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Saudi solar at a cross roads

The KSA's solar energy ambitions appear to have reached a cross roads

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SAUDI, Solar, News

Saudi Arabia’s solar energy ambitions appear to have reached a cross roads following two recent significant developments.

Dr Khalid Al Sulaiman, the man tasked with making the country’s plans a reality, has left his post as vice president of the King Abdullah Centre for Renewable and Atomic Energy (K.A. CARE), the agency set up in 2010 with a mandate to oversee the Kingdom’s renewable and nuclear energy sector development.

Mystery surrounds the departure because it remains unclear whether he retired or the government decided to not renew his contract, according to the Bloomberg news agency.

The move has also raised question marks over the Kingdom’s hugely ambitious strategy of adding 41 GW of solar power by 2032, which was supposed to be overseen by K.A. CARE.

Saudi Arabia’s target for an installed solar capacity is by far the largest in the world. However, since the plans were unveiled in a White Paper last year, there appears to have been little progress, and it remains to be seen how the government will now move forward with its solar strategy.

There are signs that Saudi Aramco is prepared to take a more hands on role in the development of solar projects of its own, raising the prospect that the national oil company could become a major new driver behind the Kingdom’s long term plans.

The move appears to be spurred by the desire to reduce the amount of oil being channeled towards the domestic market, as fast rising power demand siphons huge volumes away from lucrative international export markets.

“We are looking at solar investments with great interest,” chief executive officer Khalid Al-Falih of Saudi Arabian Oil Co. told a conference in Bahrain, according to Bloomberg.

However he emphasised that Aramco would not rush so as to avoid pitfalls similar to those experienced by European nations, which had to lift subsides after the global financial crisis struck. “We don’t want to go fast like Germany and Spain and then have regrets down the road,” he said.

Another possibility is the involvement of Masdar, after the Abu Dhabi-based company formed a partnership with K.A. CARE late last month (see above).

The industry will be closely monitoring the situation in Saudi as the biggest market in the region and the one that has the potential to kick-start a solar revolution in the Middle East.

“If Saudi is successful with solar, then funds will flow to other markets in the region,” Browing Rockwell, executive director of the Saudi Arabian Solar Industry Association (SASIA), told UME last month. “The business of solar needs to be clearly understood and executed in Saudi before large scale adoption will take place in the region.”

Despite the confusion brought about by the latest developments, the country’s solar industry remains upbeat that a breakthrough could be on the horizon. Rockwell is optimistic about the potential of the solar energy market in the country.

“I believe too much emphasis has been placed on the action or inaction of K.A.CARE,” he says.”There are significant solar developments outside K.A.CARE. K.A.CARE has been waiting for the Saudi government to act on its recommendations regarding the implementation of a solar programme.

“The recent Reuters news story about Dr. Sulaiman’s departure is old news inside KSA circles.
“I would watch the next steps taken by the Saudi government and/or K.A.CARE as a better indication for the future of solar in Saudi Arabia.

“I think everyone will agree that K.A.CARE had a very ambitious solar plan they announced to the world several years ago. Perhaps a fresh start will result in more realistic short term solar vision that can scale with time.

“Commercially, solar is becoming a mainstream concept. That wasn’t the case as little as four years ago,” Rockwell adds.

“Saudi companies are forming partnerships with international companies to get ready for business. This period of hopeful anticipation and frustration will be forgotten once there are clear signs that the regional market is taking off.”

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