Mecca Leads Saudi Arabia's Solar Pilgrimage

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. The bidders will compete for contracts to supply 385 gigawatt-hours a year, including 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 Mecca plans to use a mix of fossil fuels, wind and biomass energy sources, solar will be prioritized among renewables, says al-Bar. 

Construction on energy plants 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 recommends 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, Germany, the world’s biggest country for solar generation, just hit the 30 GW mark in capacity.

The government is seeking $109 billion in investments to build a solar industry that can supply a third of Saudi Arabia’s electricity by 2032, reports Bloomberg.

That’s a huge amount of money, when you consider that $136 billion was spent on solar development in all of 2011 worldwide, Bloomberg New Energy Finance points out.

Saudi Arabia’s energy demand is growing 8% a year – it is highly dependent on oil which it would rather export than consume. Oil generates almost 86% of the kingdom’s annual revenue.

Last year, the Oil Minister said in a speech that the kingdom’s goal is to generate the same amount of solar as it exports in oil, noting this sunniest of regions could potentially produce enough solar energy to supply four times current world electricity demand.

Despite its rich solar potential, Saudi Arabia has just 3 MW of solar capacity in place, trailing Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and the United Arab Emirates, according to 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:

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