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Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest exporter of crude oil has unveiled plans to transform the Arab nation into the world’s principal solar hub. The country recently unveiled plans to install a solar capacity of 41,000 megawatts by 2032.

With Saudi Arabia located within the world’s second largest desert, the potential for solar power is massive. However, despite its vast oil reserves, Saudi Arabia could face an energy shortage as its population and economy expand.  In 2010, Saudi Arabia made a huge splash on the international stage when Ali Al Naimi, the oil minister, announced that "Saudi Arabia aspires to export as much solar energy in the future as it exports oil now"..

Critics of this plan noted that to achieve this, Saudi Arabia would need to produce and export approximately half of the world’s total annual installed capacity of solar. Many thought this goal to be nothing more than a pipedream. Less than two years later, the kingdom has hit back at its critics by launching the most ambitious solar programme the world has ever seen.

The government is now targeting 25,000 megawatts from solar thermal plants, which use mirrors to focus the sun’s rays on heating fluids, turning a power turbine. Another 16,000 megawatts is expected to come from photovoltaic panels.

Announcing the plan, the King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy said that it plans to turn the nation into the “Kingdom of Sustainable Energy”, noting that, "The main objectives of the program is a reduction in oil burned for power production as well as the establishment of a local solar industry and the creation of jobs."

The outlook for renewable energy in Saudi Arabia is promising; the country currently burns almost 1 million barrels of hydrocarbons each day for domestic power generation – equal to some 600,000 barrels per day of desirable crude oil. Alarmingly, this flow is expected to rise by about 10 per cent annually.

Saudi oil supplied power plants are currently subsidised at a price of US$4 per barrel which is oil that could otherwise have been sold on international markets at a much higher price. The Saudi Electricity and Co-Generation Regulatory Agency estimates the country loses at least Dh50 billion ($13.61bn) annually by selling oil domestically compared to what it would earn from the international market.

The Saudi plan, is one of the world’s most ambitious renewable energy plans, with other notables being India’s National Solar Mission (aiming for 20GW of solar power over the next decade) and Tonga’s Energy Roadmap (50% renewable energy by 2020).

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