In Short : Saudi Arabia is taking proactive steps toward sustainable industrialization by adopting carbon-friendly methods to power its industries. The kingdom is investing in renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind power, to reduce carbon emissions. By transitioning to cleaner energy alternatives, Saudi Arabia aims to mitigate its environmental impact, contribute to global climate efforts, and ensure a sustainable future for its industries and economy.
In Detail : Oil-rich Saudi Arabia is pursuing a green initiative to generate half its electricity with renewables by 2030 and plant 10 billion trees. The aim is to cut 278 million tons of CO2 by the decade’s end and hit net zero by 2060. The Kingdom wants to be a regional energy powerhouse — a hub for manufacturing, high-tech, and climate-friendly exports.
With that, the Ministry of Investment of Saudi Arabia is building a solar manufacturing and technology facility in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. At total capacity, the factory will produce enough renewable energy annually to generate 5,000 tons of solar steam, offsetting 4 million MMBtus of natural gas and reducing CO2 by 200,000 tons each year.
“Saudi Arabia is diversifying its economy away from oil and gas and shifting to renewables,” Rod MacGregor, chief executive and founder of GlassPoint told me in a Zoom Interview. “Solar lasts longer than oil and gas. But this is also about manufacturing and jobs. Moreover, we are helping decarbonize the industrial sector and reduce the climate impact on hard-to-abate industries regionally.”
GlassPoint is making solar components for the Kingdom. Its new regional manufacturing facility will supply both the Saudis and nearby countries with solar parts. For example, it makes mirrors to concentrate or focus sunlight. It is directed onto a pipe with water, which boils and creates the steam that companies use to fuel their operations.
According to the International Energy Agency, 29% of the electricity sector is decarbonizing — a number that is trending up. But only 10% of industrial process heat is doing so.
Electricity is 20% of energy worldwide. Industrial use comprises 26%, while transportation and building use comprise 30% and 23%, respectively. We can electrify nearly everything — from homes to cars. But the industrial sector is different: Unless we decarbonize industrial process heat, we won’t make our 2050 carbon-neutrality goals.
Traditionally, industry burns gas to boil water to make steam. Or it burns coal to heat a boiler, both of which use a lot of fuel and create too many emissions. Solar-generated steam is cheaper and results in no pollution. Focusing the sunlight is 100 times brighter and produces incredibly high temperatures, making low-cost steam.
Building A Track To Decarbonization
Unlike solar panels, the goal is to reflect sunlight — not absorb it to generate an electric current.
“Boilers are 93% efficient, turning heat into steam,” says MacGregor. “We turn 66% of sunlight into steam. However, this is not a meaningful comparison because the sunshine is free and the fuel is not.”
But why not use green electricity to make heat for industrial use? It costs a lot more to produce electricity than it does to make solar-generated heat. It can work for cars, but it is hard for heavy industry, says MacGregor.
The most significant obstacle the solar-generated heat industry faces is finding the space to operate. Transmission lines allow electricity to move hundreds of miles, but steam can only go about six miles. Industrial users must, therefore, be next to the technology facilities. Beyond space, lots of sunshine is a necessity.
“When we started 10 years ago, no one wanted to decarbonize,” MacGregor says. “Now, everyone is on the track to decarbonization. In California, we are cheaper than natural gas, and in Australia, we are cheaper than coal.”
To this end, Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Investment is partnering with GlassPoint to expand its climate advocacy across the Middle East. Critics call it “greenwashing.” But it is leveraging its oil and gas wealth to create 21st Century job opportunities and to reduce emissions — similar to what the United Arab Emirates is doing.
Furthermore, the partnership supports the ministry’s Global Supply Chain Resilience Initiative, while it represents progress towards achieving the Saudi Vision 30 – a 10-year plan to diversify the country’s economy, society, and culture. Its Saudi Green Initiative aims to create a greener future.
“Saudi Arabia is committed to leading the region in economic development as well as sustainability,” said Khalid Al-Falih, the Saudi Minister of Investment, noting that the collaboration with GlassPoint helps strengthen its economy, supply chains, and high-tech mastery.
Oil and gas have limited lives, forcing the Saudis to rethink their energy strategies. If the Kingdom can find innovative ways to power its domestic industries and improve quality of life, so can other countries — an essential undertaking for the global community to meet its climate goals.