An hour away from the gleaming towers of Dubai, countless rows of solar panels face into the desert sun. From the rooftop of an administrative building at Mohammed Bin Rashid Solar Park, one can gaze across the field of blue-grey photovoltaic panels stretching to the horizon. This impressive sight is just the second part of an ambitious scheme to build one of the world’s largest solar energy plants, which will be able to generate 5GW of power by 2030.
The first two phases can provide up to 218MW of electricity. A third phase is underway and will add 800MW more once complete. In terms of the overall energy needs of the UAE, the electricity provided by the solar park is essentially negligible. But it is a clear sign of a growing trend to develop renewable energy schemes in the world’s oil-producing heartland, the Middle East.
A field of solar photovoltaic panels that form part of the Mohammed bin Rashid Solar Park in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on 17 January 2018 (Photo: Dominic Dudley).
Across the border in Saudi Arabia, the authorities recently awarded the contract for a 300MW renewable energy scheme, with the local Acwa Power securing the work with a world record low price of $0.023417 per kilowatt hour (kWh). The Saudi government is expected to issue tenders for a further 4GW of renewable energy this year. Across the region there are similar plans to develop renewable energy schemes in at least 11 other countries, from Morocco in the west to Iran in the east.
“In the oil producing heart of the Middle East we’re seeing investments in renewables at costs that are really game-changing,” says Adnan Amin, director general of the Abu Dhabi-based International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA).
With all this activity, the region is following a growing global trend. Amin says that, since 2013, more than $1 trillion has been invested in renewable energy around the world and the sector has outpaced investment in fossil fuel generation for five years. “We are undergoing a rapid and systemic transformation of the world of energy,” he adds.
It can still feel slightly counter-intuitive for such investments to be made in a part of the world that is better known for oil and gas production. But it is not just energy ministries that have been converted to the cause. Companies better known for their oil and gas drilling are also increasingly involved, such as Petroleum Development Oman, which is building a number of solar and wind projects, and Algeria’s Sonelgaz, which is working through a 22GW renewable energy masterplan. Claudio Descalzi, CEO of Italian oil firm Eni, told a conference at Chatham House in London in late January that he sees renewables and gas as the fuels of the future. “I don’t look at it as a threat. I view it as an opportunity. The future is gas and renewables,” he said.
Much of the Middle East is well placed to exploit the potential of solar energy in particular, given the clear blue skies and hot sun which dominate for much of the year. There is also a strong case for wind power in some other corners of the region, such as Morocco.