The holy city of Mecca could be the first in Saudia Arabia to host a utility-scale solar power plant, as the sun-rich desert kingdom seeks to diversify its energy mix, reports Bloomberg.
In early January 2013, the city will select from at least 20 bidders that want to build local power plants in Mecca to meet Saudi Arabia’s ballooning electricity demand, Mayor Osama al-Bar told Bloomberg. Among the proposals are plans for 100 megawatts (MW) of solar capacity.
“No city in Saudi Arabia owns power-generation assets, and we want to be first city that owns power plants and hopefully the first in the Muslim world,” says al-Bar.
Although a mix of energy sources will be used for the Mecca power plant investments, solar will be the preferred renewable for the city, says al-Bar. The electricity will power lighting and electricity needs for its 35 tunnels, covering the $26.6 million that Mecca currently spends on power, reports Bloomberg.
The proposed power facilities will be fuelled by a mix of fossil fuel, wind, or biomass, but the preference when it comes to renewable energy options is for solar.
Says al-Bar: “We are open to all options, but solar must be there and then other renewable sources can go into the mix.”
Construction on plants in the Mecca region could start in June 2013, with completion scheduled within five years.
Mecca’s program may serve as a model for other Middle Eastern cities, Adnan Amin, director general of the International Renewable Energy Agency, told Bloomberg.
“The project is very visionary as Mecca has special significance around the world,” says Amin. “The case is very simple. In 25 years, they [Saudi Arabia] could become net importers of energy. That makes renewables comparatively cheaper.”
Mecca, the birthplace of Islam, is located 70 kilometers inland south of the Red-Sea port of Jeddah. It has almost 2 million residents and another 6 million visitors descend on the city each year, many making the lifetime pilgrimage required of Muslims.
Saudi Arabia’s energy advisor has recommended that the country add up to 41 gigawatts (GW) of solar power, 17 GW of nuclear energy, and 4 GW of geothermal and waste-to-energy capacity over the next 20 years.
For perspective, the world’s biggest country for solar power generation, Germany, just hit the 30 GW mark in capacity.
Eventually, it is hoped that solar power plants will make up about one-third of the kingdom’s energy mix, and the kingdom is seeking $109 billion in investments to help make it happen, reports Bloomberg.
That’s a huge amount of money, when you consider the $136 billion total spent on solar energy development in 2011, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.
Saudi Arabia’s energy demand is growing 8% annually, and so far, it remains highly dependent on oil which it would rather export. That’s because oil generates almost 86% of the kingdom’s annual revenue.
Despite its rich solar potential, Saudi Arabia currently has just 3 MW of solar capacity, trailing Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and the United Arab Emirates, estimates Bloomberg New Energy Finance.
In February 2012, Saudi-based IDEA Polysilicon, which is financed by Gulf investors, announced it would build a $1.1 billion solar polysilicon plant in the country as a step toward moving away from oil dependence.
For more on Saudi Arabia’s solar pilgrimage, here’s the Bloomberg article: