Saudi Arabia Bets On A Solar Future

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Modern Saudi Arabia has been built on the back of petroleum — an ancient solar resource that has been stored for millions of years underneath the kingdom. The Ghawar oilfield is the largest conventional oilfield in the world, and Saudi Arabia has produced more oil over the past 20 years than any other country.

The world is still heavily dependent upon Saudi Arabia’s oil, but it has been calculated that all of the world’s energy needs could be met with solar panels on just 1.2% of the Sahara Desert. A map depicting global solar power resources shows the reason. There is no greater solar resource on the planet than a broad swath extending from the Sahara Desert of North Africa and into northwestern Saudi Arabia.

OK Solar

World solar insolation map.

Given its solar endowment, Saudi Arabia has been looking to the future. The kingdom recently announced that it would invest up to $7 billion this year to develop seven solar plants and a wind farm.

Now, in addition to the largest oilfield, Saudi Arabia plans to have the world’s largest solar plant. This week, Japanese multinational conglomerate SoftBank and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman signed a memorandum of understanding for the massive project.

The scale is unprecedented. The $200 billion project would produce 200 gigawatts of solar photovoltaic power. The project would create an estimated 100,000 jobs but would take more than a decade to complete.

To put the project’s scale into perspective, U.S. solar PV capacity at the end of 2016 stood at 40 GW. The world’s entire installed solar PV capacity at the end of 2016 was 300 GW.  This plant would be 130 times larger than the world’s current largest solar plant, the 1,547 megawatt (MW) Tengger Desert Solar Park in China.

Given Saudi Arabia’s fossil fuel past, this project is also hugely symbolic. It indicates a country making a strong commitment to a different kind of energy future. It is also an indication that as the oil runs out, Saudi Arabia will remain one of the world’s vital energy producers.

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