The first green shoots of renewable energy have begun to appear in Kuwait as new solar projects come on-stream and recognise the potential to cut costs, reduce emissions and divert fuel to export markets rather than domestic consumption. In November 2016 the emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Jaber Al Sabah, demonstrated the country’s commitment to international efforts to reduce global warming by attending the COP22 UN Conference on Climate Change in Marrakech. Four years earlier, at COP18 in Doha, Sheikh Sabah had stated that Kuwait would aim to meet 15% of its energy demand through renewables by 2030.
While 15% is the target for renewable energy’s contribution to the power generation mix by 2030, no roadmap has been published giving clear indications of how many GW of generating capacity might be supplied by solar or wind. An official video promoting the state of Kuwait’s first independent water and power company, Al Zour North One, predicts that by 2030 the population of the country may have reached 6m, requiring installed capacity of 28.8 GW.
If renewables are to make the desired contribution by that time, 4.32 GW of installed solar and wind capacity will have to be built. To put this in context, the first solar plant built for Kuwait Oil Company, SIDRAH 500, which opened in 2016, had an initial capacity of 10 MW. In 2017 a further 60 MW of renewable capacity is due to come on-stream at Shagaya Renewable Energy Park 100 km north of Kuwait City. So, by the end of 2017 Kuwait will have around 70 MW of installed renewable energy against a 2030 target of 4320 MW, which means the solar sector will have to grow by 6000% in 12 years. While that may seem an impossible dream, there are environmental, economic and political factors, which may speed progress in the years to come.
Scientists have been carrying out research into the potential of renewable energy in Kuwait for decades. According to a research paper delivered to Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries in 1981, the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research (KISR) established a solar power research programme in 1976. A solar house was built, solar-powered air conditioning was used in schoolrooms, and applications for desalination and agriculture were also produced. Although global warming was not at the forefront of their agenda in 1981, the researchers noted that while the affluence of the population and the availability of cheap oil might combine to prevent development of the technology, this could be outweighed by positive factors, such as the need to preserve oil wealth for future generations, the availability of capital to develop technology combined with progressive attitudes to home design and technology among Kuwaitis, an industrial base capable of manufacturing components and the government’s willingness to allow experimental solar generation sites on its buildings.
Kuwaiti scientists in the 1970s also noted that peak demand for both air conditioning and desalinated water coincided with the times of day and year when solar power was most abundant. However, in the 1980s plans for solar power in Kuwait were abandoned when the price of oil collapsed. However, the arguments put forward 40 years ago have stood the test of time and have been given added impetus by climate change concerns. In September 2016 a consortium including Chinese solar panel maker JinkoSolar and Japan’s Marubeni Corporation bid just $0.0242 per KWh for a 350-MW plant in Abu Dhabi, a world record low price.
JinkoSolar has also established a foothold in Kuwait, providing 5 MW of photovoltaic (PV) panels for the first phase of Shagaya Renewable Energy Park in 2016. The integrated renewable project at Shagaya is being built for the Ministry of Water and Electricity and KISR by the Spanish company TSK. In addition to 5 MW of PV modules, the site will have 5 MW of thin film to produce 10 MW of PV energy.
In addition, TSK is installing 50 MW of thermal solar technology, including its own parabolic trough collectors at the site. Shagaya will have the capacity to store electricity for nine hours, enabling it to release power to coincide with peak demand. The Shagaya initiative was first conceived in 2009, but not formally announced until 2013. By 2030 it will include 1150 MW of concentrated solar power (CSP), a 700-MW PV plant and a 150-MW wind farm, providing a combined total of 2 GW of installed capacity. The CSP element will be developed over time with 23 individual projects of 50 MW each and 14 solar PV projects sharing the same site with the wind farm. The combined renewable energy output for the scheme will be 5000 GWh annually, saving 12m barrels of oil equivalent. The site will have four substations and connect with the national grid.
According to KISR, residential customers account for 61% of Kuwait’s electrical consumption, with commercial and industrial customers using 16% and 3%, respectively, and 21% used by others, presumably public sector buildings. When it comes to fuel consumption, electricity and water production accounts for 55%, transport for 17%, the oil industry for 27% and residential for 1%. The feedstock used in generating electricity and desalinating water uses a mix of fuels with gas oil accounting for 0.5%, natural gas for 27%, crude oil for 29% and heavy fuel for 44%.
Kuwait has been a net importer of natural gas since 2009, and in 2015 it imported 3.1m tonnes of liquefied natural gas (LNG), 15% more than in the previous year. Kuwait’s main source of LNG has been Qatar, but it has also taken cargoes from Nigeria, Trinidad and Tobago, Oman and the US. According to the IMF, Kuwait’s per capita energy consumption was 10 tonnes of oil equivalent (toe) in 2014. Compared to a world average of 4 toe per capita, this rank Kuwait as the sixth-largest consumer on a per capita basis. That consumption has also been growing at an average of 0.9% a year over 40 years, while many countries in the developed world saw negative growth during the period. Data from a BP study also shows Kuwait per capita CO emissions in 2014 were 28 tonnes, the fifth highest of any country covered in the report. The IMF estimated that in 2014, the opportunity cost of using oil to satisfy domestic demand for energy was equivalent to 7% of Kuwait’s GDP. The IMF has also urged Kuwait to cut subsidies on water and electricity to reduce consumption. In May 2017 a law reducing subsidies for expatriates, but exempting Kuwaiti citizens, went into effect, raising the domestic electricity price from KD0.002 ($0.01) per KWh to KD0.015 ($0.05), while doubling the water price.
No sector understands this loss more keenly than the oil industry itself, and it was Kuwait Oil Company (KOC) that developed the first utility scale solar project in the country in 2016. Sidrah 500 consists of 32,450 solar panels on a 36-ha site. The solar panels, which can collectively generate 10 MW, are housed on single-axis trackers so that they can move with the sun. Sidrah 500 is connected to the national grid through KOC’s own substation. The electricity produced by the plant powers 29 electric pumps in the Umm-Gudair oilfield in west Kuwait, a first for the oil business. This use of solar power not only reduces the amount of electricity KOC has to take from the grid, but also enables KOC to feed in any excess power generated. SIDRAH 500 was developed after the emir’s statement on renewables in Doha in 2012, and it has since established proof of concept for many people in Kuwait. “In Kuwait there have been many sceptics about the feasibility of solar, those who felt that dust storms and other weather conditions might make it infeasible, but we have been able to show the performance is exceeding expectations and that we have a project working flawlessly, despite the dust and wind conditions, which is connected to the grid,” Raed Sherif, renewable energy consultant at KOC, told OBG. “We are waiting to see how the plant will operate during the hot summer months. Once the plant demonstrates reliable operation during summer, there will be a huge potential to expand the use of renewable energy across KOC.”
Another factor that may speed up the development of renewable energy projects is the liberalisation of rules governing public-private partnerships (PPP). Among the PPP utility plans midway through the tendering process in early 2017 is the Al Abdaliyah Integrated Solar Combined Cycle plant. Solar will contribute 60 MW under this scheme, with a gas turbine generating 280 MW. The first conventional water and power PPP began operating in Kuwait in 2016, and if this funding mechanism proves popular, companies specialising in solar power generation may become more interested in developing schemes in Kuwait.
Renewable Energy Development Organisation (REDO), a New York-based non-profit, is trying to persuade Kuwait’s government to invest in solar for public buildings. “Our argument is that if, as a government, you can cut fuel bills by 15%, you are potentially saving millions of dinars, and the great thing about government buildings such as offices and schools is that their demand for electricity for air conditioning coincides with the hottest time of the day,” Fadel Jerman, consultant and head of oil and gas at REDO Kuwait, told OBG.