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.
The environmental rhetoric that surrounds these plans and targets can be impressive. But at the Shams 1 dedication, the talk was also about extending the number of years that the U.A.E. can keep pumping oil. “In the near term, hydrocarbons will continue to be a vital commodity and source of energy, especially with global energy demand expected to double by 2050,” says Bader Al Lamki, director of clean energy for Masdar, the U.A.E. company behind Shams 1 and other renewables projects. “The U.A.E.’s investment in renewable energy, although [it] will help extend the lifetime of our hydrocarbon reserves, is geared at ensuring the longevity of the overall economic, social, and environmental benefits…of our nation and the world.”
Outsized and rapidly growing domestic consumption in the U.A.E., Saudi Arabia, and other countries in the region is pushing the drive for nuclear and renewable energy, but only so that the oil-based economies can continue to thrive in the future, says Bernard Haykel, a professor of Near Eastern studies at Princeton University who leads a program on oil and energy in the Middle East.
Laura El-Katiri, a research fellow at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, in England, agrees, but she doesn’t expect it to extend the oil years by much. “The Gulf states… are exceptionally dependent on hydro carbons, primarily oil and natural gas, so the decision to introduce a small share of renewables will not turn around this balance fundamentally,” she says. “Renewable energy technology also poses its own challenges in the region, including in the technical and regulatory arenas, which means no renewable energy revolution should be expected in the region overnight.”
At present, the chances of the U.A.E. meeting its 7 percent renewables goal seem slim. Even at today’s peak demand, meeting that goal would require another 15 solar plants on the scale of Shams 1, and the U.A.E.’s demand has been growing so dramatically in recent years that it has become a net importer of natural gas. What’s more, there are difficulties involved in desert construction, including dust, high winds, and transmission requirements.
At root, it’s what lies under the desert that will hold back a renewable revolution above it. Saudi Arabia has more than 264 billion barrels of proven crude oil reserves. The U.A.E. and Kuwait each sit on about 100 billion barrels, and Qatar has just over 25 billion of its own. A few shiny mirrors in the Abu Dhabi desert may delay the burning of some of that oil for a few years, but without major political and economic shifts, it probably won’t stay buried for long.