China, Saudi Arabia to cooperate on renewable energy development

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Saudi Arabia is gearing up to generate approximately 30% of its power needs from its greatest energy source – that would be solar – within the next 20 years. The oil- and gas-rich Kingdom also boasts some of the world’s highest levels of solar irradiation and hopes to install as much as 41 GW of PV solar energy capacity by 2032, and has enlisted the help of solar world-leader China to reach that goal.

An agreement signed last week in Beijing saw the state-owned Chinese National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) partner with the Saudi energy research center, King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy (K. A. CARE) to cooperate on the development of renewable and nuclear energy in the Middle East nation.

Currently, Saudi Arabia runs almost entirely on hydrocarbon fossil fuel, with one quarter of the country’s vast oil and natural gas reserves held back for domestic consumption. However, the state’s leaders wish to export ever more of this finite resource to lucrative foreign markets, and are eyeing nuclear and renewable energy as the perfect, long-term replacement.

By 2032, the Saudi government estimates that power demand will surpass 120 GW per year. The goal is for renewable and nuclear power to supply half that figure by that date, with solar energy poised to stump up 41 GW, nuclear 17 GW and wind power 9 GW.

China’s expertise in the solar sector has thus been sought, with the K. A. CARE program leaders hoping that the country that currently dominates the global solar PV industry can bring its experience and business acumen to Saudi Arabia.

A timely transition

China is Saudi Arabia’s largest trading partner, snapping up more than one million barrels of crude oil daily and reliant on Saudi petrochemical goods and expertise. In 2013, two-way trade amounted to $73 billion, with China sending food, textiles and electronic goods the other way. Saudi Arabian officials now hope that China can supply a steady stream of guidance as the Kingdom begins its long transition away from a reliance of fossil fuels.

"Overall demand for fossil fuels for power, industry, transportation and desalination is estimated to grow from 3.4 million barrels of oil equivalent per day in 2010 to 8.3 million barrels of oil equivalent per day in 2028," said a K. A. CARE statement.

Saudi Arabia hopes to steer a greater share of that output to its export markets over the next few decades, but K. A. CARE confirmed that hydrocarbons will remain a "prime element" of the country’s energy mix up to and beyond 2032. By that date, the program’s recommendations are 60 GW of hydrocarbon, 41 GW of solar power (of which 16 GW will be PV and 25 GW CSP), 17.6 GW nuclear, 9 GW wind, 3 GW waste-to-energy and 1 GW geothermal.

"In this scenario, nuclear, geothermal and waste-to-energy will provide the base load up to night-time demand during winter; PV energy will meet total daytime demand year round; CSP with storage will meet the maximum demand difference between PV and base-load technologies, and hydrocarbons will meet the remaining demand;" said K. A. CARE.

Last week, Thierry Lepercq of Solairedirect – a French solar power plant developer – remarked that solar power in Saudi Arabia could be generated at a LCOE (Levelized cost of energy) of between $70 and $90 per MWh for plants larger than 10 MW – a four-fold reduction on 2009 prices and on course to becoming one of the cheapest in the world.

The cost of solar is one of the key issues for the sector’s development in Saudi Arabia, where oil and gas is among the cheapest anywhere. Unfulfilled potential continues to be the default setting, however, despite analysts at IHS expecting 1.48 GW of PV systems to be installed in the country between now and 2017.

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