ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates, Dec. 12 (UPI) -- The world's largest single-unit solar power plant is nearing completion in oil-rich Abu Dhabi while Saudi Arabia, the world's leading oil exporter, is mulling exporting solar power to the region and Europe.
Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf, which sit on around one-fifth of the Earth's oil reserves, are embarking on a green revolution that will transform their own economies by freeing oil for export rather than domestic consumption to fuel power stations.
This is taking place as an ambitious $560 billion project to supply Europe with vast amounts of solar thermal energy from North Africa seems to be running out of steam as industrial backers get cold feet and a key pilot project in Morocco is stuck in the Saharan sand.
The leading solar effort in the gulf is the Shams 1 project in Abu Dhabi, the economic powerhouse of the United Arab Emirates, that will have an electricity generation capacity of 100 megawatts when it's completed in the next few months.
"This could be the world's next renewable energy center," said Mark Robson of the Oliver Wyman energy consultancy in Dubai, the Emirates' financial hub, during a U.N. global climate change conference in Qatar, the leading exporter of liquefied natural gas, earlier this month.
Built by solar power giant Masdar, the project's designed to provide 20,000 homes with electricity. Follow-on projects Shams 2 and 3 are expected to produce similar amounts of electricity.
"Once completed, Shams 1 will be one of the largest concentrated solar power plants in the world," and the largest of its kind in the Middle East, said Yousef Al Ali, general manager of the Shams Power Co.
The project's solar panels cover the equivalent of 300 football fields in a remote patch of desert in the emirate, the first large-scale solar enterprise in Abu Dhabi, which sits on 8 percent of the world's proven oil reserves.
Eventually the solar project, initiated in 2006, will become low-carbon Madinat Masdar, Arabic for Source City, built by the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Co., a subsidiary of the state-owned Mudabala Development Co.
The 2-square-mile, auto-free zone southeast of the city of Abu Dhabi and near its international airport, will rely entirely on solar energy and other renewable energy sources.
Critics have dismissed Source City as a "green Disneyland," a wasteful extravagance.
But Masdar's energy institute is adapting Western energy efficiency models to desert conditions and next year the German industrial group Siemens is to open its Middle East headquarters there.
Fahd bin Mohammed Al-Attiya, director of Qatar's national food security program which is helping develop the country's solar power, says the emirate is working to run some 1,800MW of solar energy into its power grid by 2018.
That's 16-18 percent of the tiny emirate's electricity needs.
Saudi Arabia, meantime, is thinking about establishing a chain of solar power stations over the next few years as part of a $100 billion program to develop renewable energy, mostly solar power.
The move toward solar power "follows years of growth in Saudi Arabia and others in the gulf that mean countries are now burning so much of their own oil and gas resources that they could become net fuel importers within 20 years unless they find new sources of energy," the Financial Times observed.
Eventually, solar energy advocates see the Gulf Cooperation Council states -- Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and Bahrain -- providing electricity to Egypt and the region, and even Europe, eager to cut its dependence on Russian gas supplies.
Attiyah said he saw the GCC "following in the footsteps of Desertec," the pioneering Moroccan project that got going three years ago with plans for massive solar-energy farms across North Africa supplying power for the Middle East and Europe.
The Desertec Industrial Initiative, and the envisaged Mediterranean supergrid it would spawn, has recently run into a series of setbacks.
Siemens and Bosch, two of the main industrial supporters, backed out and the German government, which had been an enthusiastic backer, has lost interest amid growing difficulties getting the project off the ground.
Spain balked at signing a declaration of intent to connect high-voltage lines between Morocco and Europe amid a lack of funding.