Middle East's Push Toward Renewable Energy Spurred by Rising Oil Prices
Sept. 20, 2011 - LISA FRIEDMAN - nytimes.com
Solar plants are cropping up in Jordan and Morocco. Wind farms are being built in Egypt and Tunisia. Eight Arab nations and the Palestinian territories have a renewable energy target, and at least five more are taking serious steps to promote the domestic use of clean energy. Some of the most surprising movement is happening in oil-rich countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
Perhaps taking a page from Masdar, the famous carbon-zero city in the United Arab Emirates, these countries are spending their petrodollars on a budding number of their own alternative energy projects.
Climate change, by all accounts, is not the primary driver for this. While rising global temperatures threaten to reduce the availability of scarce water and to raise food prices in the Middle East, analysts say that prospect is overshadowed by present realities of their main export: oil. Rising oil prices and growing energy demands mean depleting reserves. Thus, there is a new need to diversify.
Indeed, for some oil-producing nations like Saudi Arabia, several experts even compared the growing interest in domestic renewable energy use to a "Don't get high off your own supply" crack-dealer ethic.
Nevertheless, many agreed, as financial possibilities for clean technology development expand, a green transformation is a distinct possibility for the Arab world.
Rich market begins to see climate omens
"I see the region as being a real place where there will be a number of solar projects done, both in terms of solar fields, but also in terms of the use of solar technology in construction techniques and solar heating and water cooling facilities," said James Gede, a partner with Hogan Lovells who specializes in renewable energy work.
"Ultimately, you're going to see, potentially, offshore wind," Gede said. "I think you're going to see wave technology; all sorts of the renewable energy technology that you see elsewhere around the world, you're going to see there."
While climate change may not be the Arab world's motivation for clean energy use, many analysts said it is no coincidence that the interest in renewables developed alongside a greater understanding of the impacts of global warming in the Middle East.
Mohamed El-Ashry, a senior fellow at the U.N. Foundation and a former chairman of the Global Environment Facility (GEF), said the threat of sea level rise in particular made an impression on governments in the region.
A 2009 study produced by the Arab Forum for Environment and Development -- the first Arab-led report on climate change -- found that 41,500 square kilometers of coastal land in Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, Kuwait, Bahrain and the UAE could be lost with just a 1-meter sea level rise. With a 5-meter rise, the study found, Bahrain and Qatar could lose 13.4 percent and 6.9 percent, respectively, of their land.
At the time of that report, the UAE was the shining -- and only -- example of significant emissions mitigation efforts in the Middle East. A review the authors conducted of 14 reports that countries are obligated to submit to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change found that Arab nations "rarely included detailed assessments of past and/or ongoing mitigation projects or activities," and Saudi Arabia's report did not even contain a section on mitigation.
And while some governments had researched their domestic wind and solar potential, only Egypt had imposed a firm target to increase the contribution of renewable energy to 20 percent by 2020.
Some new milestones
Consider some of what has happened since:
"Many of us weren't paying attention," El-Ashry said. "It reminds me of what happened with China. Many of us thought China would not do the right thing, and were criticizing it ... and now they are the leader in clean energy."
Tough market to penetrate, until now
Even for non-oil-producing countries, though, generating interest in renewables within a region that holds nearly 58 percent of the world's oil reserves was initially a hard sell. El-Ashry recalled speaking to Algeria's minister of petroleum in 2001, trying to make the case that if Algeria -- which exports about 1.8 million barrels of oil per day -- developed domestic renewable resources, it could preserve its petroleum for export and use that money for economic development.
"He was hesitant," El-Ashry said. "Countries don't change that easily." The transformation of the past few years, he said, has been dramatic -- particularly compared with the decades of encouragement and prodding that preceded them. Last year, the Middle East and North Africa region saw about $2.5 billion in clean energy investment, according to the REN21 Renewables 2010 Global Status Report.
Different countries, of course, have different motivations for moving toward renewables. For an oil-importing nation like Jordan, the impetus for a goal of developing 1.5 GW of solar and wind energy over the next decade was entirely about rising oil prices.
"So far, we have not felt the impact of climate change, but we have felt the impact of high oil prices," Jordanian Minister for Energy and Mineral Resources Khaled Toukan said at a recent meeting of scientists and political leaders at Hamburg, Germany's Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron (DESY) to discuss a major Middle East solar undertaking known as Desertec (ClimateWire, May 20). Jordan currently imports about 95 percent of its energy.
But the solar work being done in Jordan also is preventive medicine. "The oil era is definitely dwindling and coming to an end," Toukan said. "All countries of the world are now seeking alternative sources of energy."
That's something that energy experts say Saudi Arabia, in particular, is taking to heart. Kevin Book, managing director of research at Clearview Energy Partners, said for oil producers, "the motive goes beyond diversification." A decade ago, he said, Saudi Arabia used about 70,000 barrels per day for domestic power generation. Now it's about 130,000 barrels per day.
"That's about $6.5 billion a year in lost sales revenue that could be going to export, and that number is going up," Book said. That makes the country's investment in alternative energy supplies a drop in the bucket.
Atsuhiko Hirano, senior vice president of global marketing and power generation for Solar Frontier, based in Tokyo, is starting work on a 500-kilowatt solar power plant on Saudi Arabia's Farasan Island near Jeddah. The plant will be the first in the kingdom to be remotely installed and grid-connected, displacing 28,000 barrels of diesel in its life span.
Hirano noted that the country's population is expected to double in the next decade. At the same time, the rest of the world is demanding more and more oil.
"It is quite clear that [oil] is a precious natural resource, and it is the most important export resource that they have," Hirano said. "If they start using all that precious natural resource for powering their own demand ... well, the decision is, it is better used for exporting. They also realize they are hugely well-positioned in terms of abundant sunlight."
An alternative to 'burning money'
Book said analysts informally refer to reasoning as the "Dope Man" principle, Ã la the profane 1980s rap song that warned, "Don't get high off your own supply." For the Saudis, he wrote in an email, "the implications of burning crude -- not heavy distillates, but export-quality oil -- as well as higher-value products (like middle distillates) to generate power from low-efficiency thermal plants look like, well, burning money."
But Middle Eastern energy experts from the Persian Gulf defend their motives.
Rabi Mohtar, executive director of the Qatar Environment and Energy Research Institute at the Qatar Foundation, noted that his country is "thirsty for water and hungry for food," and despite being the world's highest per capita emitter of greenhouse gases has every reason to care about climate change.
The foundation, founded by Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, is preparing to launch projects in air quality monitoring, vertical farm feasibility research and energy-efficient buildings. Mohtar said the top levels of Qatar's government support research into solar and other clean energy development.
"We did not start our research with oil and gas. That speaks to the support," Mohtar said.
At the moment, though, political turmoil in the region threatens to upend the budding investments in renewable energy. Trade and industry in many countries have ground to a halt in the face of uprisings, and tourism has tanked. Some Middle Eastern news outlets have reported that wealthy Arabs are transferring their funds to Europe and North America, and investors have indicated they don't want to stomach the risk of helping countries rebound.
But those who work in the region encourage a long view of the Middle East. El-Ashry, for one, called the slowed investment "a bump in the road" and argued that if the revolutions do bring democratic reforms, that will only help Arab countries develop more renewable energy capacity and ultimately deliver a whole new type of "Arab Spring."
"I think you will find a major expansion of renewable energy. Given democratic regimes and a lack of corruption, up to a point, I think you are going to see a major growth in renewable energy," El-Ashry said. That, he said, will lead to "a whole cadre of experts and labor, instead of having to work in the dirty jobs that existed before to work in clean jobs.
"As a result, you are going to see more of the college graduates that were sitting in sidewalk cafes because there were no jobs to do being employed in this industry."
Copyright 2011 E&E Publishing. All Rights Reserved.
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