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Why Saudi Arabia is pushing solar

Why Saudi Arabia is pushing solar

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Saudi Arabia's renewable energy organization has announced an ambitious $109 billion plan to add enough solar capacity by 2032 to meet 20 percent of the country's power needs.

Saudi Arabia, the world's largest crude oil exporter, is launching an ambitious multi-billion-dollar plan aimed at creating an industry around its other abundant resource, the sun.

Saudi Arabia has a lot of oil. But an increasing amount of that crude is staying in the country where it's used run to desalination and power plants.  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.

The King Adbullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy, the government organization also known as Ka-care that was set up in 2010 to oversee the country's renewable energy strategy, estimates the country's peak electricity demand will hit 121,000 megawatts in the next two decades. Half of that power will be generated using hydrocarbon fuel.

With demand for electricity and fresh water increasing, Saudi Arabia is seeking out other sources of power including solar, geothermal, wind and nuclear. Ka-care announced at the recent Fourth Saudi Solar Energy Forum it plans to add 41 gigawatts of solar capacity --enough to generate a more than 20 percent of the country's power needs -- by 2032. The country's solar strategy aims to save 523,000 barrels of oil equivalent a day, Ka-care's vice president Khalid Al Sulaiman said in a presentation during the solar forum.

The government plans to install about 16 GW of solar photovoltaic power plants. Another 25 GW of capacity would come from concentrated solar plants, which use thousands of mirrors to concentrate the sun onto heating liquid, which creates steam that turn power turbines. The solar PV will meet total day time demand year-round, according the al-Sulaiman's presentation. Nuclear, geothermal and waste-to-energy plants will meet baseload demand up to night and the CSP with storage will meet the maximum demand difference between PV and baseload technologies.

The estimated $109 billion plan isn't just about building solar power plants. Instead, the government wants to build a solar industry, according to al-Sulaiman's presentation. That suggests the country intends to build a supply chain and add its own manufacturing facilities or seek out other established solar panel makers to establish factories there.

Photo: Flickr user zigbphotography, CC 2.0

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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