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Can The Middle East Really Become A Leader In Renewable Energy?

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To say that the six countries that make up the Gulf Cooperative Council (GCC) live and breathe hydrocarbons is hardly an exaggeration. About 60 years ago, the average city in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman was home to maybe a few thousand people; fast forward to the present and many cities have transformed into world-class metropolises thanks to the region's vast oil and gas riches. Saudi Arabia alone owns 16% of the world's proven oil reserves and is also the world's second-largest oil producer, responsible for 15% of global output.

Unfortunately, the GCC's heavy reliance on oil and gas exports has proven to be a major Achilles heel during the energy crisis.

Last year, GCC nations led by Saudi Arabia put on a brave face and continued touting the strength of their economies, claiming they could withstand any scale of shocks. However, available evidence suggests pretty much the opposite: that Gulf economies have been in dire straits thanks to low commodity prices and overreliance on oil and gas.

With oil prices averaging below $40/bbl in 2020, nearly all GCC nations faced massive budget deficits.

Despite being the lowest cost producer, the IMF estimates that Saudi Arabia requires oil prices at $76.10 to achieve fiscal breakeven, leaving the country with a huge budget deficit of 11.4% of GDP. 

Other GCC countries have not been much better off.

The UAE has a fiscal breakeven oil price of $69.10/barrel; Kuwait's is $61.10, while Bahrain and Oman need oil prices of $95.60 and $86.80, respectively, to balance their books.

Only Qatar, with a fiscal breakeven oil price of $39.90, was barely able to balance its books.

In the current year, oil prices appear set to remain range-bound in the $70-75/bbl range with global energy use in the current year expected to be only 0.5% above pre-Covid-19 levels as per the IEA's Global Energy Review 2021 report.

It's this kind of backdrop that has been forcing Gulf nations to restrategize and diversify their economies away from oil--and Saudi Arabia is leading the way, again.

Saudi Arabia: Solar, Wind, and Hydrogen

Although Saudi Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman recently made waves in the oil community after telling Bloomberg News that Saudi Arabia intends to pump every last drop of oil and is going to be the last man standing, Saudi Arabia owns of the most ambitious clean energy blueprints: Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's Vision 2030 economic plan.

In the economic plan, Saudi Arabia has set a target to develop ~60GW of renewable energy capacity by the end of the decade, which compares with an installed capacity of roughly 80GW of power plants burning gas or oil. 

So far, Saudi Arabia has only made limited progress deploying renewables with just 300MW of utility-scale solar in operation while 400MW of wind power is under construction. 

With its sun-scorched expanses and steady Red Sea breezes, Saudi Arabia is prime real estate for renewable energy generation. Last year, Saudi Arabia's national oil company Saudi Aramco sent shockwaves through the natural gas markets after it announced that it was kicking off the biggest shale gas development outside of the United States. Saudi Aramco said it plans to spend $110 billion over the next couple of years to develop the Jafurah gas field, which is estimated to hold 200 trillion cubic feet of gas. The state-owned company hopes to start natural gas production from Jafurah in 2024 and reach 2.2 Bcf/d of sales gas by 2036 with an associated 425 million cubic feet per day of ethane. 

This year, Aramco announced that instead of chilling all that gas and exporting it as LNG, it will convert it into a much cleaner fuel: Blue hydrogen. 

Related: Goldman Sachs Predicts Drastic Rise In Power Demand Due To EVs

Saudi Aramco has told investors that Aramco has abandoned immediate plans to develop its LNG sector in favor of hydrogen. Nasser said that the kingdom's immediate plan is to produce enough natural gas for domestic use to stop burning oil in its power plants and convert the remainder into hydrogen. Blue hydrogen is made from natural gas either by Steam Methane Reforming (SMR) or Auto Thermal Reforming (ATR) with the CO2 generated captured and then stored. As the greenhouse gasses are captured, this mitigates the environmental impacts on the planet.

Last year, Aramco made the world's first blue ammonia shipment--from Saudi Arabia to Japan. Japan--a country whose mountainous terrain and extreme seismic activity render it unsuitable for the development of sustainable renewable energy--is looking for dependable suppliers of hydrogen fuel, with Saudi Arabia and Australia on its shortlist.

The Saudi government is also building a $5 billion green hydrogen plant that will power the planned megacity of Neom when it opens in 2025. Dubbed Helios Green Fuels, the hydrogen plant will use solar and wind energy to generate 4GW of clean energy that will be used to produce green hydrogen.

But here's the main kicker: Helios could soon produce green hydrogen that's cheaper than oil.

Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) estimates that Helios' costs could reach $1.50 per kilogram by 2030, way cheaper than the average cost of green hydrogen at $5 per kilogram and even cheaper than gray hydrogen made from cracking natural gas. Saudi Arabia enjoys a serious competitive advantage in the green hydrogen business thanks to its perpetual sunshine, wind, and vast tracts of unused land.

Germany has said it needs "enormous" volumes of green hydrogen and hopes Saudi Arabia will become a key supplier. Two years ago, Germany's cabinet committed to investing €9B (about $10.2B) in hydrogen technology in a  bid to decarbonize the economy and cut CO2 emissions. The government has proposed to build an electrolysis capacity of 5,000MW by 2030 and another  5,000MW by 2040 over the following decade to produce fuel hydrogen.

The European economic powerhouse has realized it cannot do this alone and will require low-cost suppliers like Saudi Arabia, especially as it doubles down on its green energy commitments following a series of devastating floods in the country.

UAE: Nuclear, Wind, and Waste-to-Energy 

Back in April, the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation (ENEC) announced the commissioning of the country's first-ever nuclear power plant--the Barakah unit 1.

The 1,400-megawatt nuclear plant has become the single largest electricity generator in the UAE since reaching 100% power in early December and is now providing "constant, reliable and sustainable electricity around the clock."ENEC says Barakah unit 1 is "now leading the largest decarbonization effort of any industry in the UAE to date."

Following in the footsteps of Saudi Arabia, the UAE is also laying a strong foundation for the energy transition.

Masdar, the clean energy arm of Abu Dhabi sovereign wealth fund Mubadala, is building renewable capacity in central Asia after signing a deal in April 2021 to develop a solar project in Azerbaijan.

Since its inception in 2006, Masdar has built a portfolio of renewable energy assets in 30 different countries, having invested about $20bn to develop 11GW of solar, wind, and waste-to-energy power generation capacity.

And now Masdar says it intends to apply the lessons gleaned abroad to develop clean energy capacity back at home.

"Solutions we have developed in our international operations will definitely have applications here in the UAE", says Masdar's El-Ramahi.

For instance, Masdar plans to bolster the UAE's comparatively weak wind resources by developing domestic wind farms using the latest class three turbines that are able to harness electricity even from low wind speeds. 

Further, the company is also constructing a $1.1bn facility that will burn garbage to generate power in one of the world's largest waste-to-energy plants. Once complete, the plants will incinerate almost two-thirds of the household waste that the country generates every year.

Though not typically considered a clean energy source, modern waste-to-energy plants are much cleaner as per the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP). By using advanced technologies, these plants are able burn waste at extremely high temperatures, thus ensuring complete combustion while missions are specially treated, leaving minimal amounts of toxic byproducts like flue ash. In fact, tests have shown that the air emitted by certain waste-to-energy chimneys can be cleaner than the air flowing in.

By Alex Kimani for Oilprice.com

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