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The challenge of solar in Saudi Arabia

Posting in Energy

Saudi Arabia, the world's largest crude oil exporter, has completed its biggest ground-mounted photovoltaic solar plant, an installation that presented unconventional challenges like sand storms.

The 3.5-megawatt plant located in Riyadh doesn't come close to the some of the world's biggest solar farms, many of which have generating capacity of 100 MW and more. But it's substantial for Saudi Arabia, which launched an ambitious multi-billion-dollar plan last year to create an industry around one of its most abundant resources, the sun.

The new power plant includes more than 12,000 Suntech Power crystalline modules located at the King Abdullah Petroleum Studies and Research Center or KAPSARC, which is described as the world's largest oil research facility. The solar power system is owned by state oil company Saudi Aramco. KAPSARC initiated the solar power plant installation in an order to achieve the US Green Building Council's LEED certification.

Solar power plants have been built in harsh desert climates before. The Mojave desert in California is home to several projects.

Still, the sand storms and high temps required special accommodations. Developer Phoenix Solar placed the photovoltaic array boxes, which normally stand in the field array, in a well-insulated, air-conditioned inverter building. You can see this building in the photo above.

Saudi Arabia still has a long way to go to meet its goal of installing 41 gigawatts (that's 41,000 MW) of solar power over the next two decades. The country, which is using an increasing amount of the crude it produces to run desalination and power plants, has little choice but to pursue other sources of energy.

As I've noted before, the majority of Saudi Arabia’s fresh water comes from desalination, the process that turns saltwater into a drinkable supply. Millions of barrels of oil are used every day to power those desal plants. As a result, the price of desalinated water rises with the price of crude. With demand for electricity and fresh water increasing, Saudi Arabia is seeking out other sources of power including solar, geothermal, wind and nuclear.

Photo: Phoenix Solar AG

— By on February 5, 2013, 7:42 AM PST

Kirsten Korosec

Contributing Editor

Kirsten Korosec has written for Technology Review, Marketing News, The Hill, BNET and Bloomberg News. She holds a degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. She is based in Tucson, Arizona. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure