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Saudi Arabia partners with N.R.E.L. to optimize solar energy

Saudi Arabia, in a bid to harness its untapped renewable energy potential, has partnered with the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory for training and expertise in gauging its solar resources.

N.R.E.L., together with research and development firm Battelle, will support the installation of more than 50 monitoring stations in the Middle Eastern kingdom this year to assess the solar resource and identify best locations to put up a solar power plants of a particular size.

Three solar measurement stations were already set up in Saudi Arabia as part of an initial training and outreaching event, including one in Riyadh and two others just near the city.

“The kingdom is tapping into our expertise on climatology, geography, and population density to make the best decisions on where to put the monitoring stations and the solar power plants,” said Stephen Wilcox, senior engineer at N.R.E.L.

“It's important that they know precisely what the solar resource is so the financial stakeholders can know exactly what kind of return to expect. The more uncertainty in the measurements, the more uncertainty there is in the analysis. They could either make $100 million or lose $100 million based on how well the measurements are taken,” he pointed out.

Three types of monitoring stations will be set up in Saudi. Some of the stations will be focused on research quality, using equipment similar to the N.R.E.L. stations, while others will be self-sufficient stations powered by photovoltaics and located in deserts or in some of the far-flung areas in the country. Crews will stop by every week or to provide maintenance of these isolated stations.

The third type of station will be used to measure just a subset of the factors the larger stations measure. They will play a critical role in getting the whole climactic picture, including determining the role of microclimates and the impacts of large clouds passing by central solar power stations.

Saudi Arabia and N.R.E.L. have previously worked together in the 1990’s when N.R.E.L. helped launch research centers for the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology that was established in 1977.

The new partnership was initiated in 2010, when Saudi officials came to visit the Solar Radiation Research Laboratory at N.R.E.L.'s Mesa Top facilities.

Under its King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy or K.A. CARE programme, Saudi Arabia aims to generate 54 gigawatts of renewable energy capacity by 2032 (see related story). Of which, 41 GW will be coming from solar energy, including both solar P.V. power (16 GW) and solar concentrated power (25 GW).

“Saudi Arabia is determined to diversify its energy sources and reduce its dependence on hydrocarbons,” said Wail Bamhair, the N.R.E.L. project manager for the Saudi team. “Renewable energy isn't just an option, but absolutely necessary. We have the means to build renewable energy, and we need to do it.”

However, Mr. Bamhair warned that while Saudi Arabia has immense potential for solar energy, it also faced with challenges such as a variable climate, sandstorms and even the occasional snowstorm in the northern regions.

Economists have suggested that the oil-rich country’s transition to renewables would strengthen its economy and free up millions of extra barrels of oil for export. – C. Dominguez



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