Doha, Qatar - Synonymous with crude oil and the vast wealth it has bestowed, Saudi Arabia is now planning to tap its copious exposure to the sun to become the world's titan of solar power.
The Saudi government is placing its bets squarely on the country's abundant sunlight, as it seeks $109bn in investment to fire up its solar energy sector. A total of $136bn was invested worldwide in solar energy in 2011, underscoring the kingdom's determination to develop its own industry.
The goal is to power about 30 per cent of the country's burgeoning energy needs by 2030.
Saudi Arabia's massive expenditure into renewable energy could transform the way human societies generate power, observers say.
"I don't think Saudi Arabia is doing this for generosity to the planet in terms of climate change mitigation. It makes absolute business sense for them to do it."
- Adnan Amin, International Renewable Energy Agency
Adnan Amin is the director-general of the Abu Dhabi-based International Renewable Energy Agency. When asked if Saudi Arabia's solar development could revolutionise global energy production, Amin replied: "Absolutely, I see this as a game-changer."
Speaking at the UN climate change talks in Doha, Amin noted the irony of the world's largest exporter of hydrocarbons now attempting to become its biggest provider of solar power - by using its vast fossil-fuel wealth to make it happen.
Others have also hailed the plan as visionary, as it spends billions on research to develop a sustainable energy bonanza. However, sceptics say the kingdom's solar push would be insignificant for climate change mitigation, since the world's leading oil exporter would continue to pump its crude to other nations to burn, with carbon dioxide still reaching the atmosphere and threatening the planet.
Economics of the sun
Saudi Arabia's courtship with solar energy appears more likely motivated by economics rather than environmental concern. With summer months of 50° Celsius (122°F) temperatures, the country and its 25 million people use up a significant amount of crude on air-conditioning alone.
"I don't think Saudi Arabia is doing this for generosity to the planet in terms of climate change mitigation," said Amin. "It makes absolute business sense for them to do it."
Saudi burns 850 million barrels of oil each year for its domestic energy consumption, accounting for about 30 per cent of its total production.
|Follow our in-depth coverage of Doha COP18 negotiations
With its population and energy needs rising, it is imperative for the kingdom to act now and diversify its energy sources, analysts say.
"Oil is more precious for us underground than as a fuel source," Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal told the World Economic Symposium in Brazil in October. "If we can get to the point where we can replace fossil fuels and use oil to produce other products that are useful, that would be very good for the world."
The Saudi government aims to generate 41,000 megawatts of solar power within two decades, which would domestically save as much as 523,000 barrels a day of oil equivalent, according to King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy, the government body overseeing the solar programme.
Energy tipping point?
While Saudi Arabia turns on the solar switch, anti-climate change proponents say its immense oil reserves will still be harvested, sold, and released into the atmosphere as CO2 - doing little to halt global warming in decades to come.
Others, however, see the move as a key starting point for a major shift to renewable energy globally, with Saudi oil wealth funnelled into solar research and development - along with other renewables such as wind, geothermal, and biomass sources.
Hoda Baraka from Greenpeace said her group had noted the "unprecedented nature and size of planned Saudi investments in solar".
"Greenpeace sees Saudi development plans as important in promoting what we hope will be an east-west regional push for solar," said Baraka.
"The capacity envisaged by Saudi Arabia is likely to change the nature of the global solar industry."
- Clint Steyn and Marc Norman, analysts
In terms of fighting climate change, Saudi Arabia turning to the sun for energy is a "complicated one", Robin Mills, head of consulting at Manaar Energy in Dubai, told Al Jazeera.
"Most likely the solar power programme should reduce emissions - since the additional Saudi oil will either be kept in the ground for the future, or exported, in which case it would replace high-cost oil from other sources - Canadian oil sands for example - which have a higher carbon footprint," Mills said.
Despite scepticism, Saudi Arabia's solar investment will without doubt bolster the business of sun power at a time when viable alternatives to fossil fuels are urgently required.
"The potential opportunities for solar power in Saudi Arabia abound," said Dubai-based energy analysts Clint Steyn and Marc Norman in a recent report titled: "Saudi Arabia: The Future Solar Leader".
"The kingdom could rapidly become one of the world's most significant solar power markets as well as a 'game changer' for beleaguered solar equipment manufacturers ... The capacity envisaged by Saudi Arabia is likely to change the nature of the global solar industry."
Saudi solar exports?
Leon Kaye, founder and editor of GreenGoPost.com, said it was the fossil-fuel rich countries of the Gulf, such as Saudi Arabia, that could lead the way to a cleaner planet.
“While the rest of the world is mired in austerity or political inertia or focused on development, the MENA [Middle East and North Africa] countries have the deep pockets to fund the further development of all these new technologies - which are still expensive and require massive amounts of capital."
Professor Thomas Wilbanks from the US-based Climate Change Institute agreed. "The oil-exporting countries of the Middle East have the advantages of lots of sun, lots of land area to deploy solar collectors, and lots of financial resources to invest in solar energy system development. Few other countries in the world have that combination of assets for solar energy."
|A Saudi man walks past a solar installation [Reuters]
Saudi Arabia plans to generate as much solar power as it exports in the form of crude, Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi said in a speech in Poland in June 2011. The country has the potential to produce enough solar energy to meet four times the world's electricity demand, he added.
Khalid al-Suliman, vice-president of the King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy, told the Eqtisadiah daily newspaper this week that a feasibility study had been conducted, and Saudi Arabia was now looking at exporting solar energy to European Union countries, via Turkey, during the winter months.
The country could eventually "meet large export volumes of solar energy in the future", said the International Renewable Energy Agency's Amin. With the amount of solar radiation Saudi Arabia receives, those ambitious goals are scientifically plausible, he added.
Construction of the nation's first solar plant will start in early 2013, said Al-Suliman. It is scheduled to be operational within two years.