Scale and sustainability at Noor Abu Dhabi

Abdulla Al Kayoumi, CEO of Sweihan PV Power Company, the owner and operator of Noor Abu Dhabi Solar PV Plant, talks to The Energy Year about how shareholders approached developing this mega-scale plant and overcoming challenges of design and scope to make it a global reference for solar energy. Noor Abu Dhabi is the world’s largest single-site utility-scale PV plant.

Looking back to the period before the plant’s 2019 launch, what were the highlights of its development?
The request for proposals was issued in May 2016 and bids were submitted in September 2016. In February 2017, the PPA [power purchase agreement] was signed with the offtaker. In May 2017, we achieved the financial close with our lenders. We started the construction in August 2017, with our first kilowatt of clean energy produced from our early generation in November 2018, and achieving official commercial operation in April 2019.
Noor Abu Dhabi is the world’s largest operational single-site utility-scale PV plant. It spans an area of 8 square kilometres and was built with more than 3.3 million solar panels. The DC capacity exceeds 1,200 MW, and it had the world’s most levelised competitive tariff at the time of bidding, while breaking the record for the fastest construction of a PV plant in 20 months thanks to the technology that we used during the construction stage.
Due to the massive number of solar panels and foundations, the company used a GPS robotics solution to install the foundations for the solar panels. The peak PV module installation achieved in one day was equal to 26,000 modules. In the peak construction month of July 2018, we achieved the installation of 200 MW.

You are using a robotic solution for cleaning the solar panels. How did that come about?
We undertook several tests with different manufacturers at the time of construction. The company and the manufacturer of the solar PV modules [Jinko Solar] agreed to ensure that the cleaning system would not impact the surface of the PV modules. In fact, we have more than 1,400 robotic cleaning systems. It’s a dry cleaning without the use of a single drop of water.
We believe that this plant is sustainable by all measures. We don’t want to solve one problem by creating another. The UAE has a scarcity of water resources, so we came up with a waterless cleaning system that is in line with both the requirement of the PV modules and the environmental constraints.

How do you assess the performance of the PPP consortium in developing the plant?
The plant is owned and operated by Sweihan PV Power Company, with a shareholding arrangement. Abu Dhabi National Energy Company (TAQA) owns 60% of the company, Marubeni Corporation has 20% and Jinko Solar has 20%.
TAQA is a global energy company with ownership of 23 GW of power generation capacity, with strong development, operation and maintenance capabilities. Following its acquisition of Abu Dhabi power, generation, transmission and distribution assets in July 2020, TAQA has developed into the national energy and water champion to lead the transformation of Abu Dhabi’s utility sector.
Marubeni is also a leading global power company which owns and operates 67 IWPP projects with a total gross capacity of 38 GW in 19 countries around the world.
Jinko Solar is currently the world’s largest solar panel manufacturer. They have manufactured 55 GW of modules in the last eight years and have seven factories worldwide from which they distribute solar products and solutions to a diversified international utility, commercial and residential customer base in more than 100 countries. So, the company benefits from its foreign and local shareholders’ technical experience and knowledge.

What is remarkable about Noor Abu Dhabi in terms of design?
The Noor Abu Dhabi solar plant has a unique solar PV design. We’re using east-west orientation for the modules, which is not commonly seen in solar plants, although it is becoming more common in large plants like ours. The good thing about this design is that it distributes the production more evenly throughout the day – this means not just producing peak production at solar noon but more on the “shoulders” of the production curve. It also takes advantage of energy time-of-day pricing opportunities with offtakers where applicable.

Why was Sweihan chosen as the location of the plant?
The location was selected based on environmental and geographical facts and figures. Sweihan is in a higher-radiation zone in the UAE, allowing the plant to produce more energy. During studies for the project, they used a satellite database with information dating back to January 1999. This allowed them to analyse 21 complete years of data to determine a strategic location.

What is the contribution of Noor Abu Dhabi in lowering greenhouse gas emissions in Abu Dhabi?
Noor Abu Dhabi enables a significant reduction of gas consumption, especially during summer peak demand conditions, resulting in massive savings. Our tariff is highly competitive compared to that of conventional power plants, especially when considering the market value of gas. That being said, Noor Abu Dhabi contributes significantly to the reduction of carbon emissions. It’s equivalent to removing 200,000 cars from Abu Dhabi’s streets.

How has the pandemic impacted operations and what actions have you taken to deal with it?
As soon as the pandemic hit the UAE, we proactively activated our business continuity and emergency response plans to contain the impact of the virus. We have a strong business continuity regime and alternative supply chains that the plant relies on to operate. A project of this size requires some supply chains that are not located in the UAE. So, with the Covid-19 restrictions on logistics, following our contingency plan we were able to overcome the supply chain challenges.
That being said, the pandemic has had zero impact on our energy production and we continue to excel in this, seeing high availability during 2020 of 99.9%.

What are the most common challenges a solar plant of this size faces?
The size is definitely a challenge – we can think of our plant as a network of smaller plants. There is a need to adopt an organised, well planned and data-driven approach, in order to not lose sight of some of the important aspects of dealing with a large plant.
The plant’s availability is the most important factor, meaning the plant needs to operate when it should be operating. If you lose a minute during the daytime, you lose that radiance and an opportunity to produce energy. To achieve high availability and ensure that the solar technology is robust and reliable, you need to adopt different approaches. In addition to the normal maintenance regimes like preventive and corrective maintenance, for a plant of this size, there is a need to adopt a predictive and anticipatory approach using historical data and frequent testing to predict potential problems before they happen.
Each PV plant is different, and there is no one-size-fits-all. Benchmarking does help but Noor Abu Dhabi being the largest single-site power plant means it is very hard to benchmark it to other plants. Therefore, understanding the nature of the plant at a micro level is the key to a higher plant availability and performance.

How does data analysis ensure higher productivity?
Noor Abu Dhabi spans 8 square kilometres and when you go this big, the quantity of data is huge. The number of maintenance issues to keep track of is extensive and even the logistical issues are significantly more complicated. We have a sophisticated online SCADA system to monitor the plant and a responsive team to act rapidly on any issue. As I mentioned earlier, all maintenance categories are important but the anticipatory maintenance is highly important for a large plant because of the scale of systemic failures if they happen as we have 828 inverters, 207 medium-voltage transformers and nearly 85,000 PV strings in a single site. A strong monitoring programme, good data analysis and diligent anticipation is key.
Our vision is to be the world’s reference for efficient and effective operation of a larger-scale utility plant.

Noor Abu Dhabi is one of the first initiatives to deliver the UAE’s Energy Strategy 2050. Having more than 1200 MW Capacity of fully operational photovoltaic technology marks a significant milestone.