Getting Oil Out of the Sun: Saudi Arabia’s New Energy Landscape
Mar 11, 2014
Alexander Kajo

With one quarter of the world’s known oil reserves at its disposal – more than 260 billion barrels – Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest producer and exporter of crude oil  Last year the country shipped an average of 7.54 million barrels a day, continuing its twelve year trend of year-on-year oil production growth. Indeed, as global energy demands grow, demand for Saudi oil is growing. With oil at the heart of Saudi’s export trade, it’s in the Kingdom’s interest to ensure as few as possible of their natural resources are consumed locally.


The Kingdom’s energy challenge

Of course, The Kingdom needs to meet its own domestic energy needs: with a population of nearly 30 million people, domestic energy consumption in Saudi Arabia is growing. Some of the demand for this power is naturally met with oil and gas power plants. Therefore, a substantial economic opportunity for Saudi Arabia lies in being able to reduce local oil consumption to ensure that as much oil as possible is available for export oil as efficiently as possible. This will also insulate the Kingdom somewhat from external market factors, including such as high oil prices.

The Kingdom is working to do this by capitalising on two key areas in its national energy programme; firstly by being able to maximise the efficient running of their fossil-fuel power stations through ‘electrification,’ and second, through harnessing vast amounts of solar power for domestic use.


Using electrification in fossil-fuel power plants

The Kingdom has committed to growing its solar power base deliver a third of the country’s electricity demand by 2032. Until then, much of its current power needs are met through traditional fossil-fuel plants. To boost the efficiency of these plants, many power plants are turning to electrification – installing electrified variable speed drives and motors to run the turbines, pumps and systems required to generate and manage power output – to enable a more efficient route to power generation. 

For example, the Saudi Electric Company’s Jeddah South Power Plant, the region’s largest energy facility and one of the world’s largest steam power plants globally, recently announced that it is replacing its machinery with electrified variable speed drives to control the plant’s boiler feed pumps.  By doing so the plant can increase its power output whilst minimising the effect it has on the supply network and this translates to efficiency gains of around 10 per cent. This increases the output of the plant to meet growing needs.

Building up a ready supply of solar power

As well as oil, Saudi Arabia also has an abundance of sunshine and heat, its desert climate seeing temperatures reach as high as 129 °F (54 °C) during the summer periods. This presents a solar opportunity and a challenge. Despite having the natural resources available, the solar equipment needs to withstand the country’s harsh climate conditions and huge temperature fluctuations through the course of a day and a night – varying as much as 30-40 degrees Celsius. Similarly, for solar plants closer to the country’s coastlines, the equipment needs to be sufficiently ruggedized against the corrosive, salty moisture in the atmosphere.

In the long term there is the potential for solar power to supply a large proportion of the Kingdom’s energy needs and, as we continue to innovate in this sector, solar power could even provide a new commodity for export. 


Gas and solar working together

Some of the Kingdom’s power plants are already exploiting the benefits of solar energy by installing integrated gas and solar plants. Here, plants primarily burn natural gas for fuel, but supplement the process with solar energy to increase the efficiency of power generation. Using this process, plants are able to be more sparing in their consumption of fossil fuels and reduce their carbon footprint at the same time.

Therefore, the future looks ‘bright’ for the region and it’s great to see the Saudi government driving innovations in its energy policy across the board. We’re seeing great strides in improving the efficiency of power plants across the Kingdom and steps to making solar power the main supplier of energy for the kingdom. 

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Alexander Kajo

As CEO of GE’s Power Conversion business in the Middle East, North Africa & Turkey, Alexander Kajo manages all business operations for the region, serving customers across a variety of specialized sectors such as energy, marine, industry and all related services. After starting his career in GE Energy in 1999 as Six Sigma Quality Black Belt, he then served as Commercial Leader before being appointed as Region Sales Director, after which He was named Growth & Strategic Leader – Business Operations for Iraq. Alex is fluent in both English and Arabic and is a graduate of the University of Jordan in Industrial Engineering.