Ultimate petrostate looks to solar power

June 30, 2015

Fossil-fuel and solar advocates seldom see eye-to-eye. Just today on the opinion page of my local newspaper, writers representing the incumbent energy providers are taking issue with solar energy providers’ reliance on net metering. So it might be surprising that Saudi Arabia is preparing to invest heavily in solar power.

As Jeffrey Ball reports in the Atlantic, the country is at work building a polysilicon factory as well as a commercial-scale solar-panel factory. And Saudi Aramco, the huge oil producer, is teaming up with the Saudi Electric Co. to build 10 solar projects.

Ball notes that Saudi consumers can buy gasoline for 50 cents per gallon and electricity for about 1 cent per kW-hr, which it has generated by burning oil. So why the Saudi rulers’ interest in solar?

Writes Ball, “Their motivation isn’t concern about global warming; the last thing they want is an end to the fossil-fuel era. Quite the contrary: they see investing in solar energy as a way to remain a global oil power.”

Ball reports that the Saudis burn about a quarter of the oil they produce and usage is growing about 7% per year. At the current rate, the country would have nothing to sell and in fact could be a net oil importer by 2038. Well before that point, domestic consumption could affect the rulers’ ability to influence worldwide oil prices.

“Solar, they have decided, is an obvious alternative,” writes Ball. “In addition to having some of the world’s richest oil fields, Saudi Arabia also has some of the world’s most intense sunlight.” And not only that—the kingdom intends to export solar panels in an effort to create high-paying jobs for a growing population of young people.

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