Solar King Abdicates

WK1412camel1_2763874kIf you lived in the world’s largest desert, where it almost never rains and the average temperature is so hot that even the tents have air conditioners running 24/7, you’d be busy installing solar panels as fast as you can, right?

Not if you’re also the world’s largest exporter of crude oil.

Saudi Arabia can talk the talk—three years ago, the Kingdom boldly announced plans to install 41 gigawatts of solar power by 2032—but it’s having more trouble walking the walk than a camel imitating Michael Jackson.

Despite perfect conditions and a rapidly growing population with a voracious appetite for electricity, Saudi Arabia has yet to generate the bids for its first solar energy projects, which were originally scheduled to be issued two years ago. The Saudis are mired in a dune of debate over how and whether to move forward with solar power.

According to a recent report from SABC, South Africa’s largest news outlet, the state-sanctioned body set up to spearhead alternative energy development in the Kingdom–King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy [K.A.Care]–has made no progress; in January, it pushed back the 2032 target to 2040.

The biggest hurdle appears to be bureaucratic, with several powerful entities wrangling over control of the planned solar power sector. K.A. Care’s relationship with the powerful Saudi ministries of electricity and oil was never clearly defined, SABC reports, and no single department was put in charge; therefore, K.A. Care doesn’t have the authority to conclude power purchase agreements without the approval of the two key players in the Saudi energy sector, Saudi Electricity Co (SEC) and the state oil company Aramco.

Regulations governing the development of the solar sector, awaited by foreign investors who set up offices in the Kingdom in anticipation of huge solar projects, still have not been approved, SABC says. According to the report, the powerful Saudi oil ministry opposes any role for the private sector in developing renewable energy in the Kingdom. The Saudis also are debating whether to split the previously announced solar plans into five-year phases. Despite the apparent natural advantages for solar power in Saudi Arabia, the cost of renewables in the Kingdom remains high due to traditionally huge government subsidies for the oil industry.

Two factors may pressure Saudi Arabia to resolve these differences soon—the Kingdom’s overwhelming dependence on its own crude oil to generate electricity is cutting into the amount of oil it has available to export; and the Kingdom needs to have clearly defined renewable energy goals when an international summit convenes in Paris in December to hammer out a new global climate change treaty.

Saudi Arabia isn’t the only place where publicly stated renewable energy goals are getting an ambivalent reaction from the people who are supposed to enact them.

in Ohio, a 2008 state law required 25 percent of Ohio’s energy to come from alternative sources by 2025 and set certain energy efficiency goals. But as Ohio came out of the Great Recession, legislators began to push for repeal of the renewables goal. To resolve the faceoff, OH Gov. John Kasich forged a compromise last year that paused phase-in of the targets for two years while they could be studied. If lawmakers fail to act, phase-in of the standards will resume in 2017.

OH State Sen. Troy Balderson told the Washington Times that while repeal currently is off the table, reducing the 25 percent requirement imposed on Ohio energy companies is under consideration, as are changes to the energy efficiency goals laid out in the 2008 law.

Gov. Kasich also is pushing to delay the implementation of President Obama’s plan to cut nationwide carbon-dioxide emissions 32 percent by 2030. According to the Times report, Kasich wrote to Obama on Aug. 28 asking him to suspend implementation of the Clean Power Plan until all legal appeals are resolved. Kasich raised the concern that Ohio power plants were being required to make irreversible changes despite “significant legal uncertainty.”

In Saudi Arabia, the king has the final say on everything, but not so in Ohio. A broad coalition of state business, health, community and environmental groups in the Buckeye State is undertaking an energetic campaign calling for Ohio lawmakers to reinstate the mandatory targets for renewable energy.

Meanwhile, here in New Jersey, we just set a record for the number of consecutive days in which the temperature has been warmer then 80 degrees F. Regardless of what happens in Saudi Arabia, Ohio or even in Paris, we have no doubt that Mother Nature will have the last word on this subject.