• Energy production is world's second-largest water consumer
  • Gulf nations aim to install 27 gigawatts of renewables by 2030

Why are the oil-rich countries of the Persian Gulf region announcing ambitious plans for renewable energy when the fossil fuels they produce are so cheap?

It’s all about water.

“Increasing renewables generation can substantially reduce water withdrawal,” said Adnan Amin, director-general of the International Renewable Energy Agency, which is based in Abu Dhabi. “Water is a very expensive commodity in this part of the world and extensively used in the energy sector. Commercial use of renewables can greatly reduce this.”

Source: IRENA

The energy production industry is the second-largest consumer of water in the world after agriculture, according to Xylem Inc., which makes equipment for the water industry. It estimates that some processes in OPEC nations such as secondary oil recovery use about 30 times more of the liquid to extract their crude than producers outside the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. 

The Middle East has some of the world’s lowest levels of water supplies that aren’t replenished by rains. A significant amount of the region’s fresh water is made from the sea pumped through desalination plants, ranging from 27 percent in Oman to 87 percent in Qatar, according to a report on Wednesday by Irena. Removing the salt burns through a third of total power consumed in the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, the report said. Saudi Arabia uses a 10th of its domestic oil to power its desalination plants.

Gulf countries aim to install more than 27 gigawatts of renewable energy by 2030, according to Irena. The sheikdom of Dubai has said that it plans to generate a quarter of its power from clean sources. Implementation of these targets could reduce the region’s annual water use by 16 percent or 11 trillion liters, Irena said.

“As a rule of thumb, a solar thermal unit uses about a 10th of the water consumed by a gas-fired power station,” said Jenny Chase, head of solar analysis at Bloomberg New Energy Finance. “A solar photovoltaic plant uses even less, about a 10th of solar thermal.”