While it is the coldest place on earth, Antarctica is also the world’s largest desert, almost twice the size of the Sahara.
For Michel Abi Saab, Manager, Energy Services at Masdar, a visit to the Casey Research Station, which is perched on the edge of a massive ice cap, was life-changing, awe-inspiring and humbling. He recalls his research expedition to the Station three years ago, on behalf of Masdar.
Michel, tell us how this opportunity to work at the Casey Research Station came about?
Michel Abi Saab: In 2018, Masdar met with the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) to look for collaborative opportunities to develop a renewable and efficient energy consumption approach that would be environmentally friendly. The collaboration also aimed at providing young UAE nationals a short-term internship opportunity to work at the Casey Station.
During the meeting, we suggested conducting an energy audit at the Station to assess its energy system and propose a strategy to improve the energy efficiency and reduce its reliance on diesel fuel. Our aim was to work closely with AAD technicians and engineers analyze the energy and water consumption patterns. This idea was taken on board and Masdar sent me on a mission to Antarctica to prepare the groundwork to carry out our proposal.
As a mechanical engineer with experience in heating and cooling systems, I found this to be an extraordinary professional opportunity; and as a nature lover, it also offered great personal fulfillment.
What was your first reaction to Antarctica?
Michel: It hits you across all your senses. The whiteness, the cold, the sounds of stillness to the sounds of high-speed winds. It was everything that I expected, but also, it’s very different when one experiences it first-hand. It was life changing.
Can you walk us through the experience of the facility?
Michel: Casey Station opened in 1969 and is the closest Australian Antarctic continental station to Australia. It has conducted many programs of scientific research. The facility is run by around 20 top researchers and engineers, who work on a 24-hour rotational basis, ensuring the facility is active 24/7 in temperatures that can exceed +10 °C in summer and fall to below −40 °C in winter.
It includes buildings that function as accommodation, labs, doctor’s surgery and hospital, emergency services, diesel power generation, drinking water production, waste management, meteorological observation systems, hydroponics garden and food storage facilities.
What did you find in your energy audit report and what measures were you able to propose?
Michel: In cooperation with AAD’s infrastructure team at the station, Masdar conducted an energy audit of the facility. Our key finding was simple: We needed to bring in some change. We proposed some simple actions, that would have an overall positive impact.
Michel: You’d be surprised at the simplicity, but it also goes to show that no change can be too small! We introduced mindfulness in energy consumption and some behavioral change, as water and energy are even more precious out there.
How is the station powered and did you discover any inefficiencies as part of your audit?
Michel: The station relied entirely on fossil fuel for on-site generators to produce power. This is expensive, with added costs of transporting the source from Australia all the way to Antarctica. Not to mention, the environmental impact, which is substantial.
We needed to reconsider water consumption. The major source of water is a nearby frozen lake, from where ice blocks are melted and stored in tanks for use. We needed an efficient way to melt ice, as this requires energy.
We also identified heating inefficiencies. Many of the station’s buildings were heated throughout the day regardless of human presence, because they needed to maintain a certain temperature so they wouldn’t freeze.
Did you introduce any renewable sources to the mix?
Michel: In December 2018, Masdar sent 105 solar photovoltaic (PV) panels to the Casey Station. The panels were selected to withstand the high wind speeds and low temperatures at the station. The harsh climate and wind speed required us to find novel ways to install the solar PV structure. Technicians mounted the panels onto the façade of one of the Station’s buildings.
The PV system was commissioned in March 2019 and has been in operation since then, generating clean electricity for the station and reducing the consumption of diesel.
We had to research from scratch, and find novel solar panels and specialist suppliers, followed by the shipping and installation.
At the time, we were doubtful of whether it would work.
I’m proud to report that it’s been almost two years and they are providing 30 kW of power.
How did you install the solar panels in Antarctica, and how is the installation different from the UAE?
Michel: Here in the UAE, or in any solar intense climate, we tend not to install solar panels vertically. In Antarctica, however, we installed them vertically to avoid the accumulation of snow and disruption due to wind. At Casey, the panels are close to walls to create insulation and ensure safety against the harsh climate.
In June 2019, the facility experienced wind gusts of 193 km/h. No damage was identified on the PV panels and power generation continued as usual.
Masdar along with AAD directed the installation of these solar panels and we were with the technicians every step to ensure the work was done in the right way.
Water is a scarce resource – can you tell us a bit about how the station controls consumption?
Michel: I was impressed by the consideration given to water at the Station. The team were already using it as efficiently as they could. There is a limitation for taking showers, so each person can take one shower every two days, and showers can’t exceed two minutes.
For dish washing, the kitchen sink is filled with water and dishes are rinsed in the sink using the same water. Water is such an important and scarce commodity. The source is the ice, and we need to use energy to melt it into usable and potable water.
Did you find similarities between your experience of working in a hot desert climate and in the cold desert of Antarctica?
Michel: When I landed in Antarctica, I found many similarities between the hot and cold deserts. In Antarctica, the climate is just as extreme and dry, so the energy systems are similar.
And finally, how has this experience changed you?
Michel: The experience has made me more mindful and grateful for the abundance of energy we have. I feel more responsible towards protecting the planet. On a personal level, I am humbled by the experience and humility of my colleagues in Antarctica.