A Solar Mirage in the Middle East?

The oil-rich monarchs’ ambitions for solar power will be tough to achieve

3 min read
A Solar Mirage in the Middle East?
A SUNNY DELIGHT: Celebrants at the official opening of the 100-megawatt Shams 1 solar power plant in Abu Dhabi in March.
Photo: Ben Job/Reuters

Solar power in the Middle East seems simultaneously logical (sun-scorched deserts everywhere) and illogical (all that oil!). That contradiction lay just under the surface in March as United Arab Emirates president Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan flipped the ceremonial switch to ramp up the new Shams 1 solar thermal power plant toward its 100-megawatt capacity. The U.A.E. is at the head of the renewable energy pack in the region, but several of the “Gulf monarchies,” all major contributors to the world’s oil supplies, are starting to set goals to cut back on consuming the hydrocarbons they produce in favor of sustainable, climate-friendly energy sources. Are they really going to leave some of that black gold in the ground forever? Or are projects like the US $600 million Shams 1 just shiny distractions in a plan to push oil profits farther into the future?

Abu Dhabi, the biggest and most oil-rich of the seven semiautonomous emirates in the U.A.E., has a goal of getting 7 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020. Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil producer, is even more ambitious. The Saudi government hopes to just about double its installed electricity capacity by building 54 gigawatts of renewable energy (as well as 17.6 GW of nuclear power) by 2032, of which 41 GW will come from the sun. Qatar is also turning to renewables, with a plan on the table to get 10 percent of the electricity and energy used in water desalination from solar by 2018. Kuwait, too, has ambitions for 10 percent renewables by 2020.

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This photograph shows a car with the words “We Drive Solar” on the door, connected to a charging station. A windmill can be seen in the background.

The Dutch city of Utrecht is embracing vehicle-to-grid technology, an example of which is shown here—an EV connected to a bidirectional charger. The historic Rijn en Zon windmill provides a fitting background for this scene.

We Drive Solar

Hundreds of charging stations for electric vehicles dot Utrecht’s urban landscape in the Netherlands like little electric mushrooms. Unlike those you may have grown accustomed to seeing, many of these stations don’t just charge electric cars—they can also send power from vehicle batteries to the local utility grid for use by homes and businesses.

Debates over the feasibility and value of such vehicle-to-grid technology go back decades. Those arguments are not yet settled. But big automakers like Volkswagen, Nissan, and Hyundai have moved to produce the kinds of cars that can use such bidirectional chargers—alongside similar vehicle-to-home technology, whereby your car can power your house, say, during a blackout, as promoted by Ford with its new F-150 Lightning. Given the rapid uptake of electric vehicles, many people are thinking hard about how to make the best use of all that rolling battery power.

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