Saudis determined to be leaders in renewable energy

A large solar panel at the Saudi government research lab in Al Uyayna.
A large solar panel at the Saudi government research lab in Al Uyayna.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Quest includes plans for world's largest solar power project

AL UYAYNA • Saudi engineers whip up a simulated sandstorm to test a solar panel's durability in a lab, the heart of the oil-rich kingdom's multi-billion 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 research 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 world's biggest solar power project for US$200 billion (S$262 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 pact announced in the US was greeted with determination at the laboratory.

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

"... we have all the raw materials - sunshine, land and, most importantly, the will," he said, during a tour of the facility.

Engineers were 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.

The site, which includes a solar field that supplies electricity to neighbouring villages, was set up 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 now draws on oil and natural gas to meet its own growing power demand and desalinate its water, consuming about 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 gigawatts of power," said Dr Ellen Wald, a scholar at pro-Saudi think-tank Arabia Foundation.

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 Mr 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 in a single country. The consensus view is that the 200 gigawatt figure is excessive."

Mr 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.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia also harbours atomic ambitions, with plans to build 16 reactors over the next two decades for US$80 billion.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 04, 2018, with the headline 'Saudis determined to be leaders in renewable energy'. Print Edition | Subscribe