Saudi minister prefers solar potential over nuclear energy

'I don’t think we need nuclear power plants in Saudi Arabia,' Ibrahim Babelli, Saudi Arabia’s deputy economic minister, said at the Menasol conference in Dubai.

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Solar energy could overtake nuc­lear ambitions in Saudi Arabia as the kingdom looks to shake up its power sector, according to a senior government official.

Ibrahim Babelli, Saudi Arabia’s deputy economic minister, said on Wednesday at the Menasol conference in Dubai that not only was solar significantly cheaper, but it also lacked the security risks that come with nuc­lear power stations.

"I don't think we need nuclear power plants in Saudi Arabia," he said, adding that the advantage that comes with solar technologies with storage capabilities making it a "no-brainer".

“Concentrated solar power [CSP] is significantly less expensive than nuclear, not only in terms of capital expenditure, but in terms of distributed baseload generation that won’t go offline if what’s called in the nuc­lear industry during ‘a station blackout’ happens.”

At the start of last year, the country said its nuclear capacity target of 17 gigawatts would be delayed 12 years to 2040. And yet in March, the deputy crown prince Mohammed bin Salman released a transformation plan setting a renew­able energy target, including ­solar and wind, at 9.5GW by 2023. This could indicate a move to prioritise solar over nuclear ambitions, but ultimately the decision will fall under the new ministry of power, industry and mineral resources.

CSP is different from the record-low costs systems of solar photovoltaic (PV) as the former currently has energy storage capabilities, but that also means that the price can be over three times more expensive than PV technology. Billions of dollars are going into research and development for a battery breakthrough, but PV still lacks a cost efficient storage solution.

The pricing level of CSP has deterred many and even resulted in criticism of the technology. “Which is fine if you want to be a follower but if you want to be a leader, what source of storage technologies are available that will enable ­solar energy to provide baseload ­power to make a plan materialise by pushing the investor? We need to talk about CSP, PV and storage. That point of view is continuously being shunned away,” Mr Babelli said.

The deputy minister said that nuclear energy had more applications associated with it that are still needed in the country, but it was imperative to look to the future of nuclear and not the past, pointing to the development of small modular reactors.

“We have a God-given solution with solar, and with storage – especially CSP with storage, that we can meet baseload demand. But we’re only able to do that if we divorce our thinking and decision-making from what our international friends say because it’s not for Saudi Arabia,” he said.

Riyadh-based Acwa Power, involved in both solar PV and CSP outside of the kingdom, said the volume of CSP projects has to increase to push down costs.

“In five years from now we’ll see PV with a [cost-efficient] battery lasting for four hours, but CSP will still be there and take a big part of the baseload,” said Andrea Lovato, Acwa’s executive director of business development. “The real game changer will be two countries: Saudi Arabia and China.”

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