Kuwait's 'solar leaders' study renewable energy in Colorado


It reached 115 degrees on Monday, in Kuwait City, Kuwait, which is typical for the desert city whose summer highs regularly peak well above 120. In the relatively cool 90 degrees of Colorado’s Western Slope on the same day, 15 Kuwaitis wearing neon-yellow vests embroidered with “solar leaders” on the backs, gathered around photovoltaic demonstrations and load regulators at the Solar Energy International (SEI) headquarters in Paonia. Kuwait, one of the world’s leading oil producers, hopes to transition its energy production to be 15 percent renewable by 2030—and the people who will make this plan reality have come to Colorado for advice.

Government department heads and academic leaders from Kuwait gathered in Paonia, CO to learn about solar technology.

“Our problem is that we are a very hot country,” says Jamal Al-Abdul Jaleel, a chief engineer with the country’s Ministry of Electricity and Water, who is part of the solar delegation in Paonia. “The demand on air conditioning is a lot…. AC takes about 70 percent of (our) energy.” Currently, Kuwait produces that power through its own fossil fuel reserves. With no existing renewable power plants, meeting the country’s ambitious goal will require development and construction of a solar farm, technical training, and grid infrastructure needed for 2,000 megawatts of energy within 17 years.

The Kuwaiti engineers plan to develop a curriculum based on material they learn from SEI and create a two-year post-high school diploma for budding renewable energy technicians.

One of the main motivations for developing renewable energy capacity in Kuwait is the anticipation of a peak oil future. “We all know that one day…this source of energy will run dry,” Dr. Salem Alhajraf, program manager at the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research (KISR) told the Arab Times. Most Middle Eastern countries currently rely entirely on domestic petroleum production for their energy needs, as well as for mainstays of their economies. For Kuwait, it’s about half its GDP and 95 percent of its exports. So switching to renewables is an economic safety plan, because it will allow countries like Kuwait to preserve those fossil fuels to sell in the future to places that haven’t kicked their own oil habit, like the U.S.

Kuwait’s “solar leaders” say they are also motivated by climate change, says Kris Sutton, an instructor at SEI, which is one of the leading solar training organizations in the U.S.  “They are beginning to understand that global warming is real—way more than we do in the U.S.,” Sutton says. “They understand, and are excited about finding business models to curb global warming, and much more open that it is a scientific fact.” Yet despite all this talk of renewables and climate, none of the Middle Eastern countries have announced a commitment to lower carbon emissions, even after attending UN’s climate change conference in Qatar last December. “They are in a bit of a conundrum,” Sutton says, “since such a large portion of Middle Eastern economies are tied to fossil fuels.”

In Kuwait, citizens don’t see the true cost of their energy consumption because it is almost completely subsidized by the government. The government isn’t going to increase consumer bills anytime soon, but with extremely low pricing, there is little incentive for citizens to voluntarily curb their energy use. If the government wants to conserve its petroleum resources, but there isn’t incentive for citizens to reduce consumption, adding another energy source to the mix becomes attractive. But unlike the U.S., building large-scale renewable plants “doesn’t take an act of Congress,” says Sutton. “It takes one guy with a pen.” (In Kuwait's case, that would be Prince Abdullah al-Sabah.)

Though the Kuwaitis, and several other Middle Eastern countries, have looked to SEI for advice, the U.S. is less of a slam-dunk exemplar when it comes to renewables. While we already have a grid capable of incorporating renewable energy sources, we struggle to agree on where and how to develop energy production. Earlier this summer, in his State of the Union Address, President Obama said he wanted to double renewable energy output by 2020. His hopes, however, are met with resistance. In coal country, Obama’s energy plan is dubbed a “war on coal,” and in the West, some worry that the President wants to sacrifice pristine public land for “Big Solar.” Infighting and deep polarization in congress has stymied the swift progress that many renewables advocates in the West would like to see. Yet the EPA and President Obama are trying to moving ahead with administrative authority to keep those commitments of addressing climate change, including with a recent EPA announcement that the agency will be assessing several degraded plots of land as potential hosts for new solar developments.

Kuwait Solar Leaders pose for a picture beside a solar demonstration at Solar Education International in Paonia, CO.

“The one giant benefit we have in the United States is establishing an organic market,” says Sutton. “We pay the real retail price, and solar is becoming cost-competitive.” In Kuwait, where a citizen pays roughly $0.06 per kilowatt-hour, the average rate in the U.S. is $0.10, with many places much higher. “When it gets above 15 cents, solar is cost-competitive in the open market,” says Sutton, which is part of what is driving the increasing development of both large-scale and residential solar models in the U.S.

As the delegation’s tour at SEI’s campus wrapped up, the group’s leader handed out the remaining thermal vests to participants who hadn’t yet received them. The vibrant yellow and reflective striping made the participants look more like a construction crew than the governmental department heads that they were. Climbing onto the edges of a demonstration roof covered with photovoltaic panels, the 15 men and women smiled for a group photo under the Colorado sun, in the cool, 90 degree air.

Katie Mast is an editorial intern at High Country News.

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