Saudi Arabia going solar?

By James Maynard , May 31, 2013 04:40 PM EDT

Saudi Arabia may seem like the last place to find a vibrant drive toward renewable electricity, but the green-energy industry in that country is getting a new lease on life. This is driven in part by fear of an economic collapse and the long-term survival of their people.

The population of Saudi Arabia is young, and their consumption of electricity could make the nation a net importer of oil within 20 years. The nation is also dependent on electricity for the production of that most basic of all life's needs - water. Being a desert country means that there are few fresh-water resources available, and desalinating water requires large amounts of electricity that could otherwise be exported. The Persian Gulf region and the Red Sea have the saltiest water in the world, according to the National Weather Service.

With their economy dependent on oil exports, and having to provide water to its 27.5 million people, Saudi Arabia is facing a tremendous need to produce electricity using means that do not require consuming oil.

"Renewable energy isn't just an option, but absolutely necessary. We have the means to build renewable energy, and we need to do it," Wael Bamhair, a Saudi engineer working on the project said.

Solar and wind power could produce enough electricity for the nation's needs, but the country has a long way to go. Although bathed in sunlight, Saudi Arabia currently only produces about 12 megawatts (MW) of electricity nationwide through the use of solar panels. Famously dreary Britain installed more solar-generated power than that in early May alone.

The wind and solar industries in Saudi Arabia are hampered by cheap and easy accessibility to oil and gas. That may not last forever. Their societal needs, combined with a decrease in the costs of manufacturing and maintaining solar-power stations, means the Arabic country is likely heading for a future filled with renewable electricity.

In February, the King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy (KA CARE) issued a research paper on the future of renewable energy in the nation, predicting a prosperous future for solar and wind power. KA CARE set a goal of producing seven gigawatts (GW) of electricity through renewable means within the next few years. Future targets are nearly 24 GW by 2020 and 54 GW of renewable energy production 12 years later. To meet these goals, nine Saudi engineers, including Bamhair, took part in a nine-day conference with U.S. Department of Energy officials to study possible methods of meeting those goals.

"Saudi Arabia is determined to diversify its energy sources and reduce its dependence on hydrocarbons," Bamhair said.

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