JEDDAH: The summer solstice occurred on June 21 at 05.45 UCT. During that 24-hour period, when the sun reached its farthest northerly arc, 970 trillion kilowatt hours of free energy beamed to earth. That, according to the US Energy Administration, is about 247 years supply of energy for America — in one day.
The best part is that sunshine is free. Any profit lies in the rights to place solar energy gatherers in national territories, the conversion of heat to electricity and the sale of energy. The fossil-fuel industry operates on much the same basis. However, there are a couple of significant differences.
The sun is not going to run out for several billion years, however much energy we can extract from it and we can utilize its energy with far, far less pollution. The biggest hindrance to solar adoption has been the perception of high economic cost compared to conventional oil-fired power plants.
Dr. Gerhard Knies is a member of the Trans-Mediterranean Renewable Energy Cooperation (TREC), which developed a concept for energy, water and climate security in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. As he pointed out in a recent interview with the BBC, the basic question is no longer “does the science work” but, “whether heat from the sun is more competitive than heat from fossil fuels.” So who wins?
Solar energy is definitely expensive but fossil fuels are also getting more and more expensive to extract and distribute. Currently it costs $50 to $60 to obtain solar energy equivalent to what one would get from burning a barrel of oil. With the economy of scale that comes with mass production of solar-gathering equipment, the capital price and the break-even point will continue to decrease as demand increases. The break-even point also depends on the techniques used for obtaining solar energy. Currently, there are two options, each of which has strengths and weaknesses. Photovoltaic (PV) cells absorb light, which is then converted into electrical energy and fed into low-loss transmission lines. The disadvantage of PV is that at night when the sun sets, so does the power generation. At that point, electricity stored in batteries or as heat for reconversion, must take over. The advantage is that PV cells convert solar rays into electrical energy at relatively high efficiency rate.
The other technique, Concentrated Solar Power is far simpler. It involves focusing the sun’s heat by using a parabolic reflective surface onto a pipe located at the reflector’s focal point and heating a fluid inside to high temperature. Passing the superheated pipes through water generates steam that drives turbines and generates electricity.
Slightly more sophisticated is the Power Tower design. A field of mirrors surrounds a central tower that houses the pipes containing the fluid to be heated and delivers concentrated heat. As the sun moves, optical sensors and computers control the angle of the mirrors to maintain the focus of heat onto the tower. The system has several advantages over the trough design; it can be built on uneven land or hillsides; it generates higher temperatures resulting in more efficient storage; and the plumbing can be concentrated in the tower.
Currently, it is cheaper and more efficient to store heat than electricity. With the CSP technique, the pipes of fluid and huge heat sinks can store heat during the hours of darkness and maintain power generation 24 hours a day. As an added bonus, CSP requires much less initial capital to get a project started. The downside is that the efficiency rate of CSP technology is significantly lower than with PV panels.
Serious consideration of solar power to supply Europe is under way in the form of the Desertec Project. The idea already has the backing of senior political figures and a consortium of major industrial companies and finance groups.
CEO of Siemens Peter Loescher told Arab News in a report published on Aug. 29 (Easy solar energy: Is the writing on the wall for fossil fuel?) that the Desertec initiative was designed to provide a sustainable supply of electricity to North Africa, the Middle East and Europe on the basis of renewable energies.
“The participating countries will profit from the production of energy. And the export of green power will not only be an outstanding image factor; it will also strengthen local expertise and employment in the area considerably,” Loescher said in the interview.
The question for the KSA is, can it capitalize on this free and abundant resource?
The simple answer is “yes”. On June 3 in Riyadh, the government even held a workshop dedicated to “The Development of National Renewable Energy Policy for Saudi Arabia.” At the conference, Dr. Ahmad Al-Khowaiter, gave a presentation entitled “Solar Energy: an opportunity for Saudi Arabia” in which he pointed to three solar-related competitive advantages that the Kingdom has: cheap land, solar potential that rivals the Sahara desert, and abundant sand (silica) which is used in the production of PV cells.
He also showed that as the KSA’s electricity demand continues to rise, internal oil consumption will double to an estimated 4 million barrels per day by 2020. If this pace is kept, solar energy will actually become economically viable in the KSA between 2010 and 2015. By the end of the workshop it was clear that the government could use the sun’s energy to diversify the Kingdom’s economy, increase foreign investment, create jobs and fuel another round of economic growth.
Solar would not even take up much real estate. According to Arnulf Jaeger-Waldau, of the European Commission’s Institute for Energy; in order to meet the power consumption for the whole of Europe, just 0.3 percent of the light falling on the Sahara and Middle East deserts would need to be captured.
Not to mention, there is a delightful irony in the idea of harnessing the very energy that threatens to stifle us and then using it to prevent us from being stifled. It could well be the stars or the one closest to us that we call the sun, which could provide ‘a’ or even ‘the’ contribution that equips us to counter global warming effectively.
There is no need to postpone this necessary transition to a more sustainable future, because, as a wise man once said: “The Stone Age did not end for lack of stone, and the Oil Age will end long before the world runs out of oil.”
Now is the time for the Kingdom to listen to the growing community of solar advocates. They’re chorusing: “Bring me sunshine!”