Saudi Arabia’s Path Toward Solar Energy

Jonathan Gornall

AFP Photo

November was not a good month for the planet. On November 26, the UN Environment Program warned that the world was failing to curb carbon emissions quickly enough. Even if all current commitments under the Paris Agreement to limit warming to 1.5 degrees centigrade were met, “temperatures can be expected to rise to 3.2°C this century.” We must, declared UNEP in its annual Emissions Gap report, “close the ‘commitment’ gap between what we say we will do and what we need to do.” Governments, it added, “cannot afford to wait. Economies must shift to a decarbonization pathway now.”

The following day, a group of international scientists warned in the journal Nature that the world may already have passed beyond the point of no return, citing nine “tipping point” clues, ranging from increasingly frequent droughts in the Amazon rainforest to the loss of ice in the Arctic, Antarctic and Greenland, “potentially committing the world to long-term irreversible changes.”

UNEP, on the other hand, held out a lifeline – and it’s one that fossil-fuel energy giant Saudi Arabia is in the throes of grasping. Only “a vast expansion of renewable electricity generation” can hope to arrest the planet’s descent into disaster, says UNEP. And this is “an easy win” because the necessary technology exists.

According to a new report from the International Energy Agency, offshore windfarms alone could generate more electricity than the world needs: 36,000 terawatt hours a year compared with current global demand of 23,000 TWh.

In 2018 the world added a record but meagre 108 gigawatts of solar power and 50 GW driven by wind – a small but significant start. In 2018 only 12.9 percent of global electricity was generated by wind or solar technology and, says UNEP, “renewables need to grow six times faster.”

Nowhere is that more true than in the Middle East where, despite ample supplies of wind and sunshine, in 2018 only 0.3 percent of energy came from renewables, compared with 40.2 percent in Asia-Pacific, 30.7 percent in Europe and 21.2 percent in North America.

In 2018 Saudi Arabia generated precisely no electricity from wind power and only a wholly insignificant 0.2 TWh of power from solar – a tiny fraction of the 383 TWh consumed by the kingdom that year. That, however, is about to change – and where fossil-fuel giant Saudi Arabia leads, others will surely follow.

In 2016 Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 development blueprint recognized that “the kingdom’s impressive natural potential for solar and wind power generation remains largely untapped” and pledged to generate 9.5 GW of renewable energy by 2030. That modest ambition has already been improved upon. As the country focuses  increasingly on diversifying its economy away from reliance on fossil fuels, it has set its green sights higher. Now the target is 27.3 GW of renewable energy capacity by 2024 and 58.7 GW by 2030. Saudi Arabia is moving fast.

One of the first major projects is Saudi Arabia’s inaugural and the Middle East’s largest windfarm – a $500 million, 415 MW cluster of 99 turbines at Dumat Al Jandal in the northern region of Al-Jouf, 900 km northwest of Riyadh.

The contract to build it was won only in January by French energy firm EDF Renewables and Abu Dhabi’s Masdar. The windfarm could be supplying electricity to the national grid by the spring of 2022, creating hundreds of jobs in the process and saving more than 800,000 barrels of oil-equivalent fossil fuels a year.

On November 27, the same day Nature published its dire warning, a 300 MW photovoltaic solar powerplant at nearby Sakaka was connected to the grid for the first time. It will soon be supplying clean energy to 45,000 homes, saving 500 tons of carbon dioxide a year.

Much more is in the pipeline, including plans to develop 30 solar energy parks and five more windfarms across the country by 2030.

The wind of change may also be blowing through the energy policies of other Gulf states. Masdar, a world leader in windfarms with invaluable experience in developing major projects in countries including the UK, the Seychelles and Serbia, has been slow to exploit the regional potential. That is now changing.

In addition to its role at Dumat Al Jandal, it has developed the 50MW Dofar windfarm in Oman, the first large-scale wind project in the GCC region to go online. The first of the 13 turbines was connected to the grid in August and the rest will follow before the end of the year, supplying 16,000 homes.

As the scientists writing in Nature warned, the reaction time to achieve net zero emissions “is 30 years at best” and, while the rate at which damage accumulates “could still be under our control to some extent … the stability and resilience of our planet is in peril. International action — not just words — must reflect this.”

Equipped with the motivation and the funds to carry out bold renewable energy projects, Saudi Arabia has shown it can act fast. It is, after all, less than three years since the very first wind turbine was installed in the kingdom – tellingly, to supply 2.75MW of electricity to a facility in Turaif belonging to Saudi Aramco, the world’s largest oil and gas company.

The only question now is whether the kingdom can move quickly enough to exploit the sun and wind at its disposal, helping to secure a bright post-oil future for the region, and the world.

Jonathan Gornall is a British journalist, formerly with The Times, who has lived and worked in the Middle East and is now based in the UK.