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Heriot-Watt launches Dubai Solar Test Site for companies in UK and beyond


Research engineers at Heriot-Watt University in Dubai are launching 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 is being installed on the South-West wing of the University’s campus in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.

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're 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 instal 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 will 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.”

Professor O'Donovan said 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.

In the UK, the government wants to see a fivefold increase in solar energy by 2035, enough to power around 20 million homes. Its Powering Up Britain report in March 2023 calls for the deployment of both ground and rooftop solar to be maximised to help achieve this.

In its Energy Security Day announcements last month, the UK government also pledged to establish a new taskforce to develop solar energy deployment.

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.

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