The Rise of ‘Renewable Energy’ in the Arab World

Discussions and warnings about climate change have pushed individuals and governments to take the matter into their own hands by pursuing sustainable energy solutions. Renewable energy has become widespread globally and the Arab world is slowly getting there, too. 

Countries have been using technology – from solar panels to wind turbines – to harness natural resources including wind, water, and sunlight. These resources are transformed into useful energy that can power electricity and purify water.

Many Arab countries have been competing on this “go green” front with massive solar power plants. Cities in the UAE are competing against each other in a Dubai VS. Abu Dhabi solar battle.

Back in June, the Noor Abu Dhabi solar plant was officially opened for commercial use in the Emirati capital. It consists of 3.2 million solar panels, with a capacity of 1.17 gigawatts in a single location — making it the largest single-site solar plant in the world. Noor Abu Dhabi (Arabic for *Light of Abu Dhabi*) is expected to charge the electricity needs of 90,000 people. In turn, the plant is expected to reduce carbon footprints by 1 million metric tons every year.

The emirate of Dubai, on the other hand, plans to create a solar lake by placing floating panels on the rainwater drainage lakes near Al Maktoum International Airport.

The UAE aims to produce 24 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2021. In 2017, UAE Minister of Environment and Water Dr. Rashid Bin Fahd had said that the nation is on track to surpass its renewable energy goals.

But, the UAE hasn’t won the green battle just yet. On the other side of the region lies Morocco — a country whose king actually received an award for his “visionary” leadership in renewable energy.

The North African nation is actually the proud owner of the world’s largest concentrated solar power plant. The Noor-Ouarzazate complex was built on 3,000 hectares (30 square kilometers) of land at the entrance to the Sahara Desert. The complex can power a city twice the size of Marrakesh. It has the power to reduce Morocco’s carbon footprint by 760,000 tons each year.

This type of “concentrated” solar power differs from the more commonly known one in that it is actually a configured mirror system that concentrates the sun’s light energy onto one receiver, which then converts it to heat. It can then be turned to steam driving a turbine, ultimately creating electricity.

Morocco has become a leader in pursuing sustainable energy solutions, with plans to care for 42 percent of its energy needs from renewable sources by 2020 and 52 percent by 2030. The kingdom also aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 32 percent within 15 years.

Earlier this year, the Climate Change Performance Index (CCPI) 2019 gave a breakdown of 60 different countries’ efforts in the fight against climate change over the course of 2018. In it, Morocco was named the fourth-best country, while Saudi Arabia was named the worst. Saudi Arabia ranked at the bottom of the CCPI, scoring 8 out of 100 on the index. However, that doesn’t mean the kingdom hasn’t been steering its efforts towards more sustainable solutions.

The kingdom is actually working to produce 10 percent of its electricity from renewable energy sources by 2030. However, it has not adopted emission reduction targets, according to the report.

But, several initiatives have materialized in the renewable space. Associate Professor Peng Wang and a team of scientists at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) actually developed a three-stage membrane distillation devicethat would allow them to harness the heat waste from solar panels. This device could then distill and purify saltwater, producing a high fresh water rate.

Nevertheless, due to the need for some difficult to acquire conditions, Professor Wang said, “it can be used for coastal areas as long as you are not talking about delivering drinking water to a city of over one million people.”

Currently, less than 1 percent of Saudi Arabia’s energy is renewable and nearly all of the kingdom’s domestic power currently comes from crude, refined oil, or natural gas.

Tunisia may not have one of the largest solar plants, nor have its scientists created a device, but the country has been solar power-crazed. Wherever a plant can fit, a plant shall be built.

In recent years, Tunisia has been building conventional power plants to aid in the development of its solar and wind capacities. This comes as the country aims to reduce its use of natural gas and oil, which produce 97 percent of its total energy. In 2009, the Tunisian government adopted “Plan Solaire Tunisien” (Tunisia Solar Plan) —  a $2.5-billion project which hopes to achieve 4.7 gigawatts of renewable energy capacity by 2030.

Overall, the country hopes to produce 30 percent of its electrical energy from renewable energy sources by 2030.

Other countries in the Arab world have been slowly integrating renewable energy including Lebanon, Bahrain, Oman, Algeria, Qatar, Iraq and Egypt.

Egypt, for example, has made incredible progress in the sector in recent years. In 2015, Egypt inaugurated the largest wind farm in Africa. The wind farm aims to generate 800 million kilowatt-hours annually, providing power to about 50,000 people while preventing the emission of up to 400,000 tons of carbon dioxide per year.

In Dec. 2018, the World Bank released a report detailing the policies for sustainable energy in several countries across the world and found that countries with “strong policy frameworks” have more than tripled since 2010. The report mentioned that the UAE, Egypt and Tunisia are among the world’s fastest developers in “renewable energy” between 2010 and 2017.

Let’s hope other countries’ development in the space goes just as rapid in the next couple of years.


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