Which country would you guess was least likely to switch to nuclear power? Somewhere with plentiful oil reserves? Somewhere with so much sun and wind that you could kite-surf your way to sunburn every day of the year? And yet, the United Arab Emirates is now 75% on the way to its first nuclear power plant, and the whole Gulf region has big plans for the future of its energy.
The Barakah Nuclear Energy Plant will comprise four reactors, and is expected to go online in 2020, after eight years of planning and building. When running, it will provide a quarter of the UAE’s energy, saving 12 million tons in carbon emissions annually.
Instead of just going to war to secure fresh supplies of crude like the U.S., Middle Eastern countries are looking at alternatives. The UAE is also investing heavily in solar, and it isn’t the only Middle Eastern country planning for a future without oil. Saudi Arabia is planning 16 nuclear reactors over the next 20 years, costing over $80 billion, which will produce 17GWe, or 15% of its power needs, by 2040. That’s in addition to another 40GWe of solar capacity.
Saudi Arabia is the biggest electricity consumer in the region. This is down to several factors, including a population explosion (from 4 million in 1960 to 30 million in 2014), and a massive desalination project to provide fresh water. According to figures from the World Nuclear Association (WNA), Saudi uses fully one quarter of its oil production to produce electricity and heat, including the power for desalination. “While energy demand is projected to increase substantially, oil production is not,” says the WNA, somewhat succinctly. So Saudi is using its huge spending power to build for the future.
It even has plans to export its green power, just like it does with oil. Because a huge chunk of its power demands are for air conditioning during the summer, it has capacity to spare in the winter, and may export that to Spain and Italy.
It seems ironic that these big oil nations are pushing so fast toward renewable and sustainable power sources, but perhaps they aren’t the anomaly here. After all, Europe too is investing heavily in solar and especially wind power. The real oddity here, then, is that the U.S. is dragging its heels so much when it comes to planning for the future. And with Trump has committed the country to dirty, finite coal instead of clean and infinite solar and wind, things don’t look like they’ll get much better for a while.