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

DUBAI: The Gulf countries are accelerating their transition to renewable energy by launching ambitious infrastructure projects aimed at reducing their dependence on oil and gas in order to meet national energy needs.

Some of these projects will allow Saudi Arabia to increase its total solar power capacity by almost 40 gigawatts by 2025, up from 455 megawatts currently. Kingdom-specific development projects include the NEOM smart city, which will include a $5 billion hydrogen plant, and the Red Sea (Mer Rouge) project, which will have the capacity to generate 400 MW solar power plant and will host the world’s largest off-grid energy storage project to date.

Denisa Fainis, Secretary General of the Middle East Solar Industry Association (MESIA), told Arab News that “Saudi Arabia is making remarkable progress on its clean energy development and emission reduction projects.”

Fainis also signaled that “climate action will go hand in hand with addressing the still high demand for fossil fuels. Since the Kingdom is the world’s largest oil exporter, more than half of the country’s revenue comes from the fossil fuel sector.

Solar panels at the King Abdelaziz City of Science and Technology. (Picture, Reuters/Archive)

The latest MESIA report, released in January, ranked Saudi Arabia as one of the “booming global markets in the renewable energy sector, driving more investors and developers to participate in major projects than any other country”. He revealed that improvements in regulatory frameworks have helped the country position itself among the 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 based solely on clean energy resources. It is estimated that the future city of NEOM will need 20-40 GW of solar and wind power capacity to meet its energy needs when it becomes operational in 2025.

Saudi authorities plan to launch several other projects in areas including the Red Sea, Medina, Qurayyat, Jeddah and Wadi Al-Dawasir, in order to 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 2,000 MW Al-Dhafra Solar Project will be commissioned in stages by 2030.

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 Ben 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 which are in the development or tender phase.

It should be noted that many countries in the region see the energy transition as an opportunity for economic growth and job creation, including the possibility of locally manufacturing solar energy components.

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 makes it possible to become a long-term exporter of solar energy.

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

“By capturing photovoltaic energy from the largest source in the universe and providing electricity to regions that still depend on fossil fuels, we can reduce carbon emissions, operating and maintenance costs of businesses and improve air quality. In addition, further development of the sector will create jobs for generations to come,” explained Fainis.

In the five years since announcing their Vision 2030 economic reform program, Saudi authorities have rapidly implemented renewable energy sector development projects. The Kingdom has set a target to generate half of its electricity needs from renewable sources by 2030, or 60 GW from solar power, as well as other forms of clean energy.

The Kingdom also plans to increase sustainability by adopting a circular carbon economy approach, a massive tree-planting campaign, reducing carbon emissions by more than 4% of global contributions, as well as through measures to combat pollution and soil 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. Both projects are implemented through MODON (cities), the Saudi Authority for Industrial Cities and Technological Zones.

Meanwhile, a Red Sea battery storage project will help ensure that the new resort destination emerging along the Kingdom’s western coastline is powered entirely by renewable energy. The Kingdom also plans to build 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.

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

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 could reach 8,309 MW this year as the region adds more renewable energy projects to meet individual national targets and development strategies. transition.

“Massive expansion can be expected over the next decade in the MENA region, which is particularly attractive for solar energy investment, as the region has some of the highest solar irradiance levels in the world. Fainis said.

Apart from production, she believes that the Arab region could also take the lead in storage solutions, which is another untapped area.

Countries such as Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, United Arab Emirates, Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia are rapidly opting for 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 be worth $3.6 billion by 2030. Indeed, NEOM is expected to be powered entirely by AI-controlled solutions using 100% renewable energy.

In its January report, MESIA asserted that “generally, the MENA region presents an ideal set of large usable areas for solar photovoltaic power plants and high solar irradiation levels allowing it to maximize energy production at from solar energy.

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

All of these projects will no doubt be essential to efforts to reduce the effects of climate change in a region where the damage it causes is real.

The capacity of the world’s largest solar photovoltaic power plant under a single contract, which will be located in the Sudair industrial zone in northern Saudi Arabia, will be 1,500 MW. (Photo provided)

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

She said to Arab News that “temperatures are also on the rise, with the highest regional temperature to date recorded in Mitribah, Kuwait, at 54°C.”

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 create a local supply chain for equipment and local workforce training programs, build capacity in technology transfer and continue to attract foreign investment.

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

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