Is it possible that Saudi Arabia is more forward-thinking than the U.S. when it comes to the end of oil, and sustainable alternatives? The answer is, incredibly, maybe. The oil-rich countries of the Middle East and North Africa are switching to solar in a big way. And why not? After all, once the oil runs out, their greatest natural resource might be sunlight.
Electricity demand in the Middle East is rising, and instead of burning oil to satisfy it, countries are turning to solar. And they’re doing it on a scale large enough to bring prices tumbling. Last year, for instance, Dubai achieved 5.85 U.S. cents per kWh, against a market average of 9 cents. In Jordan, bids for projects were coming in as low as 6.13 cents. According to the report Middle East Solar Outlook for 2016, the United Arab Emirates the solar leader: Dubai plans to get 7% of its power from solar by 2020, which doesn’t seem like much, but the plan accelerates fast, with targets for 25% by 2030 and 75% by 2050. To get there, Dubai will make PV solar mandatory on rooftops.
Part of this push may be the need for energy independence after the oil runs out. These dry countries need electricity to run desalination plants, and as climate change and a growing population puts pressure on existing water supplies, reliable access to clean water will become important to avoid conflict.
Ironically, these countries may also be benefiting from their late start. Decades of progress in solar tech in the U.S. and the rest of the world have brought prices down to reasonable levels, and the world is full of solar expertise. A rich country with lots of sun can leverage that to make huge installations quickly, and poorer countries can also get the benefits from these falling prices, especially when they have guaranteed sunshine.
Between the pragmatism of the Middle East, and the backwardness of Trump’s coal-friendly future administration, one can easily imagine a future where the U.S. has to import its electricity from the same places as it now imports oil.