The vast deserts of the GCC were often seen as obstacles to development in the past, preventing widespread cultivation, holding down population growth and hindering overland travel. The oil sitting beneath those deserts changed that view. Like its GCC neighbours, Kuwait relied on oil resources to fuel its rapid economic development in the 20th century. Looking ahead, officials are now interested in technologies that draw power from the deserts themselves. Kuwait’s deserts contain abundant solar and wind resources. Its solar potential, as measured in global horizontal irradiance, is 1900 KWh per sq metre per year, while wind potential amounted to 1605 full hours per year, according to International Renewable Energy Agency data.
This potential is not lost on the authorities, who are moving ahead with a series of solar and wind projects. Although Kuwait has long had an interest in renewables, the sector will benefit from the added momentum thanks to recent developments, including anticipated changes to utilities subsidies. Renewable energy is set to meet up to 15% of Kuwait’s electricity consumption needs by 2030, Bader Hamad Al Essa, the education minister, said at the MENA Renewable Energy Conference in April 2016. “Kuwait is working on facilitating the transfer of renewable energy techniques as well as providing applications and policies to tackle current challenges, mainly pollution and global warming,” he said.
To make renewables a reality, officials have plans to invest up to $100bn in renewable energy projects over the next two decades, Samira Ahmad Omar, director-general of Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research (KISR), said in April 2016. The electricity and water authorities aim to install 4500 MW of solar and wind capacity by 2030, by which point demand is expected to rise to 30,000 MW from the current peak of around 12,500 MW. With the potential to preserve oil for revenue-generating export, cut costs on utilities production and reduce the country’s emissions, renewable projects have caught the eye of state planners and are gaining momentum.
Increasing renewable capacity could provide a clean and cost-saving substitute for the country’s current power sources. In theory, Kuwait could rely solely on its own hydrocarbons resources for power generation. Among the 14 members of the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, in 2014 it had the fifth-largest oil reserves, at 101.5bn barrels, and fourth-largest daily production, at 2.87m barrels per day, according to OPEC. Perhaps more importantly for electricity generation, Kuwait also has significant associated and non-associated gas deposits in the deep Jurassic reservoirs at Rahiya, Mutriba and Umm Niga. Still, the country’s gas reserves are not enough to meet its power demand, meaning that it increasingly relies either on imported liquefied natural gas (LNG) or on its own heavy fuel oil for power generation. In 2009 Kuwait became a net importer of natural gas, and in 2013 it imported 210m cu ft per day, about 12% of its needs, according to the US-based Energy Information Agency.
Paying for imports is not ideal, as the government covers the lion’s share of generation costs through its utilities subsidies programmes. As utilities consumption grows, however, it takes up an increasingly large share of state finances. Between 2012 and 2014, subsidies cost the government between KD3.5bn ($11.6bn) and KD4bn ($13.2bn), or 7-8% of GDP, according to the Ministry of Finance. Using domestically produced oil for power generation is not ideal, either. Burning oil for domestic electricity is not only expensive and inefficient but also burns away export revenues vital to the country’s economy. In addition, fuel oil does not burn as cleanly as natural gas, emitting far more carbon, particulate matter, sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, according to US-based consultancy M J Bradley & Associates. Without a major change to power generation and consumption patterns, however, oil remains central to the electricity mix, generating more than 70% of total power in 2011. Natural gas made up around 28%, according to US-based consultancy IHS.
Solar & Wind
More renewable capacity, therefore, could reduce demand for imported LNG, save oil resources for export and reduce harmful emissions. The idea of renewable generation in Kuwait is not new. Researchers there made the country one of the Gulf’s first to tap renewable energy sources. In 1978 a team from KISR, with German backing, designed and created a pilot solar energy station. In the intervening decades renewable technologies and the economics of power generation have both changed substantially.
KISR, along with the Ministry of Electricity and Water, continues to take the lead on introducing renewable generation. The Al Shagaya complex plays a central role in both of their renewable energy expansion plans. Al Shagaya is set on a 100-sq-km plot in western Kuwait allocated specifically for renewable energy generation. The area’s capacity is set to reach 2000 MW by 2025, Salem Al Hajraf, head of energy research at KISR, told Kuwait Times in September 2015. Planned projects include photovoltaic, concentrated solar and wind power generation facilities, and planners hope to have Al Shagaya’s first phase operational by the end of 2016, according to Omar. Spain-based TSK won a $403m contract to install 60 MW of solar energy capacity, split between a 50-MW thermal solar plant and a 10-MW photovoltaic plant, the company said in September 2015. Under the agreement TSK is set to provide engineering, supply, construction and start-up for the power plant.
Another Spain-based firm, Elecnor, won a $26m engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) contract to build Kuwait’s first wind farm in the Al Shagaya complex. Developed as joint project, Elecnor is set to split the contract 60:40 with Kuwait-based EPC contractor Alghanim. The plans call for five 2-MW G97 wind turbines from Spain-based manufacturer Gamesa, for a total installed capacity of 10 MW. The expected completion date is in late 2016.
Plans for nuclear power generation in Kuwait have been at a standstill since 2011. The authorities had announced intentions to install nuclear energy in 2009, signing agreements with the US, France and Russia to draw up plans. The rationale behind atomic energy largely resembled that behind current investments in renewables. Like those favouring solar and wind, some in the government favoured nuclear power generation because it could reduce gas imports, save fuel oil for export and cut the country’s overall emissions. Initial plans called for four reactors, each with a generating capacity of 1000 MW, according to Ahmad Bishara, the general secretary of the country’s National Nuclear Energy Committee. Four months after the March 2011 meltdown at the Fukushima 1 plant in Japan, however, the emir, Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmed Al Jaber Al Sabah, ordered the nuclear committee to be dissolved.
On The Grid
While nuclear plans are shelved for the moment, upgrades are moving ahead on electricity infrastructure. A GCC joint project to build up and connect grid infrastructure across the six-country bloc bodes well for the future of renewable generation. In 1999 all six members agreed to construct a unified power grid. In 2001 they established the GCC Interconnection Authority (GCCIA), and by 2011 all six members were connected. GCC governments provided the funds to cover the first phase’s $1.2bn budget, and, in return, took shareholdings that corresponded to each country’s anticipated savings from the project. “The interconnector alone will save countries up to $3bn in capital investment by avoiding the need to build more than 5 GW of generation capacity over 20 years,” Ahmed Ali Al Ebrahim, the GCCIA’s chief operating officer, said following the completion of the project. “Operational and fuel efficiency savings across the system will amount to at least $300m, based on feasibility estimates to 2028.”
In addition to providing added efficiency and emergency back-up capabilities, the new network could also offer incentives to install more renewable and other low-carbon generation capacity, as the network would provide an export outlet for excess power. “Solar and wind energy come as resources are there and not as the load requires,” Al Ebrahim told Dubai-based daily The National in December 2014. “That’s why whenever you have excess renewable energy that you don’t need, you can export it through the interconnector member states.” Although the grid has a maximum transfer capacity of 1200 MW, intra-bloc energy trading activity has still not taken off. The advent of more low-carbon energy installations and their excess electricity production, therefore, could encourage more cross-border trading. With members across the regional club aiming for 15-30% renewable and other low-carbon energy generation by 2030, each country could benefit from this.
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