Why are MENA countries not dominated by solar power?

February 29, 2016 Jon Allwood

Why does the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) not have massive solar power plants that fuel the whole region? After all there are 320 million people living in a region the size of Europe and if there is anywhere in the world that can rely on the sun for its major energy source, it has to be countries near the equator with low rainfall. I could, of course, ask the opposite question of the country where I was born-Scotland- why has it not built many more hydro-electricity or wind farm schemes when it has an abundance of rain and wind and only 5 million people to provide energy for?

I believe the answer has a lot to do with timing, "lazy" policy, vested interest and distorted energy policy. Since the Middle East (and North Sea) oil and gas were discovered, the easy and natural human course of events is to use the energy source that is right on your doorstep. Makes sense, right? So Gulf countries have used spare gas and marginal oil to fuel itself in a timely way. Similarly the UK converted quickly from coal to oil and gas rather than invest in future sustainable sources and Scotland stopped building hydro power stations.

But this is short-sighted, is a lazy industrial policy and is not based on "value pricing". Each of these countries could maximize the exports of their precious and high priced resources by using the least themselves. They are the very countries that can afford to subsidize or forward invest in the alternative non-fossil fuel sources. Nevertheless, industrial and energy policies tend to be set for the past and present rather than for the future, much in the same way that weapon design and development is often wrongly biased towards fighting the last war rather than the future predicted conflict.

What should be the case? Gulf countries should have massive solar power plants in the desert, use gas fired or electric cars and wean themselves off as much fossil fuel energy as physically possible. Meanwhile water rich countries should be investing in vast hydro, wave and wind power stations to reduce dependency on fossil fuel used for energy altogether. This would leave the countries with neither of these advantages to become the main markets for fossil fuels and also to encourage the high value industries, such as aviation and chemicals, that derive the most benefit economically from fossil fuels.

Why hasn't common sense prevailed? The Middle East has started to realize the full potential (see Scientific American article Solar Power Invades Oil-Rich Middle East, 28th Sept 2015). However across the world I am tempted to conclude that democratically elected politicians, uninformed benign rulers, "lazy" policy makers, civil servants and advisers create policy distortion that obstructs the obvious decisions that well informed far-sighted leaders would take in a flash. I have a feeling vested interest may have a role also.

Here is a sensible scenario for your oil and gas planning group to consider as it paints a future picture. MENA invests much more heavily in solar than predicted, reduces its domestic oil and gas consumption dramatically and increases its oil (and gas) exports substantially from the surplus- a further pressure on the shale and high cost oil segments around the world, either causing them to collapse or reduce their costs substantially. That would leave oil to be used only for the higher value applications that it's best designed for rather than fueling the energy consumption of a growth region with 320 million people. How environmentally sensible is that?

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