Solar energy wins Saudi attention

Published September 26th, 2011 - 08:37 GMT
In theory, gas is an easy, short-term answer – and Aramco is pressing ahead to expand its gas capacity, but as an evolving technology still in its infancy, solar is a much longer term option than gas. Picture courtesy of
In theory, gas is an easy, short-term answer – and Aramco is pressing ahead to expand its gas capacity, but as an evolving technology still in its infancy, solar is a much longer term option than gas. Picture courtesy of

Saudi Arabia is making strides in the right direction on solar energy, essential for the kingdom’s energy and economic future. There are many big challenges for the kingdom in catching up to other countries on solar energy, but evidence is abundant – just like Saudi sunshine – that the kingdom is serious about solar energy.

First, a little about solar power: it is arguably the cleanest and greenest of all energy technologies. It harnesses sunlight and uses photovoltaic cells to convert sunlight into energy, either directly from the sun, or indirectly, using a concentrator. It also takes a lot of investment and capital up front to develop and implement, and it is cyclical – no sun, no power. Given these attributes, it is easy for one to conclude that Saudi Arabia would be an excellent place to implement solar power.

It has the resources to develop huge solar plants today, it is in need of new sources to power its economy and growth, and above all, Saudi Arabia has a lot of sunshine. However, the kingdom has some catching up to do. So far, the largest solar park in Saudi Arabia is a 2 megawatt (MW) rooftop plant at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (Kaust) near Jeddah. Although other projects are in the works, this pales in comparison to other solar plants in the world. According to, Canada has the largest solar plant in the 97 MW Sarnia PV power plant. Numbers 2 to 7 on the list belong to European countries, and number 8 is the Copper Mountain solar facility in Nevada, US. The kingdom experiences roughly 3,000 hours of sunshine per year, and features empty stretches of desert that can host solar arrays and vast deposits of clear sand that can be used in the manufacture of silicon photovoltaic cells, according to state-owned energy giant Saudi Aramco’s annual review for 2010.

Saudi officials realise the need to make gains in development of solar energy plants, and are ready to spend money to play catch-up. Recently, a German solar project developer has announced that it will build Saudi Arabia’s largest solar power plant, on a parking lot at a new Saudi Aramco complex in Dhahran. This is one of many planned projects for Saudi Arabia’s burgeoning solar power industry. And make no mistake, this and other solar developments are a step in the right direction.

So, what are the challenges to increasing Saudi Arabia’s energy generated from solar power?

As the Saudi Economic Survey wrote in January 2011: “Investments in solar energy are essentially long-term endeavors and achievement of any revenue from these investments would take several years,” which means that solar investments are not as attractive to investors who seek short-term profits.” Citing economist Dr Fahd Bin Joma’a, Saudi Economic Survey wrote that expectations for solar “are that this renewable source of energy would help in saving fossil fuels and would comparatively reduce costs of energy”.

The other challenges are effects of soil on solar cells, which also need great attention and care and continuous cleaning, without which the cells lose 25 percent of their generating power, the report added. However, costs for photovoltaic power systems will continue to lessen as the manufacturing of PV systems grows in conjunction with the refinement of technologies to make them more affordable to produce and purchase. Building new solar plants, and the necessary surrounding infrastructure, takes more than money; the right planning and expertise are absolutely essential. Industry officials have predicted a tripling in Saudi power consumption Meanwhile, other analysts say that a shift to renewable energy such as solar power is as much about preserving Saudi Arabia’s international influence and maximising its revenues as saving the planet.

Saudi Arabia is the world’s leading oil exporter, but adding renewables to the mix is both inevitable and pragmatic, as soaring domestic energy use will burn huge amounts of fuel oil unless alternatives, such as solar power, can be used instead, they say.

“It’s really a preservation decision using solar for domestic consumption and keeping your oil for more lucrative export markets,” says Vahid Fotuhi, director, Middle East, of BP division BP Solar. Industry officials have predicted a tripling in Saudi power consumption to around 120 gigawatts (GW) by 2032 from around 40 GW last year. That rate of expansion could consume all of the roughly 8 million barrels per day (mbpd) Saudi Arabia produces.

“Right now, out of the 8 mbpd they produce, over 3 mbpd are consumed domestically, mainly for power generation. That figure is growing 8 percent per annum,” says Fotuhi. Unless it can develop renewables, Saudi Arabia could find itself with nothing to finance the national budget and with no spare capacity to be the world’s supplier of last resort – a role that has long cemented its relationship with the biggest oil user the US.

Back in September 2009, Saudi Oil Minister Ali Al Naimi had already set the highly ambitious goal of matching oil output with solar power. Around 8 million barrels of oil equivalent per day in solar energy would make it the world’s leading solar power. “In the same way we are an oil exporter, we can also be an exporter of power,” Naimi said at the time Kaust was inaugurated in the Red Sea port of Jeddah. Kaust symbolises Saudi Arabia’s plans to diversify not just into alternative energy, but into a knowledge-based economy.

Meanwhile, in Dhahran, the King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals (KFUPM) is also working away at similar problems. Its enthusiastic students see the kingdom making leaps forward, even though there are technological problems to overcome. “I think Saudi is moving fast towards being a leader in solar energy,” says Majed Lenjawi, an engineering student at KFUPM.  

Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest oil exporter and it has to become the leading exporter of solar energy,” says fellow engineering student Ammar Madani. “Oil has good yields and the cost of production is low, but it is not a renewable source of energy.” The total cost for extracting Saudi crude is around $5 a barrel, the cheapest in the world, while the industry’s most expensive extraction costs for non-conventional oil, such as Canadian tar sands, are pegged at around $50 a barrel and higher.

As well as providing billions to invest back into the oil industry, Saudi Arabia’s huge profits leave it well placed to come up with the capital needed for alternative energy forms. In theory, gas is an easy, short-term answer – and Aramco is pressing ahead to expand its gas capacity. But as an evolving technology still in its infancy, solar is a much longer term option than gas.

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