Saudi Arabia goes solar

The sun sets in the Saudi city of Hail. Saudi Arabia, the world's largest oil exporter, isn't necessarily concerned about saving the planet. It's about being able to export even more crude.

Kai Ryssdal: Crude oil ended the week off about a buck, $96-and-change a barrel. Down 8 percent the past two weeks. It'll almost assuredly go back up again -- sooner probably rather than later.

Saudi Arabia's not takin' any chances. It's diversifying, you might say. The planet's biggest crude exporter isn't giving up on black gold, but it now wants to become a world leader in renewable energy. And its new solar plant is one of the most ambitious on the planet.

From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, Eve Troeh reports.


Eve Troeh: What could make more sense than using solar power in the desert? But for decades, Saudi Arabia has made most of its electricity by burning its other plentiful resource: oil. Now it has a $100 billion plan to ramp up solar, wind, and other clean energy technology to reinvent itself as the "Kingdom of Sustainable Energy."

Shayle Kahn at Green Tech Media says lots of Arab nations are doing the same.

Shayle Kahn: Trying to ultimately fashion themselves into energy economies, as opposed to just oil economies.

Because the Persian Gulf states know better than anyone: Their oil won't last forever. The Saudi plan is mostly about solar, rooftop panels and big desert power plants. But it's not necessarily about saving the planet.

Kahn: There may be multiple reasons they did this, and climate change may be none of them.

This big solar push is really all about oil. Tom Kimbis at the Solar Energy Industries Alliance says Saudi Arabia sells oil to its power plants at home for $4 a barrel. Compare that to the $100-a-barrel price it gets on the global market.

Tom Kimbis: It has a real monetary gain that can be seen from moving from oil to solar.

Like $96 a barrel. Kimbis says the Saudis use just a tiny fraction of their oil to make electricity. But as oil gets more scarce, and prices rise, every drop counts. More solar will help the Saudis continue their reign as the world's top oil exporter. A reputation they likely care about much more than being kings of solar.

I'm Eve Troeh for Marketplace.

About the author

Eve Troeh is News Director at WWNO-FM in New Orleans, La., helping build the first public radio news department in the station’s 40-year history. She reported for the Marketplace Sustainability Desk from 2010 to 2013.

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