Oil King Turns Solar Pioneer?

Have a strong coffee, shake your head and rub your eyes. Saudi Arabia, the well-known guardian of fossil fuel interests, is planning a massive renewable energy scheme in its country. So says the news in the region and rumours from inside the Royal Family and their ministries. Apparently 52 Gigawatts (GW) of renewable power will come online by 2030, 130% of existing electricity generation capacity - most of it as concentrated solar power and the remainder as solar photovoltaics and wind. Reportedly, the government is looking for a quick start, with about three GW to be installed in 2013 and another four GW in 2014.

It all started about one year ago when Saudi Arabia announced a US $100 billion investment for solar power, which was followed shortly after by oil minister Al-Naimi declaring to the media "Saudi Arabia plans to generate solar electricity equalling the amount of its energy from crude exports”. Although the current plan does not come close to that ambition, it still represents a remarkable and substantive move. For comparison, in 2011, which was another renewable energy boom year, total newly installed renewable power worldwide was about 80 GW.

ECO is not naïve. We know that high oil prices on world markets of more than $100 per barrel are strong incentives for any oil exporter to save the crude domestically and reap the benefits of exports. Certainly one, if not the key, motivation for the Saudis presently.

But there is another logic. Saudi Arabia admits that using renewable energy makes much more sense than “abundant” fossil fuels. And expanding renewables substantially, for whatever reason, is good for our atmosphere and the climate. Each ton of CO2 saved through renewables is one ton saved permanently. Could we also imagine that some clever folks in Saudi Arabia assume that the desire for fossil fuels in the world economy will end some time before we physically run out of them? We should be reminded that OPEC’s call for increased oil prices in the early 80s met with this advice from the then oil minister Yamani of Saudi Arabia to his peers: “The stone age did not finish because mankind ran out of stones”. Is it now time to assume that the Saudis are seriously preparing to export solar and become a technological hub for solar industry manufacturing?

Before ECO applauds Saudi Arabia’s constructive contribution to climate change policy, ECO would like this renewable energy target officially confirmed in Riyadh and announced internationally. If this happens, ECO will rub its eyes again and be happy to publicly acknowledge a landslide in Saudi policy, especially when those with greater responsibility are shirking their pollution reduction obligations.

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