Saudi Arabia Bets On A Solar Future

This week Saudi Arabia signaled it would use its oil riches to invest in a renewable future as it announced a gargantuan solar project.

Modern Saudi Arabia has been built on the back of petroleum — an ancient solar resource that has been stored for millions of years underneath the kingdom. The Ghawar oilfield is the largest conventional oilfield in the world, and Saudi Arabia has produced more oil over the past 20 years than any other country.

The world is still heavily dependent upon Saudi Arabia’s oil, but it has been calculated that all of the world’s energy needs could be met with solar panels on just 1.2% of the Sahara Desert. A map depicting global solar power resources shows the reason. There is no greater solar resource on the planet than a broad swath extending from the Sahara Desert of North Africa and into northwestern Saudi Arabia.

World solar insolation map.

Given its solar endowment, Saudi Arabia has been looking to the future. The kingdom recently announced that it would invest up to $7 billion this year to develop seven solar plants and a wind farm.

Now, in addition to the largest oilfield, Saudi Arabia plans to have the world’s largest solar plant. This week, Japanese multinational conglomerate SoftBank and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman signed a memorandum of understanding for the massive project.

The scale is unprecedented. The $200 billion project would produce 200 gigawatts of solar photovoltaic power. The project would create an estimated 100,000 jobs but would take more than a decade to complete.

To put the project’s scale into perspective, U.S. solar PV capacity at the end of 2016 stood at 40 GW. The world’s entire installed solar PV capacity at the end of 2016 was 300 GW.  This plant would be 130 times larger than the world’s current largest solar plant, the 1,547 megawatt (MW) Tengger Desert Solar Park in China.

Given Saudi Arabia’s fossil fuel past, this project is also hugely symbolic. It indicates a country making a strong commitment to a different kind of energy future. It is also an indication that as the oil runs out, Saudi Arabia will remain one of the world’s vital energy producers.

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4 thoughts on “Saudi Arabia Bets On A Solar Future”

  1. Maybe I should keep the 3 acres east of LA in desert sun? Solar is going in this region.

    The oil supply industry shouldn’t hold out for future gain. Meaning drill baby drill.

  2. So they generate 200 gigawatts during the day and nothing at night. Could Saudi Arabia be a huge battery market too?

  3. Seems like Saudi Arabia has been talking about getting big into solar for years. I suppose a memorandum of understanding is a small step forward. Detailed plans with a contract would be better. And to some extent, with talk and no action for years there, I no longer believe is until they actually start construction.

  4. The Saudis also just announced a multi-billion-dollar expansion of its Motiva refinery complex in Texas to produce not fuels, but petrochemicals.
    We’ll still need plastics and fertilizers after we’re all driving around in electric cars.

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