the UK Department for Science, Innovation, and Technology, we were delighted to support Heriot-Watt University in delivering this exciting project. In doing so, this provides a unique opportunity for the British industry to test and showcase their technologies, and to explore potential new markets in the Middle East and beyond.”

The Solar Energy Test Site can accommodate between 24 and 32 solar panels and a weather station that provides a live second-by-second feed of data such as the ambient temperature, intensity of the sun, humidity, wind speed and direction. The test site will be linked to a data centre on the top floor of the university’s campus, which will analyse live data from the facility against theoretical models, to help engineers predict and improve the performance of their technologies.

Technologies that can be tested on the site include solar thermal panels, which typically heat water; solar photovoltaic technologies, which generate electricity; storage and battery devices, or systems that combine a number of these technologies. Professor O’Donovan said, “Our research group tests how solar photovoltaic generates electricity and then how we store it in a battery for use when we need it, which is becoming more and more important because of the intermittency of supply. We also look at using solar for cooling applications or for water desalination, which are both really important here in the Middle East.” He added that solar energy was a significant part of the Middle East’s decarbonisation agenda. By 2050, under its Energy Strategy 2050, the UAE aims to increase clean energy to 50% of its total energy mix, and reduce the carbon footprint of power generation by 70%.

According to the United Nations, temperatures across the Arab states are rising faster than the global average. COP 28 – the 2023 United Nations Climate Change Conference – will be hosted in Dubai this November and December. Climate data suggests Dubai averages almost 128 hours of sunshine a month and more than 3,800 hours a year. Heriot-Watt’s Solar Energy Test Site in Dubai is an extension of a parallel facility set up by Professor O'Donovan in Edinburgh, where companies are able to test their technologies in typical UK weather conditions. Mohamed Al-Musleh, an Assistant Professor at Heriot-Watt’s School of Engineering and Physical Sciences in Dubai, is Co-Investigator with Professor O'Donovan on the Solar Energy Test Site project.

The university is also transforming the fifth and sixth floors of its campus in Dubai Knowledge Park into a Fringe Event Hub for the duration of COP28, the 2023 United Nations Climate Change Conference. This initiative will showcase the Scottish University’s deep expertise in sustainability research, with specialisms in areas including industrial decarbonisation, energy transition, sustainable logistics, sustainable building design and plastics in the environment. The campus is 20 minutes away from Expo City Dubai, which will host the main COP28 programme from November 30 to December 12.

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