Saudi Arabia’s Solar Goal Could Be Middle East’s Game-Changer

Deploying the world's largest solar power project is a part of Saudi's Vision 2030 development program.

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Saudi Arabia is about to build the largest solar power plant in the history of technology.

News that Saudi Arabia – the oil-rich state – is contemplating one of the world’s biggest solar projects ever seen has raised hopes it could lead to a snowball effect across the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman inked a $200 billion non-binding deal with Japan’s SoftBank to build a 200-gigawatt solar scheme.

The agreement is a major hike up from a smaller scale accord to generate 9.5GW of solar power by 2023 as part of the kingdom’s Vision 2030 target.

The implications of the 200GW project would mean two years of the world’s current manufacturing of solar panels.

Saudi Arabia currently has one large solar plant under construction, the 0.3GW Sakaka project, awarded to local firm ACWA Power at the cost of $302 million.

Industry experts suggest the SoftBank project would mean an overhaul of the kingdom’s electricity infrastructure.

Saudi Arabia’s current peak power demand is likely to grow by 2030 to some 100GW-120GW.

Peak demand in summer is almost twice the winter’s low, due to air-conditioning use, but solar generation is also higher in summer.

The result is that Saudi Arabia with 200GW of solar capacity might have the 80GW surplus in summer daytime hours, and almost as much in winter daytime.

Solar power is cheap enough now that the country might afford to throw some of it away, but it would want to use as much as possible productively.

Masayoshi Son, the founder of SoftBank, has said the giant solar plant will have the “largest utility-scale battery” to provide evening power.

It will have to have – even the US has only about 1GW of battery storage installed to date, although Bloomberg New Energy Finance predicts about 45GW will have been installed worldwide by 2024.

At a rough estimate, and allowing for falls in battery costs, this might add another $150bn or more to the price-tag.

However, on an annual basis including night-time periods, and assuming all surplus electricity is stored for later use, the panels might generate about 70 percent of the kingdom’s total electricity demand, and save some $40bn of oil and gas fuel annually.

If Saudi Arabia can progress, it could lead the Middle East into a new phase of mass solar deployment.