Why Did the Saudis Just Go Big in Solar? Oil Prices.

Saudi solar oil prices
Saudi Arabia will save an estimated 690,000 barrels of oil a day by investing in renewables.

Wonder just why Saudi Arabia finally got serious about solar with a $109 billion plan to solar-power a third of the Kingdom? I did. After all, for a long time, while its greener neighbors have been adding thousands of megawatts of clean climate-friendly power, the kingdom has ignored its solar potential. It has next to nothing installed, 50 MW.

What changed? Oil prices are high. With rapidly growing electricity demand, Saudi Arabia is the largest oil consumer in the Middle East.

The kingdom uses crude oil to keep the lights on, the A/C humming.

It also must turn its only water supply, seawater, into water that is drinkable or bathed in, and desalination takes a lot of electricity.

“At world market prices, solar is competitive if you use crude oil to generate electricity,” Maher al-Odan, a senior consultant at King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Research (KA-CARE) told Reuters

The Saudis have no coal or natural gas.

An average of 700,000 barrels a day of crude were used in Saudi power stations during the peak air-conditioning demand period from May to September last year.

KA-CARE, which was set up to plan Saudi Arabia’s new energy mix – and has moved aggressively to switch the kingdom to renewables – said the kingdom could be taking bids in the first quarter of next year for the first of these solar projects.

The first projects will have a combined capacity of 3 GW, about half each from PV (photovoltaic solar panels like on houses) and half from CSP (concentrated solar power) using a variety of solar thermal technologies that run like a traditional thermal plant in the back end but use sunlight in various ways to generate that steam, rather than burning fossil fuels.

PV might seem a counterintuitive choice for the region, where most of the major projects next door are in CSP solar thermal technologies, because PV can lose as much as 15 percent at the very high temperatures found in the region.

“We have losses due to high temperatures and so on,” Odan  in an interview, compared with European nations like world leader Germany.

“But what we gain from high radiation (from increased sunshine) more than compensates for the loss of efficiency.”

Saudi Arabia has invested in its own manufacture of polysilicon, which is refined from its equally abundant sand and is the raw material from which solar panels are made.

What has changed is that solar PV has become a better deal, purely economically.

Arab News reported that the $109 billion investment in renewable energy projects in Saudi Arabia will save some 690,000 barrels of oil every day if completed.

“PV is highly competitive now,” says Robin Mills, head of Manaar Energy Consulting,” against oil and against the higher cost gas the Saudis have available.”

Image of Arabian lady at home from Shutterstock

Read more on solar energy:
Interview: SolarReserve For the MENA Region?
Saudis Could Export Solar for the Next Twenty Centuries
Solar to Light Our Nights Gets Hotter


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