Saudi Arabia and SoftBank have inked a memorandum of understanding to build the world’s largest solar project, worth an estimated $200B. It’s the largest solar project ever announced and it’s a sign that even the Saudis, who collectively hold the largest proven reserves of oil, believe it’s necessary to diversify away from oil and towards other types of energy.
Saudi Arabia is well positioned to take advantage of solar energy — literally. As GlobalSecurity notes, average solar irradiation in the country exceeds 1.8kWh/m2 and is as high as 2.2kWh/m2 in some areas. That’s more than twice as high as the average solar irradation in countries like Germany, which has been fairly aggressive in deploying renewable power over the last few years. The map below shows the global horizontal irradiation level across the entire planet. This term refers to the total amount of solar radiation received by a surface horizontal to the ground in that area, and factors in both direct sunlight and solar radiation that’s scattered by other sources.
The only countries with a higher level of irradiance than Saudi Arabia are either wracked by civil war (Yemen) or have limited financial resources. Saudi Arabia has taken an interest in renewable power for several years, but its previous efforts in this area have been fairly modest. At the end of 2013, the country had just 25MW of solar generation compared with 35GW of generation in Germany in the same period. Last year, the Saudis took bids on a plan to build a 300MW plant. A 200GW facility wouldn’t just be orders of magnitude larger than any current solar plant — it would nearly triple Saudi Arabia’s electricity generation (air conditioning accounts for 70 percent of Saudi Arabia’s electricity use). Currently, the country relies on natural gas for roughly 2/3 of its electricity, with oil providing the rest.
A memo of understanding is not a formal construction project and the deal could still fall through. But the Saudis have been talking up the importance of renewable energy for several years, and it’s estimated that a deal this size could provide up to 100,000 construction jobs and take a decade or more to finish. The country isn’t just betting on solar power — the Saudis are also planning to build 16 nuclear reactors at a cost of up to $80B. The country also seeks to enrich its own uranium, a development that could cause geopolitical headaches in the already explosive Middle East. Aggressively pursuing a range of energy options makes good sense in Saudi Arabia, where electricity consumption has risen by an average of 9 percent per year since 2000.