The Odd Solar Power Plan Of Saudi Arabia

Modified Time:

6/25/2012 12:00:00 AM


Saudi Arabia is known for many things. Renewable energy is not one of them. Considering it is swimming in oil, the announcement by the country that it intends to launch a hugely ambitious domestic solar power generation initiative is a head scratcher. 

The Plan

The Saudi plan apparently calls for investing a cool $109 billion into domestic solar energy production. The goal is to produce a staggering 41,000 megawatts of electricity through the plan. The time period from announcement to completion is 20 years. This may seem a long period of time, but keep in mind they have more or less just come up with the idea.

Perfect Location

It is hard to imagine a location that would be better for solar energy production. The Arabian Peninsula is bathed in sun for nearly the entire year. With vast open spaces in Saudi Arabia, the powers that be can build huge solar power farms without a care in the world. There will be technical issues to overcome because, well, there always are, but it could turn out to be a massive accomplishment. 

The Conspiracy

Conspiracy groups are already starting to bleat regarding the Saudis move to solar power. In truth, they raise a very credible question – why would a country with massive amounts of oil start turning to solar power? One could suggest the Saudis are trying to be good neighbors from an environmental perspective, but they haven't exactly indicated they will be reducing their oil production and exports. Put another way, they haven't gone green by any stretch of the imagination.

The second immediate thought, of course, is that the peak oil commentators and the late Matt Simmons may be on to something. Simmons was an investment banker in the oil industry who did extensive investigations into how much oil the Saudis really had left. He concluded they were lying about their reserves and actually would be unable to maintain production levels in the near future when he published his "Twilight In The Desert" book a few years back. In fact, he predicted they would start seeing problems…right about now. 

Then he suddenly died in a hot tub under odd circumstances. Hmmm…

Mundane Truth?

I love a good conspiracy theory, but I think there may be a simpler answer in this case. While the country pumps the black gold with abandon, it is actually a poor fuel for electricity production. Gas is better, but the Saudis do not have the refinery capacity to convert enough oil into gas. This is true for many oil producing countries in OPEC. They often sell their oil to countries with refining capacity and then have to buy back gasoline made from the oil. It is just one more of those quirks in modern life that make you wonder how it is society functions as well as it does.

With a population that is booming, the country has to find a solution for its domestic energy needs. 41,000 megawatts of solar energy would account for about 25 percent of what it needs over the next 100 years. With all that barren desert out there, it seems like a natural match. 

Can the Saudis become the, well, Saudis of solar power? No. That being said, they can go a long way to addressing their domestic energy needs if they follow through on this plan. All indications are they are very serious about doing so. 

How ironic. 

The Saudis will produce more of their electricity from solar power than practically any country in the world with the exception of perhaps the Germans.

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