Saudi Arabia plans to replace much of its oil-generated electricity with nuclear power, showing that solar power makes little economic sense even in desert locations much closer to the equator than the United States. Saudi Arabia’s plans should please environmentalists who would like to see power facilities that emit significant amounts of air pollution replaced by zero-emission energy sources.
The Saudi kingdom plans to build nuclear power plants capable of generating 17 gigawatts of power by 2040, equaling nearly one-third of Saudi Arabia’s current electricity capacity. Saudi Arabia currently has 55 gigawatts of electricity capacity.
In the United States, oil is rarely used for electricity generation. It is relatively expensive compared to coal and natural gas, and oil-generated electricity emits a large amount of air pollution. Saudi Arabia, however, generates 65 percent of its electricity from oil, 25 percent from natural gas, and 8 percent from steam power that is typically fired by oil and natural gas.
Saudi Arabia generates less than 1 percent of its electricity from solar power even though the entire nation receives at least 3,000 hours of sunlight each year. More square miles of Saudi Arabia receive at least 3,000 hours of sunlight each year than in the much larger United States. Saudi Arabia also is much further south than even the southwestern United States, which adds to its solar power potential. The Saudi capital Riyadh, in the center of the country, sits approximately 760 miles south of Las Vegas.
Despite more favorable solar power potential in Saudi Arabia than the United States, solar power still makes little sense in the Arabian peninsula, the Saudi government has determined. As recently as 2012, the Saudi government announced plans to build 41 gigawatts of solar capacity by 2030. Just a year later, and facing daunting economic and technical challenges, the Saudi government scaled back its plans to just 9 gigawatts. Even that number appears to be little more than wishful thinking, with no significant solar power capacity added since 2012. With even the desert nation of Saudi Arabia adding much more future nuclear power than solar power, it is not difficult to understand why U.S. energy companies choose to do the same here in the United States.