sun setting on a solar park

Challenges and Opportunities to Enhance Solar Energy Sector in Saudi Arabia

The increasing global challenge of sustaining energy supplies is driven by rapid population growth and the depletion of fossil fuels. There are concerted efforts at both national and international levels to tackle this issue. One of the primary goals is to establish a robust renewable energy sector to meet our energy demands. However, this goal is particularly challenging in oil-producing countries, as the abundance of non-renewable energy sources hinders awareness and adoption of renewable alternatives. Despite this, Saudi Arabia has taken a proactive approach in diversifying its energy sources and has initiated several significant projects in the renewable energy sector. This article explores the potential of solar energy in Saudi Arabia and discusses key strategic projects that have been implemented so far. It also examines the lessons learned from these initiatives and provides recommendations for creating future opportunities in this field.

Saudi Arabia’s Context, Policies, and Vision 2030 

For the development of new cities, there are two major UNSDG goals to consider: Goal 11, Sustainable Cities and Communities, and Goal 7, Affordable and Clean Energy. When combined, they aim to significantly increase the proportion of renewable energy in the global energy mix and final energy consumption by 2030. Despite the progress made in this regard over the past decades, the challenge is still tremendous. The global share of modern renewable energy sources in the final energy consumption increased only by 2.5% in a decade, highlighting the need for faster growth to align with the long-term SDGs.

The Gulf Cooperative Council (GCC) countries, including Saudi Arabia, have become one of the top 25 countries in CO2 emissions per capita. Saudi Arabia witnessed a rapid increase in electricity consumption over the past decades for many reasons. Including a population increase, fast economic growth, and government support of electricity prices. In 2021, Saudi Arabia unveiled an ambitious and strategic objective to achieve Net Zero emissions by the year 2060. This marked the beginning of a new phase in the country’s pursuit of green energy development. As part of its efforts to enhance energy efficiency, KSA has recently taken steps to decrease energy subsidies.

Solar energy is at the heart of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030. The country lies on the Sun Belt (between latitude 40o S and 40o N) and receives a significant amount of solar radiation, which offers a high potential for solar energy. This ranges between 7.004 KWh/m2 at Bisha and 4.479 KWh/m2 at Tabuk. However, there is a great challenge to promote the use of solar energy among people. According to the General Authority of Statistics, the percentage of households using solar energy in Saudi Arabia was only 1.6% in average in 2018. On the other hand, the percentage of households who want to use PV technology in their houses was 52.3%, which reflects an acceptable willingness level. Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia has recently launched several key projects in the field of solar energy on a macro scale. The following sections present some of these projects and conclude with some future recommendations in this regard.

Solar Energy Key Projects

Saudi Arabia’s efforts in solar energy research and its applications go back to the mid-seventies. This included solar PV farms and solar-thermal desalination, among others. Saudi Arabia has recently initiated multiple strategic projects in the field of solar energy. These projects are in line with the Saudi Vision 2030, which aims to diversify energy sources in Saudi Arabia. Each of these projects is expected to offer further economic opportunities, create jobs and drive sustainable economic development. Some milestone projects in this regard are mentioned as follows:

King Salman Energy Park (SPARK), 2018

This industrial project is located in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia and occupies an area of 50 km2. Phase 1 is expected to be completed by the end of 2021. The industrial city includes several zones, such as industrial, residential, and business zone. It aims to encourage clean and sustainable energy production and offers a variety of investment opportunities in oil and gas, petrochemicals, and water treatment. It has received a silver certification of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED).

Sakaka Solar Power Plant, 2021

This is a 300 MW solar power plant located in Al-Jawf City. It is the first utility-scale renewable energy output of the Saudi National Renewable Energy Program. It uses PV technology to generate electricity as an investment in the private sector. The project includes 1.2 million solar panels placed over 6 km2. This project is expected to significantly contribute to diversifying the Saudi domestic energy mix and reducing reliance on fossil fuels to produce electricity. This project is a significant addition to the Saudi experience in solar energy-based projects. This experience will be enriched through future monitoring, data collection, and analysis of the project performance.

Opportunities and Threats Assessment

Based on the above presentation, the below table shows a SWOT analysis of the solar energy outlook in Saudi Arabia. This shows a promising potential for solar energy utilization. However, several challenges exist, which require multiple efforts to overcome them and to keep up with the international trend in this regard.

The solar energy sector in the region demonstrates a variety of factors that can impact its growth and development. There are several strengths that pave the way for a promising future. The abundant availability of solar radiation serves as a strong foundation for harnessing renewable energy sources effectively. The presence of vast vacant lands also creates opportunities for the implementation of strategic solar projects on a large scale. Well-developed infrastructure also benefit the region by creating a reliable power grid and facilitating efficient energy distribution. All of the above flouris because the policies and strategies of Vision 2030 underscore the government’s commitment to advancing the solar industry and fostering a sustainable energy ecosystem. This makes available a whole series of public funds that enhance the sector’s capacity for expansion and innovation.

The solar energy sector also faces certain weaknesses that warrant attention. There is a need for further improvement of advanced technical capacity to maximize the efficiency and output of solar technologies. The rising annual energy consumption per capita poses a challenge in meeting the growing energy demands sustainably as does the limited public participation in solar energy utilization on a micro-scale and insufficient awareness about solar energy’s benefits further hinder widespread adoption.

Even so, the solar energy sector is presented with numerous opportunities to capitalize on its strengths and overcome any weaknesses. Active participation in concerned international covenants opens doors for collaboration and experience-sharing with regional and international partners, fostering knowledge exchange and technological advancements. The emerging market of solar energy technologies also presents attractive investment opportunities.

Despite these opportunities, the sector must remain vigilant about potential threats. The excessive heat in the region requires special treatment of solar technologies to ensure their optimal performance and longevity. Dust waves necessitate effective PV cleaning solutions to maintain the efficiency of solar panels. Fluctuations in oil prices may affect the availability of public funds, impacting the sector’s financial viability. Furthermore, the instability of global supply chains due to the pandemic poses challenges in securing essential components for solar projects.

Recommendations for Further Opportunities

This article highlighted Saudi Arabia’s recent efforts in renewable energy development. Despite the abundant availability of oil, Saudi Arabia aims to develop a sustainable energy sector through the initiation of an oil sustainability program and several renewable energy key projects. This article presented some of these projects and concluded with some recommendations to create further future opportunities in this field. This includes the need to promote energy conservation and efficiency practices in everyday practices, implementation of regular awareness programs in this regard, development of advanced solar energy technical training programs, more support of the local emerging market of solar energy systems and technologies, encouraging entrepreneurship initiatives in solar energy utilization, promotion of solar architecture practices, and offering appropriate incentives in this regard.


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