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Renewable Energy in the Middle East

While the Middle East is often associated with fossil fuel production, the region has immense potential for the development of renewable energy. In particular, the sunny climate is well-suited for large scale solar energy production. In many countries, ubiquitous cheap oil and gas have long inhibited the development of major initiatives to move towards renewable energy production and address climate change. Approximately 65 percent of the world’s hydrocarbon reserves are estimated to be in the countries of the Middle East, with Saudi Arabia alone controlling 16 percent.  However, the situation is rapidly changing as renewable technology becomes more affordable and countries look to diversify their economies.

What is Climate Change?

Historic energy plant in Turkey
A historic power station in Istanbul, Turkey

Climate Change refers to the evolution in earth’s weather patterns over long periods of time. Scientists have shown that manmade emissions from the burning of fossil fuels are the leading contribution to climate change.[1] Since the Industrial Revolution, climate change has been driven by Global Warming, which is the process of heating caused by the burning of fossil fuels that increases the Greenhouse Effect. This refers to the layer of gases that trap solar heat in earth’s atmosphere. Increased gases from the burning of coal, oil, and gas, means that more heat from the sun stays on earth, producing a warmer surface temperature. A warmer earth negatively impacts a wide array of issues from human health to the environment, and scarcity of water supplies to decreasing animal habitats.

Energy Solutions

The Dukan Dam in northern Iraq

Addressing climate change requires a multifaceted approach. One of the foremost needs is producing electricity from renewable energy sources. The main methods of renewable energy production are hydroelectric, solar, wind, and geothermal. Other important sources of emissions to address include transportation and livestock. Across the Middle East and North Africa, all three of the major renewable methods are used. Below is an overview of these different methods and examples of facilities from the region.

Hydroelectric Energy

To produce hydroelectric energy, dams are built to create a reserve of water. The pressure behind the dam is used to drive a turbine as water is released. However, the issue of dam construction is not simple. While they provide benefits such as clean energy production, water storage, and flood regulation, dams also disrupt natural environments, may displace populations, and can affect the livelihoods of people who rely on the water of the river or lake downstream. Important dams in the Middle East include:

Al Wahda Dam: Morocco’s Al Wahda Dam was built on the Ouergha River in 1991 and opened in 1997 as the second-largest dam in Africa. It is an important resource for farmers as it provides water for irrigation. However, decreased rainfall due to climate change will affect the amount of available water in the future.

Aswan High Dam: The construction of a dam on the Nile Dam to control flooding and increase water storage was a key objective for Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Support for the project was provided by the Soviet Union, commemorated in the Soviet-Arab Friendship Memorial on the dam. While the dam was an important engineering achievement that required 10 years to build (1960-70), it submerged countless historical sites, only a fraction of which were saved during a UNESCO rescue operation.

View of the Aswan High Dam from space

Karun-4 Dam: Construction on this massive dam on Iran’s Karun River was completed in 2010. It is part of a larger dam building program in Iran that has come under criticism by Iraq for its diversion of important water resources that are critical for the environment and population of both countries.

Mosul Dam: Iraq’s largest dam was built on the orders of Saddam Hussein from 1981-86 on the Tigris River. It provides electricity for the city of Mosul and water management for the larger region. Constant maintenance on the dam is required due to the porous geology of the area; deferred maintenance in 2016 led to fears of collapse that have since been remediated.

Southeastern Anatolia Project: The Southeastern Anatolia Project is a longstanding Turkish effort to harness the energy of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers that originate in the mountainous area of eastern Turkey.  At present, there are 22 dams in the system. The recent construction of the Ilisu Dam was harshly criticized as it drowned the city of Hasankeyf, a picturesque town on the Tigris River with historic mosques, mausoleums, and bridges.

For more information, check out Teach Mideast’s article on Water in the Middle East

Solar Energy

Ouarzazate, Morocco
The sunny town of Ouarzazate, Morocco – home of the Noor Solar Plant

There are several methods to capture energy from the sun. Photovoltaic panels convert the sun’s rays into electricity, solar water heaters can be employed for domestic or business use, and concentrated solar plants use a field of mirrored panels (heliostats) to reflect rays toward a central tower to superheat synthetic oil that will produce steam for a turbine. With some of the sunniest places in the world, the Middle East is poised to become a world leader in solar energy generation.

Noor Power Station: Morocco constructed the world’s largest concentrated solar plant from 2013-16 outside of the desert town of Ouarzazate. The facility is the roughly the size of San Francisco and is expected to produce six percent of the entire country’s energy.

MBR Solar Park: Another new concentrated solar plant, the MBR Solar Park is located in Dubai and has an over 800-foot tower. The facility includes 70,000 heliostats. It is a joint venture between the Dubai Energy and Water Authority, Saudi Arabia’s ACWA Power and China’s Silk Road Fund.

Windmills on the Turkish island of Bozcaada

Wind Energy: Wind is produced by pressure differences in the earth’s atmosphere. Large turbines with sweeping blades turned by the wind use magnets to generate electricity. A single turbine alone can power hundreds of homes in the proper conditions. Wind farms must be carefully located in regions with constant winds to maximize production and cost-effectiveness.

Aliaga Wind Farm: This 83-turbine farm is near Izmir, a coastal city with plentiful wind on Turkey’s Aegean coast. Coastal regions in Turkey have the highest potential for wind in the country and there have been discussions of developing offshore wind farms.

Dhofar Wind Farm: This was the first major wind project in a GCC country, built in 2014 in southern Oman. The facility has 13 wind turbines. It produces 50MW, enough energy for 16,000 homes.

Dumat Al Jandal Wind Farm: With a completion date in 2022, the Dumat Al Jandal Wind Farm is expected to be the most important facility of its type in Saudi Arabia. It is located in the northwestern art of the country and will have 99 turbines when finished.

Hot springs at Pammukkale
Geothermal activity abounds in the Denizli region, such as the hot springs at Pamukkale

Geothermal Energy: Although there is potential for geothermal energy development in the Middle East, at present Turkey is the only country to have meaningfully developed this capacity. Geothermal energy is produced by drilling wells in regions of the earth’s crust that are hotter due to geothermal activity, often associated with tectonic or volcanic activity. A solution is injected and circulated in the wells where it is heated, and then pumped to the surface to produce steam for turbines.

Kizildere Geothermal Power Plant: The potential for geothermal energy in the Denizli region has long been recognized. The first facility in the area opened in 1974. However, it was not until 2013 that the great potential of the geothermal field was tapped. An expansion to the facility increased the annual output to 575 Gigawatt hours (GWh).

Key terms

Climate Change: the evolution of earth’s weather patterns over long periods of time

Global Warming:  the process of heating earth’s atmosphere caused by the burning of fossil fuels, which increases the Greenhouse Effect

Greenhouse Effect: the heating of earth’s atmosphere by a layer of gases that trap more solar heat than is released

Heliostat: mirrored panels that track the sun’s movement, used in concentrated solar plants

Hydrocarbon: an organic compound composed of hydrogen and carbon, encompassing oil and gas, as well as methane and propane

Oil and gas reserve: the known amount of a hydrocarbon resource that can be extracted economically

OPEC: Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, an organization founded in 1960 with 13 member countries that have substantial oil reserves that together set prices and amounts for oil exports

Net energy importer: a country that buys (imports) more energy resources than it produces or sells (exports) 

Net energy exporter: a country that sells (exports) more energy resources than it consumes or buys (imports)

[1] https://climate.nasa.gov/causes/

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