How solar and oil can coexist in Saudi Arabia

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Oil-rich Saudi Arabia wants to become an exporter of solar.

Yup, that’s right. The country’s oil minister confirmed Saudi Arabia’s solar ambitions last year and said the country has the potential to export power, not just oil. So far it seems to be moving on that promise. The Saudi Arabia-South Korea joint venture Polysilicon Technology Co. said this week it had signed a $380 million deal to build a $1.5 billion plant for manufacturing polysilicon, which is used in solar panels.

Saudi Arabian solar, however, looks like it’s a part of an overall oil strategy. The country wants to diversify its energy portfolio with solar and nuclear. By reducing its need to burn oil for electricity, it can preserve more oil for money-making exports, Reuters writes.

A handful of foreign companies have moved on solar opportunities in Saudi Arabia so far. Last year, SolFocus announced it would build the first and largest concentrated photovoltaic solar system in Saudi Arabia, delivering around 300 megawatt-hours of energy. Japanese thin-film solar company Solar Frontier will also provide 10 megawatts in a solar installation for a car park.

While renewable energy enthusiasts and companies often talk about cleantech as a way to end use of oil and fossil fuels, Saudi Arabia’s approach shows that in reality, the two are becoming complementary.

In fact, solar is being used to extract oil. This week GlassPoint said using solar to generate steam had become economical enough that the company was deploying it at its oilfields, where solar-generated steam is pumped into wells to help extract oil. BrightSource Energy is also deploying a similar solar steam approach at a Chevron oilfield, where it is expected to lower the cost of generating steam and thus result in cheaper oil, Greentech Media reports.

The renewable-fossil fuels crossover stretches to the area of energy efficiency. Other companies that have won investment lately aim to make the extraction and refining of fossil fuels more efficient. NEOS GeoSolutions, which has the backing of Bill Gates and Goldman Sachs, uses geophysical sensors and data analysis to determine the best areas to drill for oil and natural gas. (The use of sensors and data analysis is becoming increasingly common and important in the area of energy efficiency and management among cleantech companies). Rive Technologies makes oil-refining catalysts that help refiners squeeze more yield out of crude oil, and the technology could one day be applied to biofuels.