A massive economic diversification exercise is underway in the Middle East to gradually end dependency on fossil fuels for a sustainable future. One sector, which has immensely benefitted from the exercise is that of renewable energy. Over the years, it has not only emerged as a reliable and viable means to replace conventional energy sources, but also as a profitable sector and real contributor to the regional economy.
Burgeoning population, rapid industrialization and urbanization mean a never-ending insatiable demand for energy. According to International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries’ electricity consumption is growing at almost eight percent a year and expected to reach 856 terawatt hours (TWh) by 2020, requiring additional 100 GW over the course of the next decade or so.
Saudi in the lead
In its massive drive to lessen its dependence on hydrocarbons, Saudi Arabia is moving fast in the direction of renewables. Amidst all this transition, solar energy is playing a very crucial role in the Kingdom’s ambitious plans toward realizing the dream of clean energy.
In one of its latest initiatives, Saudi Arabia has signed a memorandum of understanding with Softbank, Japanese multinational, to construct a sprawling solar power unit of 200 GW by 2030. Pegged as world’s biggest solar power plant till date, this will come at an estimated cost of $200 billion.
According to a digital news outlet Quartz, this proposed solar power plant will be nearly 200 times the size of the currently operating biggest solar power plant and it would nearly triple the Saudi Arabia’s power generation capacity (once fully operational). Interestingly the solar panels that could generate power of up to 200 GW would be covering an area of approximately 5000 sq-km, the land area that is even more than many of the world’s largest cities.
Paradigm shift in strategies
Even though GCC countries have an easy option of power generation through cost-effective fossil fuels, which are available in abundance, there is a paradigm shift toward cleaner sources of energy. All GCC countries have incorporated “green growth” strategy in their national plans and visions.
“There’s a lot of excitement surrounding the solar industry in the region. While there’s great demand for rooftop and off-grid solar solutions, it seems the next ‘big thing’ will probably be the implementation of building integrated photovoltaics (BIPV) solutions in the GCC,” says Nik Holley, Product Development Manager, S-5!, a rooftop solar company.
With improvement in technology, declining cost of production, increased interest of the private sector and stronger government commitments, the renewable energy sector is expanding exponentially. From mere 20 GW in 2010, the renewable energy production rose to whopping 620 GW in 2015; still it accounted for less than one percent of the total power generated in the region. The solar power sector is currently having a dream run, attracting nearly 90 percent of green project investments in the region.
As per IRENA, the region’s daily solar installation average of 6.5 KWh/m² is one of the highest in the world. The Middle East Solar Outlook Report 2017 stated that 2016 was a record-breaking year, as nearly 700 MW of solar capacity was made operational in the region. For the past two years, about 200 MW is being added to the installed base annually.
Solar; huge employment generator
The increasing role of alternative sources of energy in the Gulf region has resulted in creation of a parallel green economy and massive employment opportunities. Industry-friendly regulatory policies, clean energy programs and innovative finance have created an ecosystem for the long-term success of green and clean energy sector.
In November 2017, experts at the Global Solar Leaders’ Summit, Dubai, were of the view that the regional renewable energy sector would employ 210,000 people by 2030, with approximately 85 percent of jobs coming from the solar power segment. The prospects are bright for the region as, energy experts believe, there’s a great potential to export electricity generated from solar power in the future.