Saudi Arabia has long been dependent on fossil fuel and is the 6th-biggest oil consumer. However, that is changing: a solar-panel factory is in the works, 10 large solar projects are being built and another polysilicon-producing factory is underway.
The country has set a goal of building 41 gigawatts of solar capacity — more than any nation has today — in the first half of this century. Why? Because its domestic oil consumption has gotten so out of control and is increasing so fast that the kingdom could be a net oil importer in just over 20 years. That would wreak havoc in a country where political stability rests on the royal family’s ability to keep its subjects happy without making them pay taxes.
“Solar, they have decided, is an obvious alternative,” Ball continues. “In addition to having some of the world’s richest oil fields, Saudi Arabia also has some of the world’s most intense sunlight.” (Some people have all the luck.)
There’s a certain disconnect between aspiration and reality, with dust storms clouding the solar panels and problems with imported manufacturing parts. But Ball concludes that the surprising truth remains: Saudi Arabia may become a model for other countries trying to shift away from oil. And if that doesn’t happen, the desert kingdom could end up exporting its solar riches to us the way they traditionally have exported oil.