ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates - Covering nearly 300 football fields in a remote patch of desert, the Shams 1 solar project carries plenty of symbolic significance for the United Arab Emirates.
It will be the first large-scale solar project in the oil-rich country when completed at the end of the year, and the largest of its kind in the Middle East. At full capacity, the 100-megawatt, concentrated solar project will be able to power 20,000 homes. For those behind the project, it's the surest sign yet that solar is coming to the region in a big way.
"We truly believe solar will be a major contributor to meeting our own requirements," said Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber, the UAE's special envoy for energy and climate change and the chief executive officer of government-funded Masdar, which is the majority investor in the project.
"We are not like many other countries today that are in desperate need for complimentary sources of power," Jaber said, adding Abu Dhabi plans to generate 7 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2020. "We are looking at it from a strategic point of view. . . . We want to become a technology player, rather than an energy player."
With its vast deserts and long stretches of sunny days, the Middle East would seem to be an ideal place to harness solar energy. But until now, the region has largely shunned solar because it has cost about three times more than heavily subsidized fossil fuels. There are also few laws in place to regulate solar power and it faces some unique technological hurdles, given the Middle East's climate, which is much hotter and dustier than, say, Europe, where solar thrives.
But technological advances have pushed costs down dramatically, and many oil- and gas-rich countries are reconsidering renewables amid growing demands for power to fuel their booming economies and rapidly increasing populations. There are also fears, especially in Saudi Arabia, that their once seemingly limitless oil resources may have peaked and they could one day become net oil importers. Countries also can get much more revenue for their oil - as much as $90 a barrel at current prices - if they export it rather than use it domestically.
Amid the buzz over solar, countries have begun rolling out ambitious targets for renewables.
Egypt and Qatar say they will produce 20 percent of their energy from renewables by 2020 and 2024, respectively. Algeria has plans to produce 22,000 megawatts of power from renewables between now and 2030. Saudi Arabia announced targets of 10 percent by 2020 and Kuwait 15 percent by 2030.
"The real prize is Saudi Arabia," which promises to build 41,000 megawatts of capacity by 2032, said Vahid Fotuhi, of the American solar provider Alion. "Anyone who is looking at the Middle East will have their eyes sharply focused on the Saudi market. It's the 800-pound gorilla of the Middle East solar market."