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Climate Crisis will Force Gulf Petro-States to Embrace Renewables, Expert Review Concludes

Member petro-states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in the Middle East can—and must—accelerate their adoption of renewable energy if they are to avoid the worst impacts of the climate crisis, say a team of experts from the region.

“As of 2016, the GCC countries—namely Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman—accounted for 29% of all known oil reserves,” and are also “among the top 25 countries responsible for the highest CO2 per capita emissions,” begins a recently-published report in Energy Policy. The review was co-authored by an international team of researchers, but was largely led by Saudi electrical engineers.

“From 2004 to 2014, the region’s annual energy consumption rose at an average rate of 6.8% compared to [the global average of] 1.8%,” the authors write. “GCC countries’ CO2 emissions in 2012 alone [amount] to four times the average per capita in the world.”

If GCC countries are to continue to meet rising energy demand while still also cutting carbon emissions, the adoption of renewable energy is “crucial,” they write. Particularly since, to have an 80% chance of keeping global warming below 2°C, 70 to 80% of the world’s remaining fossil reserves must stay in the ground.

On top of that, forging ahead to extract these reserves will cost “up to US$6.74 trillion,” the authors observe. “By repurposing such levels of investment for renewable energy development, the return on investment (ROI) can be massive, and ‘clean & green’.”

While countries might previously have worried about the high installation cost and low immediate ROI currently attached to renewables, “the paradigm is shifting,” they write.

“ROI from fossil fuels will continue to decline and, very soon, the ROI from renewable energy resources will match and even surpass that of fossil fuels resources.”

The Gulf region has not avoided the effects of the climate crisis, they note, pointing to biodiversity loss, desertification, air and water pollution, and water scarcity. Citing research by Germany’s Max Planck Institute, the authors state that “by 2050, temperatures in the MENA [Middle East and North Africa] region will be 4°C higher, paving the way for extreme events like tornados, hurricanes, or droughts.”

This, they say, “is where renewable energy promises a life-saving makeover with numerous positive implications, aside from the fact that it accounts for much lower carbon footprint.”

The economics, too, are favourable. Renewable energy projects and systems “create numerous jobs, reduce the cost of electricity, and even induce savings in energy generation when compared to the conventional methods.”

And which of the renewables are the best path forward for GCC countries? Solar and wind, say the authors. Nearly 60% of the region is suitable to solar development, and “only 1% of it…could create almost 740 GW capacity.” Meanwhile, “over 56% of the areas have substantial potential for utilizing wind energy,” such that “covering only 1% of the area could generate output capacity up to 60 GW.” The report says Oman, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia are much better placed for commercial wind production than the UAE, Qatar, and Bahrain.

As for potential CO2 reductions, the authors report that “if solar energy represented even only 5% of installed electric power capacity, the carbon emissions reduced would be nearly 95 million tonnes, which would, by 2030, make every GCC country’s carbon footprint less than what it is at present.”

Existing renewable capacity in GCC countries currently stands at 836 MW, up from 212 MW in 2014. “Saudi Arabia and UAE have achieved the biggest improvements in RE capacities, which are 142 MW and 596 MW in 2018, from 24 MW to 137 MW in 2014, respectively,” write the authors. Kuwait has also “made long steps toward renewable energy adoption, [growing] from 2 MW in 2014 to 20 MW and 79 MW in 2016 and 2018, respectively.”

Oman, too, is on the road, achieving “8 MW capacity in 2018 from just 1 MW in 2014.” Bahrain, on the other hand, remains more or less stalled at its 2014 capacity of 6 MW, while Qatar is up only 1 MW from its 2014 recorded capacity of 43 MW.

Better targets, however, have been set in many of the GCC countries. The authors report that Bahrain and Oman aim to achieve 5% and 10% of electricity generation, respectively, via renewable sources, while Qatar plans for 200 to 500 MW of solar power generation. By 2030, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are aiming for15% and 30% of electricity generated from renewables, respectively.

The most ambitious target belongs to the UAE, which plans to meet 44% of its energy demand from renewables by 2050.

If the countries make good on these targets, say the authors, they “will save 354 million barrels of equivalent oil consumption and consequently reduce carbon emission by 136 million tonnes.”

Also saved: “$40 to $76 billion in discounted fuel savings, which are equivalent to two billion barrels of oil in cumulative fuel savings,” a “17% reduction in water usage for power generation,” and more than 220,500 jobs.

In the face of both the climate crisis and the fluctuating price of oil, the discussion of adding renewables to the energy mix has become “highly pertinent” for GCC nations, conclude the authors. They take pains to note that if GCC countries—and the world—choose not to aggressively reduce dependence on fossil fuels, Gulf nations may well face their erasure as they become uninhabitable by the end of the century.