Nuclear power the best solution for Saudi Arabia
Serious power outages in Saudi Arabia last weekend once again highlighted the importance of power generation in the modernized, urbanized Kingdom. In the heat of June and at the end of Ramadan, cities in Saudi Arabia simply cannot go without electricity. This is why it is imperative for the Kingdom to build nuclear power plants.
However, the world gets nervous whenever a new country enters the nuclear power community. To alleviate this global anxiety, there are steps Saudi Arabia can and should take. It would be easy to reassure the naysayers and set an example for peaceful nuclear stewardship.
Saudi Arabia is the only G-20 country that burns large amounts of oil for electricity generation. In 2016, 40 percent of its electricity still came from oil. Almost all of the rest of its electricity comes from natural gas. However, this is not Saudi Arabia’s fault. Coal and hydropower made up more than half of the world’s electricity generation in 2016, but Saudi Arabia does not have access to either. That leaves gas and oil as its most reliable options.
This needs to change. Gas and oil could be better used in commerce as exports or to produce products such as gasoline, plastics or a variety of petrochemicals. Of course, oil and gas also pollute the air when burned for electricity. An alternative energy source is necessary.
Saudi Arabia expects a 40 percent rise in electricity demand from 2019 to 2030, according to Energy Minister Khalid Al-Falih. Electricity use will increase with the continued growth of urban areas and plans to build a vibrant manufacturing sector. Furthermore, according to the Electricity and Cogeneration Regulatory Authority (ECRA), 9 percent of electricity is used for desalination — a burden most countries do not face. The ECRA also showed that the summer months place incredible strain on the power grid. In recent years, the Saudi Electricity Company (SEC) burned twice as much fuel during the summer months as it did during the rest of the year.
The Kingdom needs nuclear energy for its economic, environmental and humanitarian future.
Ellen R. Wald
Because of this problem, the Energy Ministry and the SEC, along with ACWA Power and various private firms, are working to bring renewables to the Kingdom. The government has set goals for renewables as part of Vision 2030, such as 9.5 gigawatts of solar and wind power by 2023. There are currently a few existing projects, such as a 300 megawatt solar project at Sakaka and the 400 megawatt Dumat Al Jandal wind project.
Though the Kingdom has extensive and ambitious plans for adding renewable energy to the power generation mix, these are not serious substitutes to oil and gas. The technologies for wind and solar power are simply not yet good enough. Globally, in 2016, solar and wind power could only account for just over 5 percent of the total. The projects are expensive to build, they create their own environmental destruction — such as the death of migratory birds and the use of huge tracts of land — and they do not provide reliable baseload. Interestingly, academics have theorized that solar thermal plants could be particularly useful as dedicated power sources for desalination facilities, but this would still require other sources of power during nighttime hours.
Simply put, the wind does not always blow and the sun does not shine at night or during storms. Therefore, wind and solar plants can only supplement existing baseload producers that do reliably create power at all times. They will not be reliable technologies until someone invents a battery that is able to store massive amounts of power for the times when these renewable plants do not produce. But Saudi Arabia cannot wait.
At the moment, Saudi Arabia needs more electricity, and it also needs to use less gas and less oil. The best solution is nuclear power. The Kingdom needs nuclear energy for its economic, environmental and humanitarian future.
The biggest impediment to a nuclear-powered Kingdom — beyond the steep cost of initially building the plant — is the need to calm the nerves of the global community that get activated every time a new country expresses an interest in anything nuclear. Already, several Western commentators have expressed concern about nuclear plants in the Gulf. Saudi Arabia’s solution is simple: The Kingdom can promise openly and clearly that it will not seek to mine any of its abundant uranium resources or to enrich any uranium on its own.
Industry experts say it is economically pointless to extract uranium anyway because it is relatively plentiful and cheap to purchase. Enriching the uranium is also unnecessary, as there are plenty of suppliers already available. Nuclear power plants can be bought from South Korea, Russia, the US and others. South Korean and Russian companies already presented ideas to the Kingdom in 2018, and a French firm participated in sight plans. Once plants are built, the management can be handled by Saudis, with specific contracts to foreign firms. There is no need for Saudi Arabia to try to develop the project itself or to mine or enrich its own uranium.
The best thing to do is tell the world this and show the world this is not about weapons. Saudi Arabia should go above and beyond what the world asks, sign any agreement and welcome any nuclear inspectors. Show the world that this is not about war but about averting any potential domestic economic and humanitarian crisis.
Ellen R. Wald, Ph.D. is a historian and author of “Saudi, Inc.” She is the president of Transversal Consulting and also teaches Middle East history and policy at Jacksonville University. Twitter: @EnergzdEconomy