Is Saudi Arabia going solar?

Materials World magazine
5 Jan 2016

The world's largest oil exporter is making steps into renewable generation. Simon Frost looks at the technologies being considered. 

Sunlight and space are the fundamental prerequisites for large-scale solar power, but Saudi Arabia, which has both in abundance, is not a country you would typically associate with renewables. The 40th most populous country in the world, it ranks sixth in domestic oil consumption and 10th in CO2 emissions. Its population of 31 million is a little less than half that of the UK's, but every day it consumes just over twice as much oil.

Heavily subsidised electricity costs Saudi citizens as little as US$0.01/kWh, compared with the UK's US$0.22, while petroleum is fixed at US$0.61 per gallon – 10 times cheaper than the UK's US$6.09. With such plentiful, cheap oil, the kingdom’s record of energy wastage is perhaps no surprise. Power generation is dominated by inefficient oil-firing processes, air conditioning units pump out cool air non-stop, accounting for 70% of the kingdom's electricity use in 2013, and insulation in buildings is rare. The region’s dearth of rainfall also means that fresh water must be produced through the energy-intensive desalination of seawater (see James Perkins' feature on desalination in the December 2015 issue of Materials World).  

Environmental effects aside, Saudi Arabia's domestic reliance on oil now threatens to eat into its exports. The overwhelming source of its income and its dominance in OPEC, oil exports fund the country's services and protect its citizens from paying any income tax. An influential 2011 report published by Chatham House, Burning Oil to Keep Cool – The Hidden Energy Crisis in Saudi Arabia, estimated that at the current rate of domestic consumption Saudi Arabia would become a net importer of oil by 2038. For an economy so reliant on oil, that is not an option. Second only in global oil production to the USA, and to Venezuela in proven reserves, Saudi Arabia is now turning to solar power.

First steps into solar

So far, however, the kingdom’s progress towards a solar future has been slow. It began in 2010, when the late King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud announced by royal decree the establishment of the King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy (K.A.CARE), an independent organisation responsible for the kingdom’s renewable and atomic development. In 2013, it set the target of 41GW solar capacity by 2032, around a third of the country’s forecast energy need of 120GW. In January 2015, however, K.A.CARE President, Hashim Yamani, announced that the milestone was being pushed back to 2040, citing the need for more time to assess the technologies it will use.

Of the delay, Paddy Padmanathan, CEO of Saudi-owned ACWA Power, said, ‘I remain frustrated’, but noted that the kingdom’s desire to manufacture its own panels is reasonable cause for delay. ‘If they are going to invest so much in this sector they want to make sure they have the whole value chain,’ he said – the kingdom has pledged US$109bln to its solar project. 

Crystalline standard

‘I imagine that there will be a lot of ground-mounted PV, because that’s the cheapest way of doing it’ says Professor Stuart Irvine, Director of the Centre for Solar Energy Research at Glyndwr University, UK. While solar materials are a fertile and diverse field of research extending beyond the well-developed crystalline silicon technology, it is far from being superseded. 'Mistakes were made in the past in believing that thin film PV technologies such as amorphous silicon, thin film silicon cadmium telluride and copper indium gallium selenide would just displace crystalline silicon because it is inherently cheaper to produce. You also have to factor the scale of manufacture, and crystalline silicon has just got bigger and bigger. If you want a module producing 300W at a low cost and you're not worried about weight, as with ground-mounted PV, then you'll choose crystalline silicon.' 

Irvine’s current work focuses on the potential of thin-film photovoltaics, working towards higher efficiencies and tailoring thin-film products for potential niches within the market. ‘One of the things we’re working on is thin-film PV on ultra-thin glass that’s designed for a very high power-to-weight ratio, which could have applications in space or for industrial roofs, for example, where weight is an issue. I am sure that in Saudi Arabia they will be looking at bespoke buildings with integrated PV that make a bit of a statement, too, so they’ll be interested in the architectural aspects and opportunities there.’ 

Thin film PV could offer another important advantage over that of crystalline silicon – silicon panels lose 0.5% of their power output for every degree Celsius rise above the standard test conditions of 25°C. ‘If it’s running at 45°C, you can knock off 10% of the panel’s output, so it’s significant,’ says Irvine. ‘For thin film PV this tends to be lower – one of the selling points for First Solar, the world’s largest thin film PV manufacturer, is that they have a superior temperature coefficient of 0.25% loss for each degree. That’s not so important if you want to install in the UK, because we don’t see such high temperatures, but in Saudi Arabia it could be very important.’

Dubai sets the bar

While ambitious plans for buildings with top-to-bottom integrated PV are yet to materialise in its capital Dubai, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is rapidly becoming the Middle East's leader in solar generation, and ACWA Power is heavily involved. ACWA was confirmed in July 2015 to be implementing the second phase of the city’s Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park, which will add 200MW of solar capacity to its existing 13MW by 2017. The park has a planned capacity of 1GW by 2019, when Dubai aims to source 7% of its power from renewables, and 3GW by 2030, by which date it aims for a 15% share, with rooftop solar PV being mandatory in the city, as UAE President, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, announced in December 2015. 

But most significant is the benchmark that the project sets for the price of solar power – it will offer solar-sourced electricity at an unprecedented US$0.059/kWh, thanks to a 27-year US$344m debt financing loan from Abu Dhabi’s First Gulf Bank and two Saudi banks — the National Commercial Bank and the Samba Financial Group, at an interest rate of just 4%. 'That project shows the potential because it gets the cost down to the utility-scale generation level rather than simply having grid parity with the retail price of electricity,' says Irvine. 'Everybody likes the idea of renewable power but nobody wants to pay more for their energy. I tend to believe that the downward trend in the price of PV will continue and it will become one of the cheapest forms of electricity in the future.' 

ACWA Power is also running the world's largest concentrated solar power (CSP) project – the Ouarzazate Solar Thermal Plant in Morocco. 'There really are horses for courses when it comes to solar technologies. Rather than the one-size-fits all crystalline silicon modules we have today, we’ll see products in the future that are much more geared to a particular application and, in that respect, different materials will have different advantages,' says Irvine. 'CSP is, basically, heating water. It relies on a lot of direct sunlight – the amount of solar energy that falls on a square metre of earth. In the UK, half of that energy is actually diffuse, but in countries like Morocco, the vast majority is direct, so they have the potential for concentrators. In these areas it certainly makes sense and it will go side-by-side with solar PV.' 

A modest target?

In August 2015, the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) noted that the UK had surpassed 8GW of solar capacity, and Irvine notes that the solar industry now believes that DECC’s aspiration for 20GW of solar capacity by 2020 could easily be exceeded. But is the UK capable of generating an equivalent amount of solar power to Saudi Arabia’s 41GW target? ‘We’re now installing more than 1GW a year, getting on for 2GW, and that can only accelerate, so I really expect us to be beyond that by 2040. As prices come down, there’s going to be even more incentive to install PV,’ he says. With the uptake of solar power in even the world’s most oil-reliant economy, that price can surely only continue to fall