The Saudi Arabian government has announced that it will pursue nuclear and renewable electricity to meet the country’s rising demand for energy, driven by a rapidly expanding population and industrial base, and a growing need for desalinated water. It is not unusual for a government to announce support for nuclear or renewables, but it is quite striking for the country with the world’s largest known oil reserves, and the fifth largest gas reserves, to be planning to develop alternatives to fossil fuels.
Granted, it is not doing this for climate reasons. It is doing it in the hope of being able to sell even more oil to other countries. Saudi Arabia’s domestic oil consumption rose 50% between 2000 and 2008. Around three quarters of this is used to generate electricity, demand for which is increasing 8% a year. The state oil company, Aramco, has predicted that if the current growth in Saudi use continues, the country will lose half its export income within 20 years.
Nevertheless, it is encouraging that the Saudi government is proposing doing something differently. In 2007, 63.5% of its energy use was oil and 36.5% gas, with renewables just 0.002% (see Saudi Arabia – climate and energy statistics). Saudi per capita annual greenhouse gas emissions were 16.5 tonnes in 2005. It is not a poor country, so has great potential for a rapid transition to a low carbon economy.
The government’s first step should be to stop wasting energy. Saudi Arabia is the third least efficient economy in the world, better than only the United Arab Emirates and Russia. It uses more than double the energy per unit of GDP than does the USA. The second step should be to harness solar power, of which it is not in short supply. Solar thermal panels for hot water and PV panels for electricity would make obvious sense, as would large concentrated solar power plants (which could also help desalinise water). Nuclear is an acceptable bridge technology and much better than burning oil to generate electricity. However, the Saudi bridge could and should be relatively short.
The world cannot expect the Saudi government to stop selling oil while there is a demand. So other governments must redouble efforts to reduce oil, by encouraging people to use cars and planes less. The Icelandic volcano may have led some to question the attractiveness of using planes, but is unlikely to have a long-term impact on behaviour. Governments must also promote electric vehicles and good biofuels for essential flying. Then and only then will the Saudis leave their oil in the ground. Sheikh Yamani, who was Saudi oil minister from 1962 to 1986, memorably pointed out that the Stone Age did not end because the world ran out of stone, and that the oil age will not end because the world runs out of oil. It will only end when governments become more serious about using the alternatives, protecting the climate and saving billions of lives.