Saudi Arabia has reached an important milestone in the development of its solar power industry (planned investment: $109 billion) with the completion this week of a 3.5 megawatt photovoltaic plant in Riyadh.
Located on the grounds of the King Abdullah Petroleum Studies and Research Center (KAPSARC) in the capital city, this is the Kingdom’s biggest solar plant. It is the most vital part of an ambitious plan to generate a third of the Kingdom’s electricity with solar energy by 2032.
The aim is to install more than 40 GW of solar power capacity by 2032, PV and concentrated solar power (CSP).
Boosting renewable energy will help the Kingdom cut back on oil used for energy-intensive desalinization and power plants. Right now, the Kingdom burns 1.5 million barrels of oil per day for powering desalination plants.
The Kingdom is aware of the huge loss involved in burning export-quality oil as well as higher-value products to generate power from low-efficiency thermal plants. Analysts estimate that Middle East countries may lose as much as $90 in revenue for each barrel of oil they use domestically for electricity production instead of exporting it.
Happily, there is an awareness throughout the Middle East that this should not be allowed to continue, especially in a region with significant sun and wind potential. One reason why Arab countries turned their back on solar energy was the huge cost involved (about three times more than heavily-subsidized fossil fuels).
Now that technological advances have dramatically reduced costs, more and more countries are turning to solar energy. They realize this is the only way to meet the growing demands for power from booming economies and rapidly increasing populations.
Signs of change are already visible. Abu Dhabi’s state-owned renewable energy company, Masdar, is investing in solar projects both in the UAE and in foreign countries like Mauritania. Qatar has plans to construct a solar power project to be completed by 2020.
It is expected to generate 200 megawatts and supply 2 percent of the nation’s electricity. It is the first step toward Qatar’s goal to have 1.8 GW of solar power by that year. Although solar plants are cropping up in several Arab countries including the Palestinian territories, some of the most ambitious projects in this field are being implemented in Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
In other parts of the world, environmental concerns have been the primary driver for the search for alternative sources of energy. In the Middle East, the motivating factor seems to be largely unfounded fears of their natural resources getting depleted through overuse. But these countries can no longer afford to ignore problems like climate change, greenhouse gas emissions, etc.
According to a 2009 study produced by the Arab Forum for Environment and Development, 41,500 square kilometers of coastal land in Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, Kuwait, Bahrain and the UAE could be lost with just a one-meter sealevel rise. The first Arab-led report on climate change also warns that Bahrain and Qatar could lose 13.4 percent and 6.9 percent of their coastal land respectively if the sea level records a 5-meter rise.