Oil to solar: Saudis push to be renewable energy powerhouse



A general view shows the solar plant in Uyayna, north of Riyadh, on March 29th. On March 27th, Saudi announced a deal with Japan's SoftBank to build the world's biggest solar plant. [Fayez Nureldine/AFP]

Saudi engineers whip up a simulated sandstorm to test a solar panel's durability at a research lab, the heart of the oil-rich kingdom's multibillion dollar quest to be a renewable energy powerhouse.

The world's top exporter of crude seems an unlikely champion of clean energy, but the government lab in al-Uyayna, a sun-drenched village near Riyadh, is leading the country's efforts for solar power as it seeks to diversify.

A dazzling spotlight was shone on those ambitions last week when Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman unveiled plans to develop the globe's biggest solar power project for $200 billion in partnership with Japan's SoftBank group.

The memorandum of understanding to produce up to 200 gigawatts of power by 2030 — about 100 times the capacity of the current biggest projects — was the latest jaw-dropping statement as the Saudis look to wean themselves off oil.

If built on one site, the solar farm would cover an area twice the size of Hong Kong, according to a Bloomberg News calculation.

While the scale of the plan has stirred some disbelief — the agreement announced in the US was greeted with determination at the laboratory.

"We can do it," said Adel al-Sheheween, director of the solar laboratory under the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology.

"This may take time, but we have all the raw materials — sunshine, land and most importantly, the will," he added, giving AFP a tour of the facility widely known as Solar Village.

Engineers were working away testing solar panels under harsh conditions.

A miniature sandstorm inside a cylindrical chamber battered one panel. A machine with what appeared to be a large boxing glove punched another.

'Exporter of gigawatts'

The site, which also includes a solar field that supplies electricity to neighbouring villages, was established some three decades ago.

But the push for renewables only now appears to be gaining momentum.

It is driven by a key incentive — to free up more oil reserves for export, the kingdom's chief revenue earner.

Saudi Arabia currently draws on oil and natural gas to both meet its own fast-growing power demand and desalinate its water, consuming an estimated 3.4 million barrels of oil daily.

That number is expected to rise to 8.3 million barrels in 10 years, according to the King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy, eating up the bulk of Saudi Arabia's crude production.

"Saudi Arabia has long had a vision for becoming... an exporter of oil and of gigawatts of power," said Ellen Wald, a scholar at think tank Arabia Foundation and author of the book "Saudi Inc".

"That vision requires solar power installations of a massive scale. My understanding is the project will be rolled out in pieces and not as one giant plant."

But the sheer scope of the project, which aims to produce well above the kingdom's own projected requirement of 120 gigawatts by 2032, has prompted scepticism.

"Although Saudi Arabia has more than enough vacant, non-arable desert land... (it) really does not need so much solar power," said Bart Lucarelli, a managing director for power and utilities at advisory firm AWR Lloyd.

"There has been speculation about whether this amount of new solar capacity can even be built in that time frame within a single country. The consensus view is that the 200 gigawatt figure is excessive."

Lucarelli said Saudi Arabia instead "needs a balance" between renewables and fossil fuels -- and pointed out that the solar memorandum is non-binding for now.

To handle the amount of power the project envisions, experts say the kingdom would require huge investments to upgrade its grid and set up large-scale battery storage facilities.

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May God be with you, heroes! We'll always support you, God willing!


When citizens have three essential things in a clear and express way, which are health, education and justice, this will produce strong and stable citizens in all respects and make them a strong pillar that can be relied on.


Countries engaged in giant projects, like Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Gulf countries and other countries walking in their footsteps, must work on developing their citizens and preparing them to keep up with advances in sciences, and in all other aspects of life, whether art, technology, economy, etc. so citizens can, and thus the state itself, work and manage these projects without need for any foreign assistance or consultation, and so they can develop, solve problems and be creative, and so the state can move up to the highest levels without any need for any foreign elements in the future. The state must provide for all factors and facilities to produce this generation and to continuously work on improving levels. The aim is to have a state that can find itself at any given time capable of fully depending on its citizens, rather than a state where citizens depend on it in meeting their needs. At that time, the state will find itself capable of providing all sources of luxury and easy life following the lines of what some advanced countries do to their citizens, including luxury, prosperity and without need for other countries.