Bill Scanlon, NREL
April 22, 2013 | 6 Comments
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Saudi Arabia is jumping headlong into renewable energy, with plans to install more solar and wind power in the next 20 years than the rest of the world has installed to date.
The oil-rich Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is working with the US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) for training and expertise in measuring its solar resource.
The importance of setting up networks to gauge and predict the strength of solar radiation in varying meteorological conditions convinced the Saudis to choose NREL as a partner.
Nine Saudi engineers spent nine days at NREL last month, studying and discussing topics as theoretical as Ångström’s law and the scatter-absorption ratio for the atmospheric effects on solar radiation, and as practical as the effect of sandstorms on solar panels. NREL experts also engaged the Saudi staff with topics including waste-to-energy, geothermal technologies, calibrations, and solar resource forecasting.
NREL and its partner Battelle will install more than 50 monitoring stations in the Middle East kingdom this year to measure the solar resource and gauge the best spots for solar power plants and will also train local Saudis to operate and maintain the instruments and stations.
It’s a crucial part of Saudi Arabia’s plan to spend $109 billion over the next two decades to install more than 50 gigawatts of renewable power in the country and meet at least 30% of its electricity needs with solar energy by 2032. That’s more gigawatts of renewable energy than were installed in the entire world as of 2012.
The overarching goal is to double electricity capacity by 2030 and have half of that energy originate from renewable sources such as wind, solar, and geothermal. The kingdom is expected to write contracts worth $7 billion in 2013 alone.
Renewables in Oil-Rich Land
Why Saudi Arabia? Why does a nation that has huge oil reserves want to become a leader in renewable energy?
“Saudi Arabia is determined to diversify our energy sources and reduce our dependence on hydrocarbons,” said Wail Bamhair, the project manager for the Saudi team that visited NREL. “Renewable energy isn’t just an option, but absolutely necessary. We have the means to build renewable energy, and we need to do it.”
Because Saudi Arabia is lacking in coal and natural gas, it uses a tremendous number of barrels of oil to desalinate water and heat turbines to bring electricity to homes and businesses. Electricity is particularly in high demand during the Saudi summer when temperatures routinely top 110 degrees Fahrenheit and air conditioners are rumbling. Economists have suggested that a big move into renewable energy can strengthen Saudi Arabia’s economy and free up millions of extra barrels of oil for export. Bamhair said that while Saudi Arabia has a lot of sun, it also has challenges such as a variable climate, sandstorms, and even the occasional snowstorm in the northern regions. He shared photos he took of a sandstorm that in a few short minutes plunged an afternoon into darkness along a busy thoroughfare near the capital, Riyadh.
“We are working hand-in-hand with experts from NREL and Battelle who have these amazing minds,” Bamhair said. “We are looking for them to build our human capacity. We are here to see, to learn, and to transfer the knowledge.”
Forty years ago, Saudi Arabia had a population of about 5 million mostly nomadic people. Now, it’s home to 27.5 million people, and most live in cities, including Riyadh, Jeddah, and Medina.
Building a New City to Support Renewables
Saudi Arabia has envisioned a new city to bring together researchers and manufacturing facilities for the renewable energy push. It is called the King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy, or K.A.CARE, and is expected to have a population between 30,000 and 70,000. Nancy Carlisle, director of NREL’s Integrated Applications Center, and her team also are assisting the Saudis by providing expert insight into lab design and how it can integrate with the city.
“The king and the kingdom recognize that it’s important to look at non-fossil energy sources,” said Tom Stoffel, NREL’s group leader for Solar Resources and Forecasting.
The Saudi government is paying for the projects. In NREL’s case, the parties will sign “Work for Others” agreements in which the American taxpayer pays nothing, but the general knowledge learned can later be used again to help improve renewable energy technologies in the United States.
Saudi Arabia and NREL have worked together before. In the 1990s, NREL helped launch research centers for the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology that was established in 1977.
The new partnership grew out of a visit by Saudi officials in 2010, which included a typical guest tour of the Solar Radiation Research Laboratory at NREL’s Mesa Top facilities. Stoffel noticed his visitors were paying very close attention. “At the end of the tour, one of them asked us if we could help put 100 to 200 monitoring stations in the kingdom,” Stoffel said. “After I picked up my jaw, I said, ‘Yes, that’s what we do.’” NREL is the site of an annual internal gathering to recalibrate solar radiometers and maintains the calibration standard for the United States.
Solar Monitoring Key to Knowing Resource, Engaging Stakeholders
Saudi Arabia eventually decided to put the project out for bid. NREL, partnering with Battelle, won the contract.
“The kingdom is tapping into our expertise on climatology, geography, and population density to make the best decisions on where to put the monitoring stations and the solar power plants,” NREL Senior Engineer Stephen Wilcox said.
“They wanted to do this quickly because they need to demonstrate to stakeholders and potential investors a kingdom-size capacity for renewable energy,” Stoffel said. NREL’s measurements “will help decide where to put a central photovoltaic power plant, or a concentrating solar power plant of a particular size,” he added.
Wilcox and NREL colleague Michael Dooraghi have already set up three solar measurement stations in Saudi Arabia as part of an initial training and outreaching event, including one in Riyadh, one just outside Riyadh, and one near where the new city will be built, about a 45-minute drive from the current K.A.CARE headquarters in Riyadh. Tripods holding several solar monitoring instruments are anchored either in the ground or on heavy concrete ballasts.