With a combination of scale, a growing population, outstanding irradiation, and available capital, solar PV should be a ‘no brainer’ for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. But early explorations of the technology have soured expectations, and progress has come in fits and starts.
Saudi Arabia’s renewable energy sector over the years can be best described as a roller coaster. Just when momentum seemed to be building, the ride came to a halt. Then it began to move, but never really gave potential investors the confidence needed for serious acceleration. Progress started to take shape in 2016 and has continued, showing that this time is different.
Yet, to understand how the country got to where it is today, it’s important to know where Saudi Arabia has been, and that stems all the way back to 1977.
Much like the creation of the national oil company Saudi Aramco — formed between the United States and Saudi Arabia — solar power has been explored as part of a bilateral partnership between the two countries. Saudi Arabia’s National Center for Science and Technology (now known as the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology or KACST) and the United States Department of Energy (DOE) struck a deal four decades ago for the Saudi Solar Village Project. The five-year agreement included $50 million from both countries and was extended for three more years. What resulted was a 350 kW solar PV system located 50 kilometers from Riyadh, as well as an additional 350 kW solar hydrogen demonstration plant.
The system operated well for its time, but the technology was nowhere near where it is today, which resulted in panel degradation of 20%. Operating temperatures were much higher than originally specified, and the heat sink insufficient for cooling.
From there continued a list of projects, including solar-powered water desalination, solar hydrogen utilization, solar water heating, and other PV research projects.
In 1990, the Persian Gulf War erupted and once again, Saudi Arabia saw solar power come via the United States. Solar panels were used to power GPS satellites, but just like the problem seen in the solar village, modules again quickly deteriorated in the harsh desert conditions.
There is little doubt that these observations helped shape the kingdom’s solar PV sector — and industry in general — but it would still take many years before substantial movement could be seen.
In April 2010, the King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy (K.A.CARE) was established to be the “driving force for making atomic and renewable energy an integral part of a national sustainable energy mix.”
K.A.CARE’s target was to have 41 GW of renewable energy by 2032, with 16 GW of solar PV. In 2011, a contract was signed to establish a polysilicon plant in Jubail, which would begin the production of solar cell materials. Polysilicon Technology, alongside Hyundai Engineering and KCC Engineering and Construction, announced that it would build a $380 million plant to produce 3,350 metric tons of solar-grade polysilicon, with future expansion plans. This was one of many announcements that failed to materialize, as developer Polysilicon Technology later went bankrupt, according to local sources.
K.A.CARE went a step further in February 2013, when it published a white paper that announced a new renewable energy target of 54 GW by 2032 (41 GW was to be solar). And in the first five years, it planned for 5.1 GW to be installed, with 23.9 GW by 2020. The white paper has since been removed from the organization’s website, and K.A.CARE’s renewable energy ambitions disappeared along with it, as it began to focus more on nuclear power.
The new crown prince
Volatility in oil prices began in 2014, and it forced the country to broadly rethink its economic policies.
As Saudi Arabia grappled with the new normal of low oil prices, then deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, released a new economic vision for the country. The National Transformation Plan, part of the wider Vision 2030 agenda, was launched in 2016. It included a target to have 9.5 GW of solar and wind power feeding electricity into the national grid by 2023. It was understandable that the plan was met with leeriness, considering previous attempts to jump-start a renewable energy market in the country, but this time was different. This was the first time that Saudi Arabia had a government mandate to incorporate renewable energy into its overall energy mix.
In 2017, the Renewable Energy Project Development Office (REPDO) was created, featuring members from K.A.CARE, Saudi Aramco, Saudi Electricity Company, and the Electricity and Cogeneration Regulatory Authority. The new unit fell under the energy ministry’s oversight, and immediately began accepting applications from companies that were looking to participate in the development of 700 MW of solar and wind capacity projects.
Local company ACWA Power came in with the winning bid for the first utility-scale solar PV plant, Sakaka, at $0.0234/kWh. “PV is a no-brainer in our part of the world [to supply] a significant source of load,” said ACWA chief executive officer Paddy Padmanathan.
Yet what was also significant was how REPDO announced the winning bids, which was done via live stream. This showed a level of transparency that isn’t seen anywhere else in the region’s renewable energy sector.
In November 2018, Saudi Arabia’s first utility-scale solar PV project began construction, with more than 1.18 million modules and 1,200 new jobs. The Sakaka solar power plant began a new era in the kingdom, heralding a “more to come” drive with at least seven projects to be tendered in this year alone. And people started to believe it. In fact, Padmanathan said that throughout the region, more companies are jumping into the market — and they’re looking at Saudi Arabia. He estimates that over the past five years, there has been growth of 20% of new market players trying to get into the Middle East’s solar sector.
“Within the next five years, there will be a real race to deploy as much PV as possible throughout the region,” Padmanathan added.
And Saudi Arabia is a market mover for any sector, given its size and population of almost 33 million. So much so that many companies separate Saudi Arabia from their regional reports so that its size doesn’t skew results. The potential for the kingdom’s solar industry, coupled with its goal of creating a manufacturing hub, is enough to once again entice investors.
“We’ve been pushing anyone we’ve worked with for many years saying, ‘If you want to work with us and want to capture meaningful volumes — industrialize inside the kingdom,’” said Padmanathan.
Earlier this year, a Saudi consortium made up of the National Industrial Clusters Development Program and petrochemical giant SABIC, signed a memorandum of understanding with Longi Group and OCI for the development of a fully integrated solar manufacturing facility in the country. And such decisions may create momentum for others to move, particularly considering a potentially more favorable policy framework.
Gus Schellekens, a partner at the clean energy division of the consultancy EY, said that Saudi Arabia today is very different than pre-Vision 2030.
“New businesses are being set up that are very different to the old world that delivered success for the past 40 years,” Schellekens explained. Yet Saudi Arabia is still finding its footing. The head of REPDO, Turki Al Shehri, recently left the organization to join France’s Engie as the chief executive of Saudi Arabia. There has so far been no announcement about a replacement and sources have said that the energy ministry is instead looking to create a more centralized system.
It’s never an easy road when introducing a new model or system on a large scale, especially if people continue to focus on previous mistakes. “In the long run, there remains huge potential for Saudi Arabia, but it’s important to acknowledge practical challenges, and build on a robust plan that is integrated with other initiatives,” Schellekens concluded.
The pairing of wind and solar is emerging as a smart strategy to implement renewable energy sources with better economic feasibility.A Fine Couple They Are (Wind and Solar Power) as suggested by Jim Romeo would definitely affect this Energy Transition era if only in terms of duration.
The pairing of wind and solar power is an advantageous complement; the two benefit each other. The synergistic combination is an emerging trend in renewable energy and power generation as costs drop. The pairing of sustainable sources is in early stages, however. And the configuration still has challenges regarding return on investment (ROI), ease of implementation, and storage.
In western Minnesota, a 2-MW wind turbine and 500-kW solar installation—wind-solar hybrid project—is an early entrant to the wind-solar market and one of the first of its kind in the U.S. It was introduced at a cost of about $5 million with high expectations and the goal that Lake Region Electric Cooperative in Pelican Rapids would acquire the power for its 27,000 members.
The pioneering project got a boost amid the lower costs of solar. The power generation from both renewable sources is calculated to provide dividends on its investment.
According to market researcher Global Market Insights, hybrid solar-wind projects are expected to grow by 4% in the U.S. over the next five years to join a $1.5 billion global market. Some attribute the growth to the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference objectives, combined with lower costs of development and materials, and a keen interest by many nations to rely more on renewable energy sources. Because wind turbine power and solar both have excess capacity, together they offer far greater possibilities.
Lucrative but Limited
Renewables especially make economic sense in non-urban areas, where costs per kWh are higher, said Mike Voll, principal and sector lead for Smart Technologies at Stantec. “So, rural communities and remote locations, where energy prices often reach $0.40 to $0.45 per kilowatt-hour, actually see an ROI from these projects. When it comes to combining both wind and solar with storage, however, the list of locations is even smaller still. In a perfect world, we’d have a place that has excellent radiance with enough wind and low cloud cover, but the reality is there are very few locations that meet the geographic requirements. So even as the price continues to drop, there will still be significant limitations to pairing solar and wind.”
Despite limitations, renewables can work well in locations where everything clicks. A storage option is an essential component. “Adding energy storage can reduce intermittency of output, reshape the generation profile to match to load, and enable dispatch of the renewable energy to maximize revenue generation through ISO market participation or utility programs,” said Todd Tolliver, senior manager at ICF, a global consulting and technology services company headquartered in Fairfax, Virginia.
Tolliver said the economic viability of these systems is constrained by equipment, costs of storage, and limited or irregular revenue streams. But he explained that the most common combination today is solar plus battery storage, thanks to investment tax credit and incentive programs in certain markets that provide clear lower costs and better revenue streams. Still, wind power energy storage has challenges.
On the road from Wadi Rum to Petra in Jordan, where signs point to the Sheikh Zayed solar complex, wind turbines turn languidly in a steady breeze. At Petra, even Bedouin encampments have solar panels and many homes in Amman use solar tubes to heat water. The UAE made headlines with its world-record solar installations, but in all the Middle East, the impact of the renewable revolution is most visible in the Jordanian landscape.
By last year, the Hashemite kingdom had installed 285 megawatts of wind and 771MW of solar power, a significant chunk of its total generation of about 4 gigawatts. By 2021, it wants to have 2.7GW of renewable capacity. Over the next decade, Jordan’s efforts could really take off – providing half of all electricity output, in our analysis at Qamar Energy. It is only a small market, but it is an important trailblazer for the region’s aspirations in renewables.
Jordan’s success has been built on good resources, solid policy and the imperatives of an energy crisis. Like most Middle East countries, the kingdom has abundant sunny desert land and, similar to Egypt and northern Saudi Arabia, it’s also quite windy in places.
The country started early on encouraging renewables with the Tafila wind farm, a joint venture with Masdar, built in 2015. It offers investors a reasonable return and gives smaller users such as hospitals and universities the chance to build solar panels on vacant land and transmit the power through a grid.
The biggest impetus to alternative energy was the cut-off from Egyptian gas supplies following the 2011 revolution, because of repeated militant attacks on the Sinai pipeline. Jordan’s budget deficit widened because the country, which imports more than 90 per cent of its energy needs and has historically financed its deficits through grants and soft loans, had to burn expensive oil for electricity. Jordan, which already hosted thousands of Iraqi refugees, had to accommodate an increasing power demand due to an influx of 1.3 million Syrians escaping the conflict in their country.
In response, the kingdom opened a liquefied natural gas import terminal at Aqaba, and negotiated supplies from the American company Noble, which produces from offshore Israel. Jordan has large resources of oil shale, effectively an immature form of petroleum source rocks, which can be cooked into oil. A Chinese-led consortium is developing a power plant based on burning this dirty material.
Jordan’s success has been built on good resources, solid policy and the imperatives of an energy crisis.
Efforts to construct a nuclear power plant have been hampered by a lack of cooling water, public opposition and the high costs of financing. Instead, Amman may opt for smaller, modular nuclear reactors that could be fabricated off-site.
To cover the higher costs of fuel, energy subsidies had to be cut back, putting a heavy burden on citizens at a time of sharp economic slowdown. But this had the positive effect of making individual rooftop solar installations attractive for small businesses and householders.
Local Jordanian companies, such as Kawar Energy and Shamsuna Power, along with Dubai-based companies including Yellow Door Energy, have created viable businesses and high-skilled employment. By the early 2020s, Jordan will have the Middle East’s lowest carbon output electricity grid, despite the carbon-heavy oil shale facility.
Success will soon bring its own challenges. Renewable output will exceed total demand at times, while the country still needs to provide for high-consumption and night-time periods. Hydropower, which could be used to store excess renewables, is minimal in the desert country.
The Red-Dead Sea project is intended to bring water to the Dead Sea, which is fast drying up due to climate change and the overuse of the Jordan River. On the way, the water would generate power for desalination. But the expensive venture faces environmental concerns and political hurdles in co-operating with Israel.
Philadelphia Solar, a local company, has announced plans for a solar plant with battery storage. Concentrated solar thermal plants (CSP), like the one under construction in Dubai, can save the Sun’s heat to generate power overnight. These do not seem to be part of Jordan’s plans yet, but the country has excellent conditions for CSP.
Electricity interconnections with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and the West Bank are also underway, which could boost the resilience and renewable share of the whole area’s power grid. It could also send power to help rebuild war-torn Syria.
Jordan’s consumers will have to consider the benefits from the country’s renewable expansion, particularly industries which have complained of high electricity prices. Prices are high during peak demand hours, but this scheme will have to become more flexible to lower prices when there is an excess of solar.
Jordan’s small market and head start in renewable energy means it will reach these hurdles to solar deployment probably before any other country in the region. Its success in devising policies to continue attracting capital, boosting its renewable generation, local employment and electricity exports, while reducing consumer bills, will be an important signal for its neighbours.
This is particularly true for countries in the Arabian Gulf – whose utility companies are thinking about how to overcome similar barriers to their bold renewable plans. Such complementary resources and opportunities open the space for co-operation between these two regional allies.
Robin Mills is CEO of Qamar Energy and author of The Myth of the Oil Crisis.
You may have seen a variant of this meme before. A map of North Africa is shown, with a surprisingly small box somewhere in Libya or Algeria shaded in. An area of the Sahara this size, the caption will say, could power the entire world through solar energy:
Over the years various different schemes have been proposed for making this idea a reality. Though a company called Desertec caused a splash with some bold ideas a decade ago, it collapsed in 2014 and none of the other proposals to export serious amounts of electricity from the Sahara to Europe and beyond are anywhere close to being realised.
It’s still hard to store and transport that much electricity from such a remote place, for one thing, while those people who do live in the Sahara may object to their homeland being transformed into a solar superpower. In any case, turning one particular region into a global energy hub risks all sorts of geopolitical problems.
The Imagine newsletter aims to tackle these big “what if” questions, so we asked a number of academics to weigh in on the challenges of exploiting the cheapest form of electricity from perhaps the cheapest and best spot on Earth.
Sahara has huge energy potential
Amin Al-Habaibeh is an engineer at Nottingham Trent University who has researched various options for Saharan solar.
He points to the sheer size and amount of sunshine the Sahara desert receives:
It’s larger than Brazil and slightly smaller than the US.
If every drop of sunshine that hits the Sahara was converted into energy, the desert would produce enough electricity over any given period to power Europe 7,000 times over.
So even a small chunk of the desert could indeed power much of the world, in theory. But how would this be achieved?
Al-Habaibeh points to two main technologies. Both have their pros and cons.
Concentrated solar power uses lenses or mirrors to focus the sun’s energy in one spot, which becomes incredibly hot. This heat then generates electricity through a steam turbine.
In this image the tower in the middle is the “receiver” which then feeds heat to a generator:
Some systems store the heat in the form of molten salt. This means they can release energy overnight, when the sun isn’t shining, providing a 24h supply of electricity.
Concentrated solar power is very efficient in hot, dry environments, but the steam generators use lots of water.
Then there are regular photovoltaic solar panels. These are much more flexible and easier to set up, but less efficient in the very hottest weather.
Overall, Al-Habaibeh is positive:
Just a small portion of the Sahara could produce as much energy as the entire continent of Africa does at present. As solar technology improves, things will only get cheaper and more efficient. The Sahara may be inhospitable for most plants and animals, but it could bring sustainable energy to life across North Africa – and beyond.
Solar panels could have remarkable impact on the desert though
Installing mass amounts of solar panels in the Sahara could also have a remarkable impact on the desert itself.
The Sahara hasn’t always been dry and sandy. Indeed, archaeologists have found traces of human societies in the middle of the desert, along with prehistoric cave paintings of Savannah animals. Along with climate records, this suggests that just a few thousand years ago the “desert” was far greener than today.
Alona Armstrong, an environmental science lecturer at Lancaster University, wrote about a fascinating study in 2018 that suggested massive renewable energy farms could make the Sahara green again.
This may be a nice side effect of a huge Saharan solar plant, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it should happen. As Armstrong points out:
These areas may be sparsely populated but people do live there, their livelihoods are there, and the landscapes are of cultural value to them. Can the land really be “grabbed” to supply energy to Europe and the Middle East?
Is this climate colonialism?
If we want to deploy millions of solar panels in the Sahara, then who is “we”? Who pays for it, who runs it and, crucially, who gets the cheap electricity?
This is what worries Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò, a philosopher who researches climate justice at Georgetown University. He mentions Saharan solar power as one of the possible policies involved in a Green New Deal, a wide-ranging plan to enact a “green transition” over the next decade.
He points out that exports of solar power could: “Exacerbate what scholars like sociologist Doreen Martinez call climate colonialism – the domination of less powerful countries and peoples through initiatives meant to slow the pace of global warming.”
While Africa may have abundant energy resources, the continent is also home to the people who are the least connected to the grid.
Solar exports risk “bolstering European energy security … while millions of sub-Saharan Africans have no energy of their own.”
What if we’re looking at the wrong desert?
All of this will be moot if Saharan solar never actually happens. And Denes Csala, a lecturer in energy systems at Lancaster University, is sceptical.
It’s true that much of the world’s best solar resources are found in the desert. Here’s a graph from his PhD research which shows how Saharan nations dominate:
But Denes says that we’re looking at the wrong desert. In fact, the countries of the Arabian peninsula are better placed to exploit the sun. He argues several factors work in favour of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and co:
They have a history of exporting oil.
In the energy market, worries over security of supply means countries tend to do business with the same partners over time.
Ports, pipes and other infrastructure that have been built to ship oil and gas could be repurposed to ship solar energy as hydrogen.
[Energy security] would be the Achilles heel of a northern African energy project: the connections to Europe would likely be the continent’s single most important critical infrastructure and, considering the stability of the region, it is unlikely that European countries would take on such a risk.
It would be fair to say academics have mixed views about the idea of mass Saharan solar. While the energy potential is obvious, and most of the necessary technology already exists, in the long run it may prove too complicated politically.
Still think this is all fantasy?
Maybe Europeans should look closer to home. The UK Planning Inspectorate is currently examining the Cleve Hill solar farm proposal in Kent, which would involve installing nearly a million solar panels across a marshland site the size of 600 football pitches. To protect against flooding, the panels would be mounted several metres in the air. If built, despite opposition from locals and conservationists, Cleve Hill would be by far the country’s largest solar farm and about the same size as Europe’s largest, near Bordeaux.
Alastair Buckley from the University of Sheffield points out the project would be groundbreaking as, unlike other ventures of this kind, it doesn’t rely on subsidies. With solar power getting ever cheaper, Cleve Hill – if it happens – seems to mark the moment when solar may start paying for itself – even far from the world’s deserts.
Imagine is a newsletter from The Conversation that presents a vision of a world acting on climate change. Drawing on the collective wisdom of academics in fields from anthropology and zoology to technology and psychology, it investigates the many ways life on Earth could be made fairer and more fulfilling by taking radical action on climate change. You are currently reading the web version of the newsletter.
CAIRO (Reuters) – Egypt expects the 1.6-gigawatt solar park it is building in the south of the country to be operating at full capacity in 2019, the investment ministry said in a statement on Sunday.
The $2 billion project, set to be the world’s largest solar installation, has been partly funded by the World Bank, which invested $653 million through the International Finance Corporation.
Some parts of the park are already operating on a small scale, while other areas are still undergoing testing.
Egypt aims to meet 20 per cent of its energy needs from renewable sources by 2022 and up to 40 per cent by 2035. Renewable energy currently covers only about 3 per cent of the country’s needs.
“Egypt’s energy sector reforms have opened a wider door for private sector investments,” World Bank President David Malpass said during his visit to the site alongside Egypt’s Investment Minister Sahar Nasr.
Egypt is on a drive to lure back investors who fled following the 2011 uprising with a slew of economic reforms and incentives the government hopes will draw fresh capital and kickstart growth.
Most of the foreign direct investment Egypt attracts goes toward its energy sector.
Reporting by Ehab Farouk; Writing by Nadine Awadalla; Editing by Yousef Saba and Jan Harvey.
Every now and then, the idea of powering Europe using the vast solar resources of the Sahara Desert comes up. Were this to actually happen, we may witness the rise of new energy superpowers in Northern Africa. But a look at the economic and political energy system suggests what’s more likely is the oil-rich countries of the Arabian (or Persian) Gulf will continue to dominate energy trade even in the post-fossil era.
Renewable energy, of course, is very location dependent – the sunnier a place is, the more energy you get out of photovoltaic panels. Over the course of a year, southern Algeria, for example, gets more than twice as much solar energy as southern England. The graph below, which I put together as part of my PhD, shows that some of the best solar resources in the world are indeed found in Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Niger, Chad and Sudan.
So, one could build large Saharan solar farms and then transmit the power back to densely populated areas of Europe. Such a project would need to overcome various technical challenges, but we can say that in theory it is possible, even if not practical.
Yet plans to actually set up mass Saharan solar have floundered. The most notable project, Desertec, was fairly active until the mid 2010s, when a collapse in the price of oil and natural gas made its business case more difficult. At that time, the major technology considered was concentrated solar power, where you use the heat from the sun to run a steam turbine. Energy can be stored as heat overnight, therefore enabling uninterrupted energy supply and making it preferred to then expensive batteries.
Since then, however, the cost of both solar panels and battery storage have dropped drastically. But, while conditions might look favourable for Saharan solar, it is unlikely that new solar energy kingpins will arise in North Africa. Instead, we should look one desert further to the East – the Rub al Khali on the Arabian peninsula, the home of the reigning energy powers.
Sun shines on the Gulf
The economies of the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the other Gulf nations are built around energy exports. And as climate change imposes pressure on the extraction of fossil fuels, these countries will have to look for alternative energy (and income) sources in order to keep their economies afloat. The International Renewable Energy Agency set up its headquarters in Abu Dhabi, and the region has no shortage of ambitious solar projects promising extremely cheap electricity. However only a small amount of capacity has actually been deployed so far. Low oil revenues have not helped with the megaprojects.
Countries in the Sahara also have little history of trading fossil fuels, outside of Libya and Algeria, while things are rather different for the petro-states of the Gulf. And this matters because, in the energy business, worries over longer-term security of supply mean countries tend to trade with the same partners.
This would be the Achilles’ heel of a Northern African energy project: the connections to Europe would likely be the continent’s single most important critical infrastructure and, considering the stability of the region, it is unlikely that European countries would take on such a risk.
Which brings us to an alternative way to transmit energy: hydrogen. A process called electrolysis can use renewable electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen, and the resulting hydrogen can store lots of energy. Soon it will become feasible to move energy around the world in this form, using shipping infrastructure similar to that already in use today for liquefied natural gas.
Sure, there are disadvantages compared to batteries. It would mean introducing two more conversion stages and thus reduced efficiency (30% roundtrip efficiency compared to 80% for batteries), but it would overcome the distance barrier. And perhaps just as importantly: shipping energy by hydrogen would mean no significant change to the existing maritime trade infrastructure, which will hand an advantage to established energy exporters.
If this means the Sahara is unlikely to develop renewable energy superpowers, then perhaps this is for the better. With the booming populations of Sub-Saharan Africa in dire need of electrification, clean solar power might be better used to alleviate the energy crisis in somewhere like Nigeria rather than sent to Europe. While these countries may eventually be able to shake off any solar resource curse, in the short term, exports like these could just look like yet another European attempt to extract natural resources from Africans.