OPEC’s top producer is turning to wind and solar power

The nation most identified with its massive oil reserves is turning to wind and solar to generate power at home and help extend the life of its crucial crude franchise.

Starting this year, Saudi Arabia plans to develop almost 10 gigawatts of renewable energy by 2023, starting with wind and solar plants in its vast northwestern desert. The effort could replace the equivalent of 80,000 barrels of oil a day now burned for power. Add in natural gas projects set to start later this decade, and the Saudis could quadruple that number, according to consultant Wood MacKenzie Ltd. That could supplant all the crude burned in the kingdom during its winter months.

The effort goes hand-in-hand with a drive by the royal family to broaden the economy following two years of budget deficits tied to low oil prices. More industry, though, means more energy, with the amount of power used at peak times growing by 10 percent in the last year alone.

“Renewable energy is not a luxury anymore,” said Mario Maratheftis, chief economist at Standard Chartered Plc., in an interview. “If domestic use continues like this, eventually the Saudis won’t have spare oil to export.’’

Without alternative power sources, including gas and renewables, the kingdom would be forced to increase its crude burn. That can reach as high as 900,000 barrels a day during the kingdom’s summer months, according to data from the Joint Organisations Data Initiative.

Saudi Arabia has already taken steps to substitute natural gas for oil in power plants, a change that’s had “immense” impact on the crude burn, OPEC said in its Monthly Oil Market Report released in January. The use of crude for domestic power has fallen by nearly a third since the Wasit gas plant began operations in March 2016, according to the OPEC report.

300,000 Barrels

Saudi Aramco will bring online the similar-sized Fadhili gas project in the country’s east by the end of the decade. That gas project and the renewable projects planned for completion by 2023 could save about 300,000 barrels of oil from being burnt for power, according to estimates based on IEA and OPEC data.

Alternative energies are “a key factor in the economic transformation,’’ Fabio Scacciavillani, chief economist of the Oman Investment Fund, said in an interview. “This region has a great competitive advantage in low-cost energy production and that will continue with renewables. That will create a big advantage particularly in energy intensive industries.’’

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