Saudi Arabia is looking to offset diesel with off-grid solar photovoltaic (PV) applications and hybrid solutions, offering major opportunities to local developers and suppliers to power remote residential and industrial areas, said an industry expert. Nearly a quarter of the Saudi energy grid is currently powered by diesel, which is used extensively as a fuel for transportation and electricity generation despite the high cost of importing it, added Sabri Asfour, general manager of FAS Energy, a subsidiary of Saudi Arabia's Fawaz Alhokair Group with 2,400 MW of GCC-based solar projects in the pipeline.
At least $1 billion is spent every month on diesel imports to the Kingdom, in addition to the cost and emissions from transporting the fuel to remote areas, he noted.
"In Saudi Arabia, there are weaknesses in electricity grid connection; the demand is huge and the load as well," said Asfour.
As a result, the idea of using PV-generated electricity to offset diesel usage – or to replace it altogether as energy storage costs decline – is becoming increasingly appealing for utilities and industrial corporations, especially those keen on eliminating the uncertainty of future energy costs, he added.
"There are many business areas without electricity and they are waiting for their turn to be connected to the grid, but unfortunately, the queue is long. At FAS Energy, we build small, medium and large-scale hybrid power plants. It is well known that Saudi Arabia's solar irradiation is the best in the region so we have to use it," highlighted Asfour.
According to a report by K A CARE on Saudi Arabia's solar energy deployment roadmap, locations such as border posts, highway family rests, remotely located mosques and small-sized villages all represent excellent potential for micro-generation through hybrid designs, including solar-powered desalination and cooling.
The daily electricity needs of such isolated areas are usually met via diesel generators that are transported periodically to these bases. Not only is the solution expensive and unreliable but the generators struggle to function during the hottest times of the day and often break down.
The Nofa Equestrian Resort, located 85 km west of Riyadh, is already benefitting from the hybrid concept through its recently-commissioned 1 MW CPV plant, which is offsetting the resort's 14 MW diesel generator. Most significantly, Saudi Aramco and Saudi Electricity Company are discussing plans to replace as much as 300 MW of diesel generation in off-grid locations with solar PV.
Companies like FAS Energy are now preparing to supply the local market with hybrid solutions, as Asfour noted.
"We will start providing electricity to our own affiliates from our hybrid system, the solar GenSet and this will be very soon. We can build this kind of solution in shopping malls, farms, hotels, schools and universities, on rooftops, ground-mounted or in car parks,” he said.
Solar energy, however, will not make the transition on its own, as Michael Sterner, professor of energy storage at the Technical University of Regensburg points out. "We need flexibility – flexible power generation, power networks, demand side management, and of course storage."