Solar boats and electric buses: Take a ride on the UAE’s eco-friendly transportation

Ancient meets modern as abras, or traditional boats, ferry passengers across Dubai Creek. Some journeys are now being made in solar-powered vessels, part of a series of eco-friendly public transport initiatives in the UAE. (Getty Images)
Updated 17 January 2019
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Solar boats and electric buses: Take a ride on the UAE’s eco-friendly transportation

  • The UAE is starting to power its public transport with renewable energy, setting a sustainable example for the wider Gulf
  • Dubai is home to the first utility-scale solar project in the Middle East

DUBAI: Want to take a trip to the future using eco-friendly transportation? In the UAE, you can enjoy a ride on a solar-powered abra on Dubai Creek, or hop on an electric bus in the capital. 

While Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week is shining a light on big renewable energy projects, some more practical uses are already underway in the UAE, serving as a taster of the ground-breaking initiatives the Gulf is expected to witness as it moves toward a sustainable future.

Dubai’s Roads and Transport Authority has just launched an electric 20-seater water taxi, powered by a 20-kilowatt (kW) motor with solar panels on top. 

It has 87 percent lower emissions than regular abras, with expected operations on Dubai Creek, Jumeirah Beach, the new islands and the Dubai Water Canal. A total of 61 boats are planned by 2020.

Back on the road, work is underway in Dubai on two solar-powered bus shelters as part of a trial for shelters in locations off the electric power grid. 

The solar power generated will be used to operate lights, air-conditioners and billboards.

In Abu Dhabi, Masdar has launched the first electric passenger bus in the region. The Eco-Bus will serve a six-stop route between Marina Mall, Abu Dhabi Central Bus Station and Masdar City, with a free service until the end of March. 

Seating 30 passengers, it has a range of 150 km per battery charge, with solar panels used to power its auxiliary systems.

An abra awaits passengers on Dubai Creek. (Getty Images)

With experts predicting that global solar installations will grow steadily in the coming years — by 5.2 percent annually between 2017 and 2022 — the combination of batteries, solar and other renewables is expected to cause a dramatic transformation in the world’s energy markets. Some of this is already trickling down to street level.

“Buses, taxis and other fleet vehicles are driven continuously, contributing more to urban pollution than vehicles of similar engine sizes,” said Stephen King, lecturer in media at Middlesex University Dubai and a UAE-based member of the Climate Reality Project, a non-profit organization involved in education and advocacy related to climate change. 

“Providing electric options for these vehicles is a positive step in improving air quality, which is a key issue (in the Gulf).”

According to the Climate Reality Project, several studies show that electric vehicles are likely to cost the same as, or even less than, regular internal combustion vehicles within the next decade, even without incentives. 

A February 2017 report from Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) found that the unsubsidized total cost of ownership of battery electric vehicles will fall below that of internal combustion engine vehicles by 2022. 

From there, the report projected a steadily increasing rate of adoption, reaching global sales of 41 million — 25 percent of the total market share — by 2040. 

“Solar is quite suitable for meeting small local loads without a grid connection, and electric buses are increasingly popular around the world because their running costs are low compared with internal combustion engines,” said Jenny Chase, head of solar at BNEF. 

“Solar power can take on a role in mostly bulk energy generation in the daytime. Solar photovoltaics (PV) is now one of the lowest-cost generation options in sunny regions, with prices below $25 per megawatt (MW) in sunny areas, where political stability makes the cost of capital low.”

Chase said it is now possible to generate energy without significant carbon dioxide emissions, for close to — or even less than — the cost of generating from fossil fuels. 

“This will be incredibly attractive to utilities and governments. The Middle East (is likely to) build solar power plants for a large chunk of its electricity demand increase in the future, at least until the daytime need is well met,” she said.

“Electric vehicles for public transport are also likely to be used increasingly, possibly lagging adoption in oil-rich countries where the fuel costs are less.” 

Masdar’s electric passenger bus is a first for the Gulf region. (Getty Images)

China, for example, already has 400,000 e-buses. “Some batteries will probably be used for shifting demand to the daytime, and e-vehicles will be encouraged to charge in the daytime,” Chase said. “There will also be some rooftop solar adoption where government policy supports it.”

Saudi Arabia also sees the potential in solar. The Kingdom’s Renewable Energy Project Development Office plans to tender 11 PV power projects, with a combined capacity of 2,225 MW this year. 

The Kingdom’s solar target for 2023 has been increased from 5.9 gigawatts (GW) to 20 GW, and set at 40 GW for 2030. 

Last year, the Saudi Electricity Co. signed a deal with the Tokyo Electric Power Co., Nissan Motor Co. and Takaoka Toko Co. for the first electric vehicle pilot project in the Kingdom. As part of the agreement, fast-charger stations will charge vehicles in 30 minutes. 

The potential is high. Experts in 2002 tipped that the global solar market would grow 1 GW annually by 2010. The actual growth in 2010 turned out to be 17 times that. 

“The world installed a record 98 GW of solar PV capacity in 2017, far more than the net additions of any other technology — renewable, fossil fuel or nuclear,” King said. 

“Although solar energy technologies have been around for decades, it is only in recent years that installations have really started to take off,” he said. “Falling costs, technological improvements, increased competition and government incentives have been key drivers of this growth.”

Global solar capacity is said to have surpassed 400 GW for the first time in 2017. Although countries such as China, Japan, Germany, the US and India have historically been the largest players, solar growth in coming years is expected to depend increasingly on middle-income countries and emerging markets. 

“Clearly, what was once a niche technology is now firmly in the mainstream,” King said. “Solar has a lot of potential in the region and around the world, and a number of important projects have been initiated in recent years.”

The BNEF report also revealed that the global energy storage market is projected to double six times between 2016 and 2030, rising to 125-305 GW per hour. 

“This is a similar trajectory to the remarkable expansion that the solar industry went through from 2000 to 2015, in which the share of PV as a percentage of total generation doubled seven times,” King said. 

“Energy storage, both utility scale and behind the meter, will be a crucial source of flexibility throughout this period, and will be essential to integrating increasing levels of renewable energy.”

But when it comes to achieving six hours of full electricity production per day, challenges remain. 

Kyle Weber, an associate at Evera, which aims to identify and address key sustainability gaps in the mobility sector, said: “It is a resource that requires a lot of understanding to utilize well.

“In the case of an electric bus, you need to store the energy between when it’s generated and when it’s utilized, which means more cost, complexity, and things that can go wrong.”

On buses, Evera is looking into charging batteries outside a vehicle slowly during the day, before swapping them in and out of the vehicle while it is being used. 

“Solar is also great for things like process heat. Heat can be used to do all sorts of things from cooking to generating steam, and desalinating water to powering a pump or producing clean hydrogen,” Weber said.

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The solar projects in the region

The Gulf is wholeheartedly adopting solar power to meet some of its energy needs. Several projects are underway across the region, including the UAE, where there are plans to increase power-generation capacity by around 21 GW, and where solar capacity is expected to contribute
26.1 percent of the total additional generation capacity. 

According to the Climate Reality Project, the world’s largest concentrated solar plant is due to be completed by 2021 near Dubai and is expected to have a 1,000-MW capacity. 

Dubai is home to the first utility-scale solar project in the Middle East. The UAE has 5.45 GW of new solar projects in development as of March 2017, and the Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum Solar Park is expected to be the largest concentrated solar plant in the world when it is completed in 2030. 

Dubai aims to produce 75 percent of its energy from clean sources by 2050, and its target energy mix for 2030 consists of 25 percent solar.

The Moroccan Solar Energy Plan aims to install 2 GW of solar power by 2020. On completion, the concentrated solar power complex will generate more than 500 MW of renewable electricity for 1.1 million Moroccans by 2018, reducing carbon emissions by 760,00 tons annually.

By 2020, Egypt aims to develop 40 solar parks of around 50 MW to meet its 2-GW renewables target, with clean energy accounting for 20 percent of the country’s energy mix. Its first utility-scale solar plant, credited to the government-sponsored feed-in tariff, will generate power for up to 15,000 homes. 

Decoder

What is an abra?

An abra is a small traditional wooden boat, almost like a raft, in the Gulf. It comes from the Arabic word “abara,” which means “to cross.” In Dubai, the Roads and Transport Authority uses motorized abras to ferry people across Dubai Creek.


Skin deep: Japan’s ‘washi’ paper torn by modern life

Updated 20 June 2019
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Skin deep: Japan’s ‘washi’ paper torn by modern life

  • Chinzei’s product, the world’s thinnest paper, has helped save historical documents at major museums and libraries
  • The traditional hand-made paper is manufactured from plants called kozo, or mulberry, which has fibers that are much longer than materials used for paper in the west such as wood and cotton

HIDAKA, Japan: Once an indispensable part of daily life in Japan, ultra-thin washi paper was used for everything from writing and painting to lampshades, umbrellas, and sliding doors, but demand has plunged as lifestyles have become more westernized.
Despite its 1,300-year history and UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage status, washi paper is struggling to attract consumers and the market value has dropped by more than 50 percent in the past two decades.
But at a small workshop in western Japan, Hiroyoshi Chinzei, a fourth-generation traditional paper maker, creates washi with a unique purpose that may help revive interest — both at home and abroad.
Chinzei’s product, the world’s thinnest paper, has helped save historical documents at major museums and libraries — including the Louvre in Paris, the British Museum and Washington’s Library of Congress — from decay.
“Washi paper is more flexible and durable” than what Japanese refer to as “western paper,” which disintegrates into tiny pieces when it becomes very old, the 50-year-old told AFP.
The traditional hand-made paper is manufactured from plants called kozo, or mulberry, which has fibers that are much longer than materials used for paper in the west such as wood and cotton.
“Old Japanese books from the seventh or eighth century remain in good condition... thanks to the fibers of the kozo plants,” the washi maker told AFP at his small factory in Hidaka, a village 640 kilometers (400 miles) southwest of Tokyo.
The papermaking process begins with steaming the kozo plants and peeling off the bark, which is then boiled until soft, while impurities are removed by hand in clear water.
The fibers are then beaten and mixed with glue and water, before being placed on a wooden screen.
This screen is then dipped repeatedly in water with the fibers and shaken to spread the liquid evenly to make a sheet of paper, a technique which requires years to master.
Because washi is hard to break, damaged, old documents can be reinforced by attaching a piece of washi or sandwiching them between two sheets of the paper, Chinzei explained.
For documents, transparency is key to be able to see the text, meaning the thinner the washi, the better.
Chinzei’s washi, a type called tengu-joshi paper also known as “the wings of a mayfly,” is 0.02 millimeters thick and weighs 1.6 grams per square meter.
This compared to a standard sheet of photocopy paper, which is about 0.09 millimeters thick and weighs 70 grams per square meter.
“It’s a mesh-like paper mainly made with fibers... It’s as thin as human skin,” Chinzei said.
Using both machines and hand-made techniques passed down for generations, the firm can create ultra-thin paper, which is also used by conservationists to restore and protect cultural objects.
One such conservationist, Takao Makino, carefully applies washi with a brush onto golden sticks representing the halo of a Buddhist statue estimated to be around 800 years old.
Makino said he used washi for the first time in 2007 to protect the surface of one of the two main statues at Tokyo’s historic Sensoji Temple.
“The surface was damaged and peeled off. So we covered all of it (with washi) to contain the damage,” the 68-year-old said.
“Washi naturally fits into intricately-shaped sculptures, but papers with chemical fibers or wrapping films don’t,” he said.
“The history proves washi is very durable... The material is pure, strong and lasting. It’s reliable.”
The production of the Japanese paper peaked in the Edo period between the 17th and late 19th centuries but declined as papermaking was mechanized.
Now, due to the westernization of Japan, the washi market is shrinking again, Chinzei said.
“We have no tatami rooms and almost no space to display a hanging scroll in the current lifestyle,” he said.
“Washi used for those things are now gone.”
According to the industry ministry, the total value of handmade washi dropped to 1.78 billion yen in 2016 from 4.15 billion yen in 1998, while that of washi for calligraphy and shoji sliding screens fell to 5.86 billion yen from 25.1 billion yen.
Chinzei didn’t plan on taking over his family trade and went to business school in Seattle to study finance.
“But I came back... because I felt responsible for passing the baton to the next generation,” he said, hoping to find ways to expand the market.
The volume of washi used for restoration is still small, but it’s been shipped to more than 40 countries and Chinzei is hopeful interest will grow.
He explained: “For restoring cultural assets and as a canvas for art... I think washi has the potential to be used more in the world of art.”