The Middle East Steps Up On Renewables

on February 15, 2012 at 7:00 AM

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon last month referred to Abu Dhabi as “becoming justifiably renowned as a hub for progress” regarding clean energy.

Abu Dhabi? Hub of the Middle East and home to one of the most oil-rich regions of the world?

Indeed, in January the city hosted a worldwide gathering of more than 26,000 to discuss a sustainable energy future at the 4th annual World Future Energy Summit (WFES2012). An examination of the Middle East’s activities in the renewable energy sector shows remarkable progress. And as I reflect upon my participation at WFES, I am struck by the commitment of the corporations headquartered in this region to pursue renewable energy alternatives to oil and natural gas.

Part of this commitment, certainly, comes from the fact that it’s more profitable for many oil-exporting countries to sell across its borders than retain oil for domestic use. It’s simply economics. Burning very valuable oil to create electricity, as is done in Saudi Arabia, is an expensive proposition, as oil sits above $100 per barrel. But underlying this is a realization that oil may not continue to be a driver of growth for these regions as it has been over the past half-century. An alternative is needed.

If the countries of the Middle East – with their relatively easy and abundant access to petroleum – see promise in a transition toward renewable sources of energy, then so should we all.

Consider this: While Saudi Arabia possesses up to one-fifth of the world’s oil reserves, it is also one of the most ferocious consumers of oil. It needs as much as 1.5 million barrels of oil a day just to power desalination plants to deliver a portion of the nation’s drinking water. Alongside Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar and Kuwait count among the world’s top 10 nations for per capita oil consumption.

By 2030, the Middle East is projected to consume 17 percent of the world’s global oil reserves on an annual basis. Meanwhile, the population of the Middle East continues to grow at astounding rates, effectively doubling by 2030.

Further, despite relatively high electrification rates, more than 23 million people in the Middle East do not have access to electricity. This has dire consequences for the provision of clean water, sanitation and healthcare, condemning people in the region to decades of poverty and suffering.

Energy investments in the region are indeed beginning to diversify. In the Middle East and Africa, new investments in sustainable energy doubled to US$ 5 billion in 2010, and the World Bank has made a US$5 billion loan pledge to fund solar projects there. Meanwhile, individual countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt have pledged to fulfill 7 percent and 20 percent, respectively, of their electricity needs from renewables by 2020.

In Qatar, a carbon neutral stadium is being built for the 2022 World Cup, while the Moroccan government is undertaking US $9 billion in solar energy projects aimed at producing 2,000 MW of electricity by 2020. Masdar City, Abu Dhabi’s US$22 billion vision of a zero-emission, zero-waste metropolis is quickly becoming a reality. And in rural, off-grid areas, decentralized renewable energy systems are beginning to gain traction.

Throughout the region, money, resources and talent are being dispatched to develop solutions that simultaneously address the lack of access to electricity, energy security and climate change.

This type of multi-faceted solution to global energy issues is part of what Ban calls for with his “Sustainable Energy for All” initiative. With this, he calls for the achievement of three objectives by 2030: Universal access to modern energy; a doubling of the rate of improvement in energy efficiency, and a doubling of the share of renewables in the global energy mix.

Certainly, to achieve these goals, we’ll continue to need determined and realistic national energy plans throughout the world, with legislation, incentives, and targets backed up with significant financial support. And renewable energy companies such as Suntech should and will continue to focus on technological innovation and making renewable energy cost-competitive with fossil fuels.

Reflecting upon WFES in Abu Dhabi, I’m reminded that as individuals, governments and businesses, together we can more effectively help the world’s disadvantaged access reliable electric power, ensure environmental sustainability, and tackle climate change for the benefit of all.

Andrew Beebe is the Chief Commercial Officer of Suntech, the world’s largest manufacturer of solar panels. He is also founder of several cleantech consulting and development companies.

Photo Caption: An early morning sun lights the Abu Dhabi skyline.