Saudi Arabia’s Solar Revolution Turns Away from Oil

Nov. 10, 2015

Petroleum-rich nation embraces renewable options.

Would you believe that by 2050, Saudi Arabia plans to implement approximately 40 GW of solar? That's a full two-thirds of the Kingdom’s current electrical demand, and while the ratio may not remain as high due to economic growth, everything I’ve seen points to Saudi Arabia increasing its commitment to meet even more energy demands with this renewable source. 

There is good reasoning for the Saudis’ shift, even in an oil-rich nation, as scientists have found that the Arctic sea ice extent has reached its annual minimum at 4.41 million km2, noticeably lower than the average of 6.7 million km2 during the 1979 through 2000 period. This ice melting is another compelling sign of climate change, and former U.S. Department of Defense and State officials (both Democrats and Republicans) have now publicly stated the risks of climate change in a statement published on October 22, 2015.

How Saudi Arabia Trains Its Energy Managers

I recently spent two weeks in Saudi Arabia training engineers on energy management. While the power of oil-based money is palpable, many in Saudi Arabia (including the King) are working hard to move their economy away from being primarily oil-based. Oil and gas currently dominates the Kingdom’s exports/revenues but is also used for survival to make electricity and desalinate seawater. The Saudis want to become “sun based” because as they say: “it is free.” To their advantage, they have plenty of sun, but at 120 degrees Fahrenheit for the summer months, they also live in one of the most challenging places for plants and animals to endure. There is no practical way to grow food and desalinate water in the desert's extremely harsh environment without energy supplements, so they are highly motivated to utilize sustainable energy sources for their society’s survival. I've been to many countries, and the Saudi government’s efforts represent a relatively strong push to move in a sustainable direction, and when their government decides to go in a direction, they can implement results quickly.

Saudi Arabia’s solar evolution is already underway and represents forethought with respect to our planet. The Saudi strategy is worth analyzing and replicating as they can serve as an example of how to wean ourselves off fossil fuels. In Saudi Arabia, there are hundreds of engineers lining up to become experts on energy management and decrease their reliance on fossil fuels. They are also training professionals about GHG reduction strategies, energy project finance and green building design and operation. Achieving certifications such as CEM, REP, CRM, PCF and LEED, are incentivized, and in some cases required, to help raise the standards in the Gulf region.

The Saudi effort to switch from oil to solar will be one of the largest examples of “fuel switching” that I have witnessed worldwide. Basically, they are switching from fossil fuels (which have a limited inventory) to renewable energy – which has an unlimited supply of energy. Another reason for the Saudis’ solar push is their large strategic vulnerability on oil and gas, which when exhausted – would leave their economy and society completely at risk to wither away in the sand.

The Main Point

Saudi’s solar efforts are largely funded by their current wealth derived from fossil fuels. Their vision towards the “long-term” is admirable considering they could choose to simply just “do nothing” while their cash position is strong. The approach is an example of discipline (in a difficult time for them) and making good long-term investments. Similarly to Saudi Arabia, there are some states in the USA that are currently dependent on one type of fuel source – coal. In contrast to the Saudi strategy, however, these states are taking and literally investing their fossil fuel wealth back into the shorter-term investment of a coal–based society. This strategy will eventually fail because coal is becoming less popular on a global scale and would be analogous to investing in a business that sells typewriters – it’s old thinking.

Regardless of your opinion of Saudi Arabia, its solar push is an example for U.S. coal states to consider. The U.S. energy strategy is also changing, though not to as great of an extent. The EPA’s Clean Power Plan is an example. However it is also worth noting that the plan is being contested by legal teams funded by coal-based interests. Considering the importance of this fight and the possible evolution or stagnation of U.S. energy policy, you may want to get involved. You can influence the U.S. energy policy because we are approaching an election year. In addition, your awareness and action on this issue may influence the upcoming climate talks in Paris. I think that your interests (career-wise and family-wise) would be best served by voicing your concerns about climate change and energy policy to your government representative. U.S. energy policy/strategy should be on the agenda (and included in the TV debate questions) for the U.S. presidential election.

No matter your opinion on the issues, we cannot de-politicize the issue without having a conversation, so let’s get it started. As you know, energy affects everything in our global society, and the U.S. cannot afford to lead from behind on energy strategy.


Eric A. Woodroof, Ph.D., is the Chairman of the Board for the Certified Carbon Reduction Manager (CRM) program and he has been a board member of the Certified Energy Manager (CEM) Program since 1999. His clients include government agencies, airports, utilities, cities, universities and foreign governments. Private clients include IBM, Pepsi, GM, Verizon, Hertz, Visteon, JP Morgan-Chase, and Lockheed Martin. In August 2014, he was named to the Association of Energy Engineers (AEE) Energy Managers Hall of Fame.

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