For decades, the world has looked to nations in the Middle East and Northern Africa (MENA) to fulfil the need for petroleum based power. The area’s abundance of oil reserves has made it a global hot spot for the oil industry. But, as nations turn their attention away from fossil fuels, might we instead begin to look toward MENA for renewable sources of power, such as solar energy?
Historically, this area of the world fell far behind in terms of green energy production. But in recent years, MENA countries have ramped up their solar production efforts, seeking to catch-up to the rest of the world, offset their own oil-based energy consumption, and perhaps become a net supplier of solar power. Let’s examine why!
The countries of MENA are perfect for the generation of solar energy. An abundance of direct sunlight, coupled with open desert space create the ideal setting for vast solar farms. These new facilities could be capable of providing a sizable percentage of electric aid to a region whose reliance on oil burning power generation might someday cut into their export efforts and destabilize economies.
Deserts have often been looked to for solar efforts. Their ample undeveloped land allows for large-scale production, capable of producing large amounts of power and transporting it via a series of high voltage direct current transmission cables to inhabited areas.
The other factor making desert locales ideal for solar is the abundance of sunshine glaring down on an unshaded surface. German Physicist Gerhard Knies surmised that the Sahara Desert receives enough energy in a few hours to power the entire planet for a year.
Solar power system in Algeria
Declining Panel Prices
The price of solar panels has been falling at a rapid rate for years. When solar panels first hit the market in 1977, they came at a cost of $76.67 per Watt. This price continued to fall annually, leading to 2018 where recent advancements in India, coupled with a low labor cost, has given the world solar panels priced at just $0.65 per Watt.
As prices continue to fall through 2018, the market is ripe for an increase in solar production. The Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park in the United Arab Emirates was constructed in 2013 with a goal of producing a 3,000 Megawatt output by 2028. With 1977 pricing, this would have come at a cost of over $230 billion. In 2018, that same facility would cost $1.95 billion. It has never been more cost effective to invest in solar power, and MENA countries have figured that out (more on solar costs at PowerScout.com).
Importers Become Exporters
When you look at wealthy countries such as Jordan and Morocco, the overwhelming majority of their energy is imported from foreign nations. Morocco imports up to 90% of its energy, and Jordan imports 95%, leaving both of these kingdoms vulnerable to the whims of foreigners.
Jordan has encountered difficulty with this concept in the past. In 2011 and 2012, Jordan saw a complete depletion in its energy reserves following a disruption in natural gas supplies from Egypt. Then, in 2013, the kingdom suffered once more when oil imports from Iraq were interrupted.
Both of these nations have made sizable efforts to increase their solar power generation in hopes of breaking their reliance on outside sources.
In Morocco, this concept is being taken a step further. By creating some of the world’s largest solar plants, the kingdom is seeking to have 50% of its power come from renewables by 2025. Roughly one third of this power would be generated by solar. Morocco then seeks to push its efforts even further, reversing its fortunes completely by becoming an electricity exporter.
Solar plant in Morocco
Save on Oil Consumption
Saudi Arabia has become the definition of fossil fuel waste over the years. The country produces its energy through a process of burning oil. Roughly one quarter of the oil they produce is burned for local power. That consumption continues to rise by 7 percent each year, which is nearly three times the rate of population growth. The Saudi government controls all oil sales and power generation. As such, prices are as low as $0.50 per gallon of gasoline and $0.01 per kWh in electricity. The affordability of these resources have led to Saudi Arabia becoming the world’s sixth largest consumer of oil, with a population of only 30 million people.
Saudi officials do not see solar as a way to end our reliance on fossil fuels or offset global warming. Rather, it is seen as an investment which will keep their oil exports from drying up. At their current rate of consumption, Saudi Arabia’s local oil needs could begin to cut into their exports by 2021. By relying on solar to offset that increase, the government maintains its export levels and preserves its economy.
Power the World
When Knies first theorized that the Sahara Desert could be the key to renewable global power in 1986, a series of plans called Desertec were put in motion. Desertec seeks to build large scale solar facilities throughout the Sahara, which would supply affordable power to the entire world.
The sites for these facilities are mostly undeveloped desert land. With the cost of this project reportedly estimated at half a trillion dollars, nations of Northern Africa would stand to profit greatly by leasing out land that is useless to them otherwise.
It stands to reason that, in a world seeking to use renewable power to break its reliance on fossil fuels, the countries who benefit most from that reliance will turn their attention to renewable energy efforts, both to serve their own people, and protect their economies.