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Saudi Arabia is an interesting country when it comes to energy. First of all, they have more oil than anyone else. They have 18% of the world’s proven reserves, of which they produce more than 10 million barrels per day. Oil accounts for roughly 45% of the kingdom’s GDP, much of it is exported, accounting for 90% of its exports and 75% of government revenues.

They also get a huge amount of solar energy, approximately 2200 kWh per square meter.

At the same time, they have tremendous energy demands, both for air conditioning and desalination. It is, after all, not an inherently hospitable environment.

Until quite recently, they mostly used oil to generate electricity, since it was so plentiful and cheap there. Roughly one-eighth of their oil production went into electrical generation. But, given that oil production has now peaked and with the price of oil going up, along with increased demand which  is expected to double by 2020, they are looking into other alternatives.

Back in November, they announced a major solar initiative, in which they intend to produce 10% of their electricity from the sun by 2020. While that seems like a no-brainer, there are actually several technical challenges to be overcome. First, most solar panels today, become less efficient if they get too hot, which is highly likely to occur under the scorching Arabian sun. Secondly, because of the incessant wind, and the extremely dry climate, dust is a major issue. Solar panels will need to cleaned continuously. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia has lots of open land, and lots of sand which is rich in silicon.

The Saudi’s are also looking into expanding and improving the efficiency of their conventional power plants. In the past, when oil was so plentiful and cheap, they didn’t worry that much about efficiency, but now they are taking a closer look. In fact, they just contracted with GE, to the tune of nearly $200 million for an expansion and efficiency upgrade of their electrical grid. First of all, they will upgrade their PP10 power plant from simple cycle to combined cycle operation. What this means in a nutshell is that a second stage is added, in which the steam that was generated as the result of cooling the gas turbines (previously supplied by GE), is now expanded through a steam turbine in a second stage, thus squeezing additional power from roughly the same amount of fuel. This expansion will produce an additional 1300 megawatts.

According to Ali Saleh Al Barrak, president and CEO for Saudi Electricity Company, “in addition to increasing plant capacity by more than 50 percent, from about 2,200 to 3,500 megawatts, the conversion will raise overall plant efficiency.”

GE will be providing 10 new steam turbines, as well as an upgraded control system for combined-cycle operation and various power generation services.

This is a logical next step, but the Saudis and other Persian Gulf states need to do more to keep up with changing times or risk being left behind as the world moves to other sources of energy. A move into the development of renewable energy resources makes a lot of sense, especially given the kingdom’s growing unemployment rate which is conservatively estimated at 11%. They are beginning to move in this direction with a research program at King Abdullah  University of Science and Technology (KAUST) which recently licensed the quantum dot solar technology from the University of Toronto. Other research partners include Penn State. They also recently began construction of a 3.5 MW solar plant outside of Riyadh, their largest solar PV plant to date, contracting with Oman’s Phoenix Solar.

[Image credit: martnpro: Flickr Creative Commons]

RP Siegel, PE, is the President of Rain Mountain LLC. He is also the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water. Now available on Kindle.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.

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