Saudis Eye Solar-Power Exports to Europe

By Pilita Clark

Saudi Arabia may have been the world’s top oil producer for longer than many people have been alive, but now it is turning its sights to a new type of energy to export: solar power.

People in Egypt and even Europe could one day turn on their lights with electricity transmitted from the vast bank of solar power stations that Saudi Arabia aims to build in coming years, according to a senior Saudi official and others familiar with the kingdom’s plans.

“This is a very ambitious programme and a very ambitious plan,” the official said, adding that although it could take some years to achieve, “the potential is really great, the potential is big and we believe Saudi Arabia will be major producers of solar energy”.

The move follows years of growth in Saudi Arabia and others in the oil-rich Gulf region that mean countries are now burning so much of their own oil and gas resources they could become net fuel importers within 20 years unless they find new sources of energy, according to analysts.

Saudi Arabia has already said it wants to spur more than $100bn of investment in renewable electricity, mostly solar power.

Qatar, host of this week’s global climate talks and the world’s leading liquefied natural gas exporter, is also eyeing what one senior government official said could be the export of electricity from all six countries in the Gulf Co-operation Council regional group, thanks to a recent upgrade to the region’s power grid interconnections.

“The potential goes beyond that to see the GCC connecting to Egypt and then Europe given the amount of solar hours that we have,” said Fahad bin Mohammed al-Attiya, chairman of Qatar’s National Food Security Programme, which is helping develop Qatar’s solar industry.

“Let me compare it to something: cloud computing,” he said. “I see the future where power generation could be anywhere and people just get their electricity from places simply because grids are being integrated.”

Mr al-Attiya said meeting growing domestic electricity needs would be the region’s first priority. But eventually he saw the GCC “following in the footsteps of Desertec”, an initiative that envisages deserts such as those in north Africa transmitting electricity from advanced solar-power stations to cooler regions such as Europe.

Connecting the Gulf’s grid to Desertec is what Saudi Arabian officials have also been discussing in recent months, said Adnan Amin, head of the International Renewable Energy Agency, based in Abu Dhabi.

“They started thinking they have the possibility of connecting the grid quite easily to Egypt, and if you get the connection to Egypt then you can connect to the North African grid and if that’s connected into Europe, you have a motorway for renewable energy,” he said.

“We’ve had a discussion about it and I think for them if they do go to scale on renewables it makes eminent sense they will be starting to think about outlets and the most feasible outlet is that.”

“Europe has a tremendous need to source renewable energy to meet its emissions targets and its renewable energy targets and would be very open to importing competitively priced renewable energy,” he added.

Saudi Arabia’s traditional dependence on fossil fuels – and its reputation as an obstructive force in global climate talks – make some sceptical about whether its solar plans will ever be implemented. Formidable technical challenges would also need to be overcome to hook up power grids over the vast distances between the Gulf and north Africa, let alone further to Europe.

But Mr Amin says he believes Saudi Arabia’s plans to install as much as 41 gigawatts of renewable energy generating capacity could make exporting solar power possible.

“I think they would be in a position in 15 years to be able to export substantial amounts,” he said, adding that people backing the policy in Saudi Arabia saw the prospect of selling power abroad as a “serious business opportunity” that could offset the costs of deploying such large amounts of new generating infrastructure.

The country already had sophisticated equipment that allowed dust and humidity to be tracked so solar plants could be located at the best sites.

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