x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Solar panels on Saudi island are small step in ambitious project

A Red Sea island that burns diesel for electricity is soon to benefit from solar power. Saudi Arabia is testing out the technology before dropping billions of dollars on major renewable projects.

A Red Sea island off Saudi Arabia is replacing some of the diesel it burns with the sun's energy.

Saudi Electric, the state utility, has finished installing solar panels on Farasan Island near Jeddah and plans to connect them to the grid next month.

The 500-kilowatt array is a small step in a multibillion-dollar plan to free up the oil and gas the kingdom now burns to meet domestic electricity needs, and instead use those fuels for lucrative export or industrial development.

"The sunlight that's available in the region is one of the highest around the world," said Atsuhiko Hirano, a senior vice president at Solar Frontier, the Japanese company that built the panels for Saudi Electric. "The electricity demand matches very well with solar power."

The solar array will eliminate the need for 28,000 barrels of diesel over its lifetime, according to Solar Frontier, which is a subsidiary of Showa Shell Sekiyu. Diesel is now shipped to Farasan to generate power for the popular diving spot.

The government is expected to outline its plan later this year for large-scale renewables and nuclear power. Today the kingdom fuels about half of its power plants with natural gas, with crude oil and oil derivatives supplying the other half.

Saudi Arabia has 52 gigawatts of installed capacity and will need to increase that to 120gw in the next two decades if it is to meet projected demand, said Dr Abdullah al Shehri, the governor of the Electricity & Co-Generation Regulatory Authority.

"We have a good level of solar radiation in the country, and we think it can contribute not only to producing solar energy but also clipping the peak load," said Dr al Shehri.

The kingdom has so far taken a measured pace in developing renewables, testing different types of solar technology rather than leaping into 100 megawatt projects as the UAE is doing. Masdar, Abu Dhabi's clean energy company, is in the process of building a US$700 million (Dh2.57 billion) solar array called Shams 1 and has plans for a second, Nour 1, that could be even bigger.

"We are aware that Masdar has been requesting proposals for the Nour 1 project, and we are keeping a close eye on how we can participate in that," said Mr Hirano. "I'm sure we can expand out of the kingdom and into the region, including North Africa."

Yesterday the Jeddah newspaper Arab Newssaid Saudi Arabia was considering building 16 nuclear reactors in a $300bn programme. King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy, the agency that would be responsible for such a plan, was not available for comment, and electricity officials said they had no knowledge of such a plan.