To some observers, Saudi Arabia's effort to develop solar energy is decidedly a coals-to-Newcastle situation. With close to 113.5 billion barrels of proved oil reserves, Saudi Arabia hardly requires more energy. To put it another way, who needs it?
The kingdom, nevertheless, is sponsoring a variety of experiments in solar energy with particular emphasis on the use of the photovoltaic cell-to power a desalination plant in Jiddah, fend off corrosion in underground pipelines, heat a school in Tabuk and provide a full megawatt of electricity to a village north of Riyadh. That total is, no doubt, a drop in the bucket compared to the 292.8 megawatts being generated by traditional means in the Eastern Province, but is important, nonetheless, with regard to the future.
Solar energy has been discussed, in theoretical terms, for years, and some countries have even undertaken large experiments. France, for example, built a massive array of solar collectors in the Pyrenees, and Switzerland has done the same in the Alps. Until the energy crisis of the early 1970's, however, the industrialized countries of the world had not paid serious attention to solar energy - or other alternatives to conventional sources of power except nuclear power; with both petroleum and coal still cheap, there seemed to be no need.
But then, realizing that petroleum was running out in some areas, that coal contributed heavily to pollution and that nuclear power might be expensive and dangerous, the industrialized world began to look more closely at alternatives and especially at developments in solar energy - what one man has termed "the next revolution in technology."
As a result, breakthroughs are already being recorded. One California firm, for example, has developed a solar powered microwave repeater costing 75 percent less than existing equipment, a new skyscraper in New York has included a giant solar collector on its roof and, in July, an airplane powered by 16,128 solar cells flew from France to England in five and a half hours.
There are, certainly, enormous problems to be solved before solar power is economically acceptable and technically satisfactory and there are doubts as to the amounts of energy that present technology can provide. Nevertheless, it is already obvious that solar energy is a clean and inexhaustible source of energy.
It is ironic, of course, that countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Mexico - and regions like Texas - are as rich in sunlight as they are in petroleum. As one wit summed it up, "them what has - has." But the response, in the case of Saudi Arabia, is also an impressive example of national foresight. Years ago, for example, Saudi Arab officials, learning that U.S. government agencies had refused to fund an experiment in solar energy at the Gerraset Elementary School in Reston, Virginia, put up $625,000 to install solar collectors.
This foresight continues to guide Saudi policy. Though the kingdom will neither need nor benefit from solar energy for decades, it is committing vast sums to its development now while there is still time, and for reasons that were summed up crisply by Shaikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani, Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources: "The oil won't last forever."