Modern Saudi Arabia has been built on the back of petroleum — an ancient resource that has been stored for millions of years underneath the kingdom. The Ghawar oilfield is the largest conventional oilfield in the world, and Saudi Arabia has produced more oil over the past 20 years than any other country.
The world is still heavily dependent upon Saudi Arabia’s oil, but it has been calculated that all of the world’s energy needs could be met with solar panels on just 1.2 percent of the Sahara Desert. A map depicting global solar power resources shows the reason. There is no greater solar resource on the planet than a broad swath extending from the Sahara Desert of North Africa and into northwestern Saudi Arabia.
(Click to enlarge)
World solar insolation map.
Given its solar endowment, Saudi Arabia has been looking to the future. The kingdom recently announced that it would invest up to $7 billion this year to develop seven solar plants and a wind farm.
Now, in addition to the largest oilfield, Saudi Arabia plans to have the world’s largest solar plant. This week, Japanese multinational conglomerate SoftBank and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman signed a memorandum of understanding for the massive project.
The scale is unprecedented. The $200 billion project would produce 200 gigawatts of solar photovoltaic power. The project would create an estimated 100,000 jobs but would take more than a decade to complete. Related: Does Conoco Know Something That Its Competition Doesn’t?
To put the project’s scale into perspective, U.S. solar PV capacity at the end of 2016 stood at 40 GW. The world’s entire installed solar PV capacity at the end of 2016 was 300 GW. This plant would be 130 times larger than the world’s current largest solar plant, the 1,547-megawatt (MW) Tengger Desert Solar Park in China.
Given Saudi Arabia’s fossil fuel past, this project is also hugely symbolic. It indicates a country making a strong commitment to a different kind of energy future. It is also an indication that as the oil runs out, Saudi Arabia will remain one of the world’s vital energy producers.
By Robert Rapier
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If such a project enables Saudi Arabia to reduce the oil it currently consumes for electricity generation and water desalination by 50% or 1.5 mbd, then at current prices it could be saving some $37 bn annually. This means that Saudi Arabia could finance the entire project from five-year saving of 50% of oil currently used for electricity generation and water desalination.
However, the Saudi-planned project can’t by any stretch of the imagination create some 100,000 jobs as such projects are not labour-intensive by nature.
Talking about oil running out is a myth and I will explain why. According to estimates by BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy, June 2017, the world’s proven oil reserves at the end of 2016 stood at 1,706.7 billion barrels (bb), sufficient to meet 50.6 years of global production at 2016 levels.
But this is based on current global average recovery factory (R/F) of 35%. A mere 1% increase in the R/F from 35% to 36% would add 49 bb or 3% to the world’s proven oil reserves without drilling one single well. Advances in technology offer the potential for improvement of the R/F.
Dr Mamdouh G Salameh
International Oil Economist
Visiting Professor of Energy Economics at ESCP Europe Business School, London