The world’s largest “virtual battery plant” is now operating in the Arabian desert

Solar, solar, everywhere.
Solar, solar, everywhere.
Image: Masdar
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The United Arab Emirates likes breaking world records. Flush with oil money and blessed with plenty of open land, the country has the world’s tallest building, largest mall, largest desalinated water reservoir, and one of the largest solar farms. It can now add one more record to the list: the world’s largest virtual battery plant.

Earlier this month, the department of energy in Abu Dhabi turned on a 108 MW/648 MWh sodium-sulfur battery plant. For comparison, the storage capacity of the Abu Dhabi battery is about five times that of the lithium-ion battery system Tesla installed in Hornsdale, Australia in 2017.

The batteries are installed in 10 different locations in Abu Dhabi, but they can be controlled as a single plant. Hence, the department of energy calls it a “virtual” battery plant.

Like other oil-rich countries in the Middle East, the UAE still gets almost all of its energy from fossil fuels. But it stands out in the region by also betting big on renewables. ”In 50 years, when we might have the last barrel of oil… I can tell you we will celebrate that moment,” said Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, a few years ago.

The country plans to spend $160 billion by 2030 on renewable energy, setting a 2050 goal to get more than 60% of its electricity from carbon-free sources. That’s not as bold as the net-zero emissions goal adopted by others around the world, but it’s among the most ambitious in the Middle East.

The move is driven by necessity. Emiratis mostly live on the coasts and will face insurmountable challenges as climate change causes sea levels to rise.

The desert’s plentiful sun has helped it to secure aggressive bids for solar farms, pushing the price per unit of electricity down to historically low levels. But as the country boosts the amount of renewable power it generates, it needs to add energy storage to set aside power for when the sun doesn’t shine.

Instead of lithium-ion batteries from Tesla, however, the UAE opted for sodium-sulfur batteries from Japan’s NGK. Lithium-ion batteries are able to pack a lot of energy in small space, which makes them ideal for electric cars, but they require air-conditioning to maintain the right operating temperature. Sodium-sulfur batteries, on the other hand, operate at 300°C (572°F) and are heavily insulated.

The size of the UAE’s new battery system is so large that it could provide up to six hours of backup power in case Abu Dhabi’s electricity grid goes down. For such longer-duration storage, sodium-sulfur batteries become cheaper than lithium-ion batteries, according to an NGK representative. The UAE installation beats NGK’s previous battery record, which went online in Japan with a power capacity of 50 MW and an energy capacity of 100 MWh.

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