Jeffrey Ball of the Atlantic profiles solar boosters in Saudi Arabia of all places, a country whose energy abundance has led to unparalleled waste:
Saudi Arabia produces much of its electricity by burning oil, a practice that most countries abandoned long ago, reasoning that they could use coal and natural gas instead and save oil for transportation, an application for which there is no mainstream alternative. Most of Saudi Arabia’s power plants are colossally inefficient, as are its air conditioners, which consumed 70 percent of the kingdom’s electricity in 2013. Although the kingdom has just 30 million people, it is the world’s sixth-largest consumer of oil.
Now, Saudi rulers say, things must change. Their motivation isn’t concern about global warming; the last thing they want is an end to the fossil-fuel era. Quite the contrary: they see investing in solar energy as a way to remain a global oil power.
The Saudis burn about a quarter of the oil they produce—and their domestic consumption has been rising at an alarming 7 percent a year, nearly three times the rate of population growth. According to a widely read December 2011 report by Chatham House, a British think tank, if this trend continues, domestic consumption could eat into Saudi oil exports by 2021 and render the kingdom a net oil importer by 2038.
Ball describes a country so awash in cheap energy that its buildings lack insulation, while air conditioners run 24/7, even when residents are on vacation.
Obviously the motivation to go solar isn’t based on their concern for the climate. After all, Saudi Arabia has become rich selling and burning all the oil resources under their feet. But it does show that the Kingdom may be concerned about its domestic supply and the future of the international market for oil.
One day, I suspect, the future rulers of an impoverished Saudi Arabia will wonder why their forebears wasted the country’s treasure on air conditioning and SUVs, when they could have invested in world-class universities and infrastructure to become a sustainable global power.
But then again, maybe this push to renewables will usher in a new and better era for both the Saudis and the world that consumes their petroleum products. We can only hope.