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Middle Eastern Countries Turning to Solar, Wind, Other Renewables — What Do They Know?

This is a great post from a Facebook friend of mine that I thought was worth a full repost. It was originally published on and has been reposted with permission:

Theoretical space (red) needed for solar power plants to generate enough power to meet world electric demand. Credits: Sandy Dechert, from Wikimedia Commons (German Center of Aerospace, 2005)

Why do Americans continue pursuing hazardous deepwater oil and fracked gas, when the Middle Eastern members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) are pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into power from the sun and other renewable sources?

The situation at first seems to make no sense. With almost 60% of the world’s oil reserves, these countries literally have power to burn. However, it is true, and the United States has a major lesson to learn from it.

Saudi Arabia’s oil minister, Ali al-Naimi, told an audience in Poland last year that “Saudi Arabia is blessed with an abundance of sunshine,” making “solar energy a natural, logical focus.” But don’t imagine for one second that the governments of the Middle East are moving toward solar just because they have seen the light about environmental pollution or climate change. The New York Timescites several experts as comparing the growing Arab interest in domestic renewable energy use to a “Don’t get high off your own supply” crack-dealer ethic.

“I see renewable energy sources as…helping to prolong our continued export of crude oil,” Ali al-Naimi, quoted in The Wall Street Journal, elaborated more recently. In other words, petroleum producers in the region are turning to solar to increase their profits from, and the longevity of, the sale of their abundant reserves of oil and gas.

Rather than using conventional flat-panel solar cells, which require considerable water, explains Esam Mansour, Oman‘s Director-General of Knowledge for Advanced Technologies, desert nations are concentrating heavily on concentrated photovoltaic solar cells, which use optics (lenses or curved mirrors) to capture a large amount of sunlight in a small area of PV cells. High-concentration photovoltaics reach intensities of 100 suns, or more.

The United Arab Emirates, home of Abu Dhabi’s new zero-carbon city of Masdar, pioneered clean technology development in the Middle East. Over the past four years, solar construction on a massive scale has begun throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Solar technology is now cost-competitive there, according to a 2012 Pricewaterhouse Coopers report.

Saudi plans. In 2010, Saudi Arabia produced and exported more petroleum liquids than any other nation in the world and was the world’s second- largest crude oil exporter, behind Russia. The Saudis, whose hydrocarbon operations are dominated by the state-owned oil company, Saudi Aramco, now want to fill one-third of their domestic power needs with solar energy. A growing portion of this power goes toward air conditioning. The oil-rich nation plans investments of $109 billion to reach 41 GW by 2032.

Another factor in the Middle East’s fast development of solar energy: the region’s recent alarm at the crushing potential impacts of global warming in the desert states. In 2009, the Arab Forum for Environment and Development found that one meter of sea level rise could erase over 25,000 square miles (41,500 square kilometers) of coastal land in Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, Kuwait, Bahrain, and the UAE. A 5-meter rise would cost the immensely wealthy but low-lying nations of Bahrain and Qatar 13.4% and 6.9%, respectively, of their surface area.

Solar isn’t the only renewable technology receiving serious attention in this part of the world. Wind energy is also viewed as having tremendous potential. An expert at the Iranian power-generation company Mapna Group interviewed by the Wall Street Journal estimates Iran’s cost of producing wind energy at $1,800 per kilowatt, compared to $3,000 kilowatt for solar. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Tunisia have invested in wind energy, and Iran is working on a geothermal project.

Rob Sobhani, president of Caspian Group Holdings and author of a biography of 88-year-old Saudi King Abdullah, wondered out loud through CNN about the possibility of the U.S. exploiting Middle East green energy potential. Sobhani noted that in just the last two years, the cost of producing a megawatt of solar energy using American technology dropped to $2 million from $3 million and smart grid technology, an American innovation, also fell in price.

Great. New marketing opportunities for the United States in the Middle East! But shouldn’t we start by acknowledging the underlying premise: that oil and gas are nonrenewable and increasingly limited resources for energy production? The petro giants of the Arab world are betting their own profits on a more reliable provider: the sun.

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