Saudi Arabia has long been a wealthy country because of its enormous oil reserves. But the kingdom also is rich in sunlight, and it now promises to invest over $100 billion to develop 41 gigawatts of solar electricity by 2032. The plan could eventually transform Saudi Arabia from the world’s largest oil exporter to a leading innovator of solar energy and technologies.
The plan calls for the majority of the Saudis’ future solar energy capacity, 25 GW, to come from solar thermal technologies. Photovoltaic panels at massive solar installations would generate an additional 16 GW of energy for the country. The bidding process for these renewable energy plants will begin next year. Meanwhile, the country will also roll out a subsidy plan similar to the feed-in tariff programs that have allowed solar technology to prosper in countries like Germany.
Saudis Arabia’s neighbors, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, are also coming to terms with their stratospheric carbon emissions and the damage that the oil economy, and the lifestyle currently enjoyed thanks to the quick riches petroleum has created, have had on the Middle East’s environment. But for Saudi Arabia, the move towards solar energy is a strategic business decision. Additional energy generated from sources like solar means more oil and gas, which will go nowhere but upwards in price, can be exported abroad. And in the long run, that means more of a financial windfall for the Saudis as they use less of their oil and gas at home while selling it elsewhere. But if the results are less pollution and improved solar technologies over time, then Saudi Arabia’s slow shift towards more solar and other renewables will still benefit the clean energy industry and more importantly, the Earth.