The weekend read: Unsteady progress of a potential MENA solar superpower
Aug 17, 2019 10:55 AM ET
With a combination of scale, a growing population, outstanding irradiation, and available capital, solar PV should be a ‘no brainer’ for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. But early explorations of the technology have soured expectations, and progress has come in fits and starts.
Saudi Arabia’s renewable energy sector over the years can be best described as a roller coaster. Just when momentum seemed to be building, the ride came to a halt. Then it began to move, but never really gave potential investors the confidence needed for serious acceleration. Progress started to take shape in 2016 and has continued, showing that this time is different.
Yet, to understand how the country got to where it is today, it’s important to know where Saudi Arabia has been, and that stems all the way back to 1977.
Much like the creation of the national oil company Saudi Aramco — formed between the United States and Saudi Arabia — solar power has been explored as part of a bilateral partnership between the two countries. Saudi Arabia’s National Center for Science and Technology (now known as the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology or KACST) and the United States Department of Energy (DOE) struck a deal four decades ago for the Saudi Solar Village Project. The five-year agreement included $50 million from both countries and was extended for three more years. What resulted was a 350 kW solar PV system located 50 kilometers from Riyadh, as well as an additional 350 kW solar hydrogen demonstration plant.
The system operated well for its time, but the technology was nowhere near where it is today, which resulted in panel degradation of 20%. Operating temperatures were much higher than originally specified, and the heat sink insufficient for cooling.
From there continued a list of projects, including solar-powered water desalination, solar hydrogen utilization, solar water heating, and other PV research projects.
In 1990, the Persian Gulf War erupted and once again, Saudi Arabia saw solar power come via the United States. Solar panels were used to power GPS satellites, but just like the problem seen in the solar village, modules again quickly deteriorated in the harsh desert conditions.
There is little doubt that these observations helped shape the kingdom’s solar PV sector — and industry in general — but it would still take many years before substantial movement could be seen.
In April 2010, the King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy (K.A.CARE) was established to be the “driving force for making atomic and renewable energy an integral part of a national sustainable energy mix.”
K.A.CARE’s target was to have 41 GW of renewable energy by 2032, with 16 GW of solar PV. In 2011, a contract was signed to establish a polysilicon plant in Jubail, which would begin the production of solar cell materials. Polysilicon Technology, alongside Hyundai Engineering and KCC Engineering and Construction, announced that it would build a $380 million plant to produce 3,350 metric tons of solar-grade polysilicon, with future expansion plans. This was one of many announcements that failed to materialize, as developer Polysilicon Technology later went bankrupt, according to local sources.
K.A.CARE went a step further in February 2013, when it published a white paper that announced a new renewable energy target of 54 GW by 2032 (41 GW was to be solar). And in the first five years, it planned for 5.1 GW to be installed, with 23.9 GW by 2020. The white paper has since been removed from the organization’s website, and K.A.CARE’s renewable energy ambitions disappeared along with it, as it began to focus more on nuclear power.
The new crown prince
Volatility in oil prices began in 2014, and it forced the country to broadly rethink its economic policies.
As Saudi Arabia grappled with the new normal of low oil prices, then deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, released a new economic vision for the country. The National Transformation Plan, part of the wider Vision 2030 agenda, was launched in 2016. It included a target to have 9.5 GW of solar and wind power feeding electricity into the national grid by 2023. It was understandable that the plan was met with leeriness, considering previous attempts to jump-start a renewable energy market in the country, but this time was different. This was the first time that Saudi Arabia had a government mandate to incorporate renewable energy into its overall energy mix.
In 2017, the Renewable Energy Project Development Office (REPDO) was created, featuring members from K.A.CARE, Saudi Aramco, Saudi Electricity Company, and the Electricity and Cogeneration Regulatory Authority. The new unit fell under the energy ministry’s oversight, and immediately began accepting applications from companies that were looking to participate in the development of 700 MW of solar and wind capacity projects.
Local company ACWA Power came in with the winning bid for the first utility-scale solar PV plant, Sakaka, at $0.0234/kWh. “PV is a no-brainer in our part of the world [to supply] a significant source of load,” said ACWA chief executive officer Paddy Padmanathan.
Yet what was also significant was how REPDO announced the winning bids, which was done via live stream. This showed a level of transparency that isn’t seen anywhere else in the region’s renewable energy sector.
In November 2018, Saudi Arabia’s first utility-scale solar PV project began construction, with more than 1.18 million modules and 1,200 new jobs. The Sakaka solar power plant began a new era in the kingdom, heralding a “more to come” drive with at least seven projects to be tendered in this year alone. And people started to believe it. In fact, Padmanathan said that throughout the region, more companies are jumping into the market — and they’re looking at Saudi Arabia. He estimates that over the past five years, there has been growth of 20% of new market players trying to get into the Middle East’s solar sector.
“Within the next five years, there will be a real race to deploy as much PV as possible throughout the region,” Padmanathan added.
And Saudi Arabia is a market mover for any sector, given its size and population of almost 33 million. So much so that many companies separate Saudi Arabia from their regional reports so that its size doesn’t skew results. The potential for the kingdom’s solar industry, coupled with its goal of creating a manufacturing hub, is enough to once again entice investors.
“We’ve been pushing anyone we’ve worked with for many years saying, ‘If you want to work with us and want to capture meaningful volumes — industrialize inside the kingdom,’” said Padmanathan.
Earlier this year, a Saudi consortium made up of the National Industrial Clusters Development Program and petrochemical giant SABIC, signed a memorandum of understanding with Longi Group and OCI for the development of a fully integrated solar manufacturing facility in the country. And such decisions may create momentum for others to move, particularly considering a potentially more favorable policy framework.
Gus Schellekens, a partner at the clean energy division of the consultancy EY, said that Saudi Arabia today is very different than pre-Vision 2030.
“New businesses are being set up that are very different to the old world that delivered success for the past 40 years,” Schellekens explained. Yet Saudi Arabia is still finding its footing. The head of REPDO, Turki Al Shehri, recently left the organization to join France’s Engie as the chief executive of Saudi Arabia. There has so far been no announcement about a replacement and sources have said that the energy ministry is instead looking to create a more centralized system.
It’s never an easy road when introducing a new model or system on a large scale, especially if people continue to focus on previous mistakes. “In the long run, there remains huge potential for Saudi Arabia, but it’s important to acknowledge practical challenges, and build on a robust plan that is integrated with other initiatives,” Schellekens concluded.
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