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Saudi Arabia hooked on solar power as oil antidote


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The Al Zour substation in Kuwait, one of the key links in the proprosed GCC electricity grid. 
Courtesy: GCC Interconnection Authority

Saudi Arabia feels threatened by the hot air on climate change emanating from "certain" industrialised countries, and is planning a major push to develop solar-powered electricity.

Claiming that international talks on global carbon emissions were stacked against oil producers while letting subsidised coal producers off the hook, the kingdom's top climate negotiator, Mohammed al Sabban, said the discussions posed a "scary" threat to the Saudi economy.

I can just imagine the ironic chorus of "Cry me a river" that must be rising  from the presumably solar- and wind-powered offices of any western environmental lobby groups that have stumbled across this news. Nonetheless, Mr al Sabban has a valid point.

No one has submitted a "burden-sharing agreement" providing equitable treatment to oil exporters and consumers, he said, according to various news agencies.

"Oil is being singled out," Reuters reported him as saying. "We all know that oil is already heavily taxed while coal is enjoying subsidies ... (but) coal is producing more pollution than oil."

"If we are sincere about protecting the climate, we need to adjust that," he added. "Whenever we talk about carbon tax it simply results in a simple gasoline tax, and that adds burden on oil and adds on uncertainties on future demand for oil."

"If any energy product should be hit hard, it should be coal," Mr al Sabban concluded.

While complaining that the kingdom was being unfairly targetted over of its oil production, he also said Saudi Arabia was planning to export solar power and would eschew nuclear energy.

"We are ruling out nuclear energy for now," Mr al Sabban told Bloomberg. "We are joining the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) and we will focus on solar energy as a renewable."

He said the kingdom was investing heavily in solar power.

Helene Pelosse, the secretary general of IRENA, meanwhile, is on record as opposing nuclear development.

If Mr al Sabban's solar investment claim is on target, then Saudi Arabia is charting a significantly different path from its neigbour, the United Arab Emirates, which has launched a civilian nuclear power programme and last month awarded a US$20 billion (Dh73.4bn) contract to a South Korean consortium to build the nation's first four reactors by 2020.

The UAE, which hosts the IRENA secretariat, is developing solar power in a measured way, and so far has no plans to become a net electricity exporter. The Government has announced a plan to require the power sector to generate 7 per cent of the nation's electricity from renewable energy by 2020. 

At the same time, the individual emirates are doing little to dismantle bureaucratic barriers that prevent private owners of small-scale solar installations from selling power to the regional electricity grid or, in most cases, even connecting their panels to the grid. That could make the federation's modest renewable energy target hard to achieve.

Whether Saudi Arabia is in any better position to deliver on its electricity export scheme is also debatable. So far, its investments in solar plants have been small, with the biggest project completed to date being a 2 megawatt solar array at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, which might provide enough power for the medium-sized institution during daylight hours.

In November, however, the Bahrain-based First Energy Bank struck a deal with a local partner to build a $1bn polysilicon plant in the kingdom to supply manufacturers of solar panels.

This week, Saudi Arabia's King Abdulaziz College of Science and Technology announced the first phase of a national drive to develop solar powered water desalination. The ambitious project would use nanotechnology developed at the college.

Nevertheless, with construction of a 100 megawatt solar project soon to start, the UAE is well positioned to beat Saudi Arabia to the punch as the first Gulf country to develop a utility-scale renewable power plant. 

It will be interesting to see if either country succeeds in developing the reliable cross-border grid hook-ups that are needed for any state to provide back-up power to a stricken neighbour, let alone long-term exports. 

The first interconnections aimed at creating a GCC grid were tested last month, linking the national power grids of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain. The UAE and Oman are scheduled to link their grids next year, as a precursor to a comprehensive regional hook-up in 2012

If that project succeeds, it would vastly improve the GCC's unimpressive track record on regional energy co-operation. So far, the only cross-border energy project to bear fruit in the Gulf region has been the undersea pipeline exporting gas from Qatar to Abu Dhabi.

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