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How solar energy is contributing to the energy transition in Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf States

DUBAI: The Gulf States are accelerating the transition to renewable energy by launching ambitious infrastructure projects aimed at reducing their dependence on oil and gas to meet domestic energy needs.

Some of these projects will allow Saudi Arabia to increase its total solar power capacity by nearly 40 gigawatts by 2025 from the current 455 megawatts. Specific development plans in the Kingdom include the NEOM smart city, which will include a $5 billion hydrogen plant, and the Red Sea project, which will have the capacity to generate 400MW of solar power and host the largest off-grid energy in the world. storage project to date.

“Saudi Arabia is making notable progress in its clean energy development and emission reduction projects,” Denisa Fainis, secretary general of the Middle East Solar Industry Association, told Arab News.

“Climate action will go hand in hand with continued strong demand for fossil fuels. As the world’s largest oil exporter, more than half of Saudi Arabia’s revenue comes from its fossil fuel sector. »

Solar panels at the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology. (Reuters/File photo)

The latest MESIA report, released in January, listed Saudi Arabia as one of the “booming markets for the renewable energy sector, bringing more investors and developers into huge projects than any other.” “. He said improvements in regulatory frameworks have helped the country position itself among a group of nations leading the clean energy revolution.

The Kingdom’s $500 billion NEOM megaproject will play a key role in efforts to diversify the Saudi economy while relying exclusively on clean energy resources. It is estimated that NEOM will need 20-40 GW of solar and wind capacity to meet its energy needs when it becomes operational in 2025.

Kingdom authorities are planning several other projects in areas such as the Red Sea, Medina, Qurayyat, Jeddah and Wadi Al-Dawasir to help achieve the national goal of net zero emissions by 2060.

Elsewhere in the region, the 800 MW Al-Kharsaah solar project in Qatar is expected to be operational by mid-2022. In the United Arab Emirates, the 5,000 MW Mohammed Bin Rashid Solar Park in Dubai and the Al-Dhafra Solar Project, which will have a capacity of 2,000 MW, will be commissioned in stages by 2030.

Authorities in Iraq, Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia have launched similar projects in the development or tender phase.

Significantly, many countries in the region see the energy transition as an opportunity for economic growth and job creation, including the potential for local manufacturing of solar energy components.

Saudis work at a solar panel factory in Uyayna, north of Riyadh. (AFP/file photo)

The Gulf region obviously enjoys a geographical advantage in the solar energy sector, thanks to abundant sunshine and its proximity to Africa, Europe and other countries in the Middle East, which makes it positioned to become a long-term energy exporter.

“By harnessing photovoltaic energy from the largest source in the universe and providing access to electricity to areas that still depend on fossil fuels, we can reduce carbon emissions, reduce operating costs and maintenance of businesses and improving air quality, while continuing to develop in the will provide jobs for generations to come,” said Fainis.

In the five years since announcing their Vision 2030 economic reform program, Saudi authorities have moved quickly with plans to develop the renewable energy sector. The Kingdom has set a target to generate half of its electricity needs from renewable sources by 2030, or 60 GW from solar and other forms of clean energy.

Saudi Arabia also plans to increase sustainability through adopting a circular carbon economy approach, a massive tree-planting campaign, reducing carbon emissions by more than four percent of contributions global policies and measures to combat pollution and land degradation.

The country also plans to issue its first green bond early this year that respects environmental, social and governance concerns. These bonds will become one of the main funding channels for the future of the Kingdom.

As part of Vision 2030, the Ministry of Energy is constructing two renewable energy power plants, with a capacity of 600 MW, in the third industrial city of Jeddah and the industrial city of Rabigh. The projects are implemented through MODON, the Saudi Authority for Industrial Cities and Technological Zones.

The Gulf States are accelerating the transition to renewable energy by launching ambitious infrastructure projects aimed at reducing their dependence on oil and gas. (AFP/file photo)

Meanwhile, a Red Sea battery storage project will help ensure that the new resort destination taking shape along the Kingdom’s west coast is powered entirely by renewable energy, and the Kingdom also plans to establish 23 solar panel factories in 12 industrial cities. At the end of last year, the largest solar power plant in the region, with a production capacity of up to 1.2 GW, was inaugurated in Tabuk.

Saudi Arabia’s successes and ambitious plans are indicative of a broader trend. According to MESIA, solar capacity in the Middle East and North Africa region has the potential to reach up to 8,309 MW this year as the region adds more renewable energy projects to reach individual national goals and transition strategies.

“There is a massive expansion that can be anticipated over the next decade for the MENA region, (which is) particularly attractive for solar investment because the region has some of the highest solar irradiance levels in the world,” Fainis said.

In addition to production, she believes the Arab region could also take the lead in storage solutions, which is another untapped area.

Countries like Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, United Arab Emirates, Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia are also rapidly adopting the use of new technologies in the energy sector. renewables, including artificial intelligence systems. According to MESIA, the Saudi smart grid market is expected to reach $3.6 billion by 2030. Indeed, NEOM is expected to be powered entirely by AI-controlled solutions that use 100% renewable energy.

“Globally, the MENA region has an ideal combination of large usable land areas for solar PV power plants and high solar irradiation levels to maximize power generation from solar energy,” MESIA said in its report. in January.

Solar and wind power aren’t the only renewables that are attracting a wave of investment. Green hydrogen is seen as an important emerging player in the energy mix as part of the process to achieve net zero targets set by regional governments, particularly in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

The capacity of the world’s largest solar PV power plant under a single contract, which will be located in Sudair Industrial City in northern Saudi Arabia, will be 1,500 MW. (Provided)

All of these projects will be essential to efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change in a region where the damage it is causing is tangible.

Mercedes Maroto-Valer, director of the Research Center for Carbon Solutions at Heriot-Watt University in Dubai and director of the UK Industrial Decarbonization Research and Innovation Centre, warned that the climate situation in the region is getting worse.

“Temperatures have also increased, with the highest regional temperature so far recorded in Mitribah in Kuwait at 54C,” she told Arab News.

However, with the development of new technologies and the ambitious national targets agreed at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow last November, there is still hope for a more sustainable future.

Fainis believes that the MENA region needs to develop a local supply chain for equipment and training programs for the local workforce, build capacity for technology transfer and continue to attract foreign investment.

“As the population grows, the demand for electricity will reach unprecedented heights,” she said. “Whether through energy auditors or regulators’ initiatives, countries will need to adapt to growing energy needs.”

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