Saudi Arabia seeks to reduce energy waste and environmental impact

While economic and social development may be at the forefront of the agenda in Saudi Arabia, the Kingdom has also committed itself to policies related to the responsible stewardship of the environment, including its marine and desert habitats and natural spaces in its cities. Although the extraction and sale of fossil fuels continues to fuel the economy, policymakers are passing initiatives to curb energy waste and to soften the environmental impact of growth and industrialisation.

The Wadi Hanifa Comprehensive Rehabilitation Project, for example, has seen a 120-km valley, which was overrun and polluted as the city of Riyadh expanded, rescued and restored as an amenity for people living in the city. The Arriyadh Development Authority’s (ADA) work on Wadi Hanifa is continuing, and it is also making environmental improvements to other areas of the capital city.

Road Map

There are 24 sections in Saudi Arabia’s 10th Development Plan 2015-19, and the sixth objective is “raising the value added of natural resources in the national economy, diversifying their sources and ensuring their sustainability along with protecting the environment and conserving the wildlife”.

Saudi Arabia aims to balance its ambitions to build refineries and petrochemical facilities – to supply the world with products, including plastic, petrol and paint – with a commitment to preserving coral reefs in the Red Sea, promoting economic growth while factoring in environmental considerations. The focus is on responsible management of the country’s natural habitat as well as its natural resources.

Included under the 10th Development Plan’s strategy for oil and mineral resources are commitments to develop renewable sources of energy for the production of both electricity and desalinated water. In addition, there are also several goals laid out in the plan related to reducing waste and encouraging reuse in the water industry and finding solutions for the protection of non-renewable water resources.

The plan also emphasises the importance of creating incentives and regulations to enhance the sustainability of natural resources, combat pollution, reduce solid waste, improve air quality, and protect and conserve biodiversity on land and at sea. Though Saudi Arabia will remain dependent on hydrocarbons for some time, its road map through 2019 suggests there will be significant opportunities for those with the skills and expertise to help the country achieve its environmental goals.


Saudi Arabia’s five-year development plans are published by the country’s Ministry of Economy and Planning, but responsibility for its broad environmental agenda is shared by a number of government departments and agencies at both the national and regional levels. The Presidency of Meteorology and Environment (PMU) was created in 2001 but grew out of previous government agencies. It is tasked with protecting the environment and enforcing rules on pollution, waste management and responsible development.

According to PMU environmental regulations, those found breaking the rules can be ordered to rectify the damage they cause and may face financial penalties that range from SR150 ($40) for breaking rules on vehicle emissions to SR500,000 ($133,000) for polluting groundwater with toxic substances. PMU regulations stipulate requirements for environmental impact assessments for residential and industrial development, and the agency is also responsible for planning multi-agency responses to major incidents such as oil spills.

The Saudi Wildlife Authority (SWA) was created in 1986 to protect the Kingdom’s terrestrial and marine environments. The authority administers 16 protected areas around the country and works to safeguard endangered species and habitats and to promote awareness of wildlife and nature.

The Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs deals with planning and building regulations, some of which may have a direct bearing on environmental issues. In addition, individual municipal authorities such as Riyadh Municipality, the ADA, or the Royal Commission for Jubail and Yanbu also deal with development proposals and environmental projects in their respective areas of influence.


The state-owned or partially state-owned entities that are responsible for Saudi Arabia’s heavy industries and utilities also play a significant role in managing the environmental impact of their operations and in commissioning innovative solutions to improve energy efficiency, reduce emissions and manage waste. Although there is some overlap in their activities, the Saudi Electricity Company (SEC) is responsible for electricity generation, transmission and supply, while the Saline Water Conversion Corporation (SWCC) handles desalination. Independent water and power producers (IWPPs) complement the work of these agencies.

The utilities sector, which is gearing up for further privatisation in the years ahead, is overseen by the Electricity and Cogeneration Regulatory Authority (ECRA). Cogeneration plants, which produce both electricity and desalinated water (or in some cases steam), have been used by the SEC and SWCC to reduce the required level of feedstock. Some independent power producers (IPPs) and IWPPs also make use of cogeneration plants.

In addition, the petrochemicals giant Saudi Basic Industries Corporation (SABIC), which is 70% government owned, and the national energy company, Saudi Aramco, both produce annual reports detailing their efforts to improve their environmental performance, and the two companies regularly collaborate with both businesses and academic institutions in order to help fulfil these goals.

Greenhouse Gases

According to UN data released through the US Department of Energy’s Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Centre ( CDIAC), Saudi Arabia’s per capita production of carbon dioxide reached 21.1 metric tonnes per person in 2011, the most recent year that data is available, while the country’s total carbon dioxide emissions stood at around 551m metric tonnes in the same year. Saudi Arabia ranked 11th in the world in 2010 for total CO emissions from natural gas flaring and fossil fuel burning, with China, the US and India ranked in the first, second and third places.

According to a presentation given by Abu Naser Khondaker, a researcher at King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals (KFUPM), at the Saudi Environmental Technologies Conference in May 2012, a team of experts from KFUPM, PMU and Saudi Aramco is jointly developing national greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions inventories for the Kingdom. Khondaker said that a report based on 2010 emissions was being prepared but added that “access to quality data remains a challenge”.

However, detailed statistics for emissions collected in 1990 and 2000 were submitted to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change ( UNFCCC) in 2005 and 2011, respectively. These figures show that in 2000 the CO emissions were 13.63 tonnes per person when UN figures show the population was 20,145,000. The data for Saudi Arabia for that year shows total CO emissions were 258m tonnes and that was the most recent year for which carbon dioxide output data is available.

Electricity generation accounted for 33% of this total, road transport for 21%, fuel combustion from desalination for 11%, petroleum refining for 8% and the petrochemicals industry for 3%. According to this data, the total CO produced by the transportation, refining and exploration activities of the oil and gas sector was 3.87 tonnes, or 1.5% of the total.

A CDIAC report showed that changing practices in the oil and gas industry have had a dramatic impact on its CO emissions. It said that in 1974 gas flaring, where natural gas found during oil exploration is burned off, accounted for 76% of the country’s CO emissions, but that by 2008 this had fallen to less than 1%. However, it is also important to note that in 1974 there were fewer than 7.5m people in Saudi Arabia and the latest figures suggest that there will be around 30m by the end of 2015.

Utility Emissions

The utilities, petrochemicals and energy industries have also been making considerable investments in technology to improve their fuel efficiency, which may also have had an effect on the proportion of CO emissions they produced since the detailed breakdown of 2000. At that time, electricity generation and desalination together accounted for some 44% of total CO into 33% and 11%, respectively.

However, since 2000 there has been a shift towards more fuel-efficient cogeneration facilities that are designed to produce both electricity and desalinate water. The introduction of these has seen the total fuel used for desalination reduced by half.

According to figures provided by the Electricity CoGeneration Regulatory Authority (ECRA), of the total 69.5 GW of installed electricity generation capacity in 2013, 35.7 GW (or around 51%) was in plants that were less than 10 years old, while 2538 cu metres per day of desalination capacity out of a total of 5931 cu metres per day, or 43%, was in facilities built in the past decade.

The Kingdom’s electricity plants have also been upgrading their technology to improve efficiency. “Converting all open-cycle power plants to combined-cycle power plants will raise the efficiency from an average of 33% to hopefully more than 45%,” ECRA’s governor, Abdullah Al Shehri, told OBG.

One of the IWPPs, the Shuaibah Water and Electricity Company (SWEC), reports that its main plant – one of the world’s biggest water and power cogeneration facilities, operational since 2010 – is using advanced technology to reduce GHG emissions. “The Shuaibah IWPP is the first plant in Saudi Arabia utilising the flue gas desulphurisation technology along with low NOx burner and electrostatic precipitator in ensuring full compliance to the World Bank emission requirement,” said the company’s website.

According to the US Energy Information Administration, Saudi Arabia had to generate twice as much electricity in 2013 as it did in 2000 to meet growing demand, while the ECRA has reported that the Kingdom will need to spend $140bn before 2020 to meet rising demand for electricity and SR91bn ($24.3bn) on new desalination capacity. This rapid expansion will present opportunities for firms specialising in technology that can lessen the carbon footprint of the new utility plants.

Renewable Power

ACWA Power, a Saudi Arabian business that has stakes in several of the country’s IPPs and IWPPs including Shuaibah, announced in January 2015 that it had secured a 25-year power purchase agreement to build a 200-MW solar power station in Dubai that will use photovoltaic solar panels to generate electricity to supply 30,000 homes every year. According to the company, the project will be able to reduce carbon emissions by an estimated 469,650 tonnes of CO sions for every year of operation.

In the same month work began on Green Duba, a 600-MW integrated power station that will generate 50 MW of its capacity through a concentrated solar power (CSP) trough, the country’s first use of CSP in electricity generation. SEC commissioned GE to build the station, which will generate a total of 550 MW through gas turbines, one of which has been configured to use condensate.

Saudi Armaco

Saudi Aramco produces oil and gas, but it regards itself as an integrated energy business, which also generates power and runs refineries and petrochemicals plants. Although the company does not give details of its total carbon footprint, its 2013 “Corporate Citizenship” report said the company avoided almost 2.5m tonnes of CO “through energy conservation measures and further reductions in flaring” at its sites.

The company’s main annual report for 2013 reports that flaring in Saudi Aramco facilities was reduced by 17% during the year. The company said its flare monitoring systems enabled it to reduce flaring at upstream facilities from 0.89% of raw gas production to 0.72% and that it had achieved zero flaring at nine wells on its new Manifa field.

Downstream, its Ras Tanura refinery used pressure swing absorption technology, which separates different gases under pressure, to achieve zero tail gas flaring, resulting in a gas cost avoidance equivalent to $8.33m per year. Its Yanbu refinery also managed to reduce flaring by 41% in 2013 by using the company’s facility flaring guidelines.

Saudi Aramco has run an Energy Management Programme since 2000 and said in 2013 that in that period it had identified 700 energy saving opportunities and acted upon 74 of these in 2013 alone, which collectively enabled the company to cut energy consumption by 5.8%. It reports that in 13 years the investments and amendments to procedures it has made have resulted in savings equivalent to around 150,000 barrels of oil a day.

Saudi Aramco has also invested in projects to conserve both marine and desert environments. It signed a 10-year research partnership with King Abdullah University of Science and Technology to conduct studies on the Red Sea coast, where its exploration activities have increased and its Manifa field, which consists of man-made islands, bridges and causeways in the Gulf, was nominated for a UNESCO environmental responsibility award. The company is also developing a 600-sq-km wildlife sanctuary in the Rub Al Khali, or the Empty Quarter. It is home to rare native species such as the sand fox, sand cat, reptiles and migrating birds. Arabian oryx and Reem gazelles are also being reintroduced to the area decades after they were last seen there.


SABIC is another major Saudi enterprise working to harness efficiency savings and carry out initiatives designed to reduce its carbon footprint. In its 2014 “Sustainability Report” SABIC said that its total GHG emissions across the company’s international operations were equivalent to 56m tonnes of CO , down from 57m tonnes in 2012. The report said, “Our ambition is to reduce our GHG, energy and water intensity by 25%, and to reduce material-loss intensity by 50% versus 2010 levels by 2025.”

Carbon Capture & Storage 

Both Saudi Aramco and SABIC have been involved in carbon capture and storage (CCS) initiatives as well. SABIC expects that its United project will be operational by the end of 2015. The CO emitted in the process of producing glycol at its affiliate Jubail Unified Petrochemical will be captured in the ethylene-glycol process and transferred via pipelines to other SABIC affiliates, where it can then be used to produce urea, methanol or industrial-grade CO , which is used in the food and beverage industry.

If this pilot project works, SABIC will study the feasibility of extending it to another affiliate. The process is expected to yield 1.5% in product revenue for United, and SABIC believes the environmental benefits will include a 500,000-tonne-per-year decline in CO emissions, a 13% reduction in energy and water intensity, and a 76% reduction in material-waste intensity. SABIC said it has found several customers for its pure gaseous CO . “We see this as the start of a journey where CO recovery and its use become as common as the recycling of aluminium cans today.”

Saudi Aramco’s CCS demonstration project was launched on July 29, 2015. CO captured from its Hawiyah natural gas liquids recovery plant is being reinjected into mature oil fields in the Uthmaniya area. The company is confident the 40m standard cu feet per day of CO will be captured and used in this enhanced oil recovery process, thereby reducing emissions of GHG while enhancing oil recovery. Saudi Aramco has partnered with the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) to create a CO Research Centre near KAIST’s main campus in Daejeon, where interdisciplinary research teams will explore CO management technologies for fixed sites and vehicles. One piece of Saudi Aramco research has involved developing a mobile carbon capture unit mounted on a Ford F-250 truck. The latest version of the capture unit is one-eighth of the size of the original prototype and is capable of capturing 20% of emissions compared to 10% with the original design. A smaller version is now being developed for use on a Toyota Camry.

Green Building

In the spring of 2014 a royal decree gave companies five years to comply with new standards in air, water and pollution standards measured against international benchmarks, such as the US Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification system. To receive LEED certification, building projects must earn points based on prerequisites for different types of construction projects.

The impact could be significant in Saudi Arabia, where the government is investing heavily in infrastructure projects, new cities and improved housing. The Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs has formulated green building guidelines for Saudi Arabia. With 80% of energy consumed in Saudi Arabia’s buildings and 70% of that energy used to run air conditioning, according to figures from the ECRA, improvements to both the energy efficiency of air conditioning units and the insulation used in the construction of the buildings they are cooling can have a significant impact, and these issues are addressed in the new regulations.

New property developments such as the King Abdullah Finance District have been designed to meet LEED standards by using local building materials to reduce energy consumption in transport, roof-top solar panels to generate power, district cooling systems to minimise expenditure on air conditioning and intelligent lighting that switches off when a room is unoccupied. In addition, King Abdullah Finance District will also be served by a six-station monorail on a 3.6-km loop.


Saudi Arabia is investing heavily in rail networks designed to carry both passengers and freight around the country and to relieve congestion on local roads. Projects include a high-speed rail link between Makkah, Jeddah and Medina, a northsouth railway line and a “landbridge” designed to connect Dammam in the east with Jeddah in the west. Construction work has begun on the Riyadh metro and another urban transit system is planned for Jeddah. There are also metros planned for Dammam, Makkah and Medina (see Transport chapter).

However, road traffic represents a growing pollution threat. It comprised 21% of CO 2000, and since then the country’s roads have become far busier as the population has grown and the number of vehicles has increased.

Figures from the Central Department of Statistics and Information show that in 2013 Saudi Arabia imported more than 1m vehicles for the first time, a 2.5% increase on the number imported the previous year. More than 4m vehicles were imported between 2009 and 2013, and according to the Middle East online media outlet Al Bawaba, there were just 6.6m vehicles registered in the country as of early 2015. The country’s highly subsidised fuel incentivises the use of automobiles. The price of a litre of petrol in Saudi Arabia is around $0.16, making it the third-cheapest place in the world to buy motor fuel after Libya and Venezuela.


Despite Saudi Arabia’s vast hydrocarbons wealth, a desire for sustainable growth has created various opportunities for investors in renewable energy, carbon-saving technology and green building. Regulatory changes and a desire to maximise the export potential of its hydrocarbons by improving energy efficiency in the Kingdom have generated a demand for green business solutions. With an ongoing five-year plan focusing on reducing carbon emissions and improving energy efficiency, developments in this space are helping create jobs and drawing public and private sector spending.


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