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Saudi Arabia seeks to reduce energy waste and environmental impact


October 6, 2016

The Wadi Hanifa Comprehensive Rehabilitation Project, for example, has seen a 120-km valley, which was overrun and polluted as the city of Riyadh expanded, rescued and restored as an amenity for people living in the city. The Arriyadh Development Authority’s (ADA) work on Wadi Hanifa is continuing, and it is also making environmental improvements to other areas of the capital city

While economic and social development may be at the forefront of the agenda in Saudi Arabia, the Kingdom has also committed itself to policies related to the responsible stewardship of the environment, including its marine and desert habitats and natural spaces in its cities. Although the extraction and sale of fossil fuels continues to fuel the economy, policymakers are passing initiatives to curb energy waste and to soften the environmental impact of growth and industrialisation.

.Road Map

There are 24 sections in Saudi Arabia’s 10th Development Plan 2015-19, and the sixth objective is “raising the value added of natural resources in the national economy, diversifying their sources and ensuring their sustainability along with protecting the environment and conserving the wildlife”.

Saudi Arabia aims to balance its ambitions to build refineries and petrochemical facilities – to supply the world with products, including plastic, petrol and paint – with a commitment to preserving coral reefs in the Red Sea, promoting economic growth while factoring in environmental considerations. The focus is on responsible management of the country’s natural habitat as well as its natural resources.

Included under the 10th Development Plan’s strategy for oil and mineral resources are commitments to develop renewable sources of energy for the production of both electricity and desalinated water. In addition, there are also several goals laid out in the plan related to reducing waste and encouraging reuse in the water industry and finding solutions for the protection of non-renewable water resources.

The plan also emphasises the importance of creating incentives and regulations to enhance the sustainability of natural resources, combat pollution, reduce solid waste, improve air quality, and protect and conserve biodiversity on land and at sea. Though Saudi Arabia will remain dependent on hydrocarbons for some time, its road map through 2019 suggests there will be significant opportunities for those with the skills and expertise to help the country achieve its environmental goals.


Saudi Arabia’s five-year development plans are published by the country’s Ministry of Economy and Planning, but responsibility for its broad environmental agenda is shared by a number of government departments and agencies at both the national and regional levels. The Presidency of Meteorology and Environment (PMU) was created in 2001 but grew out of previous government agencies. It is tasked with protecting the environment and enforcing rules on pollution, waste management and responsible development.

According to PMU environmental regulations, those found breaking the rules can be ordered to rectify the damage they cause and may face financial penalties that range from SR150 ($40) for breaking rules on vehicle emissions to SR500,000 ($133,000) for polluting groundwater with toxic substances. PMU regulations stipulate requirements for environmental impact assessments for residential and industrial development, and the agency is also responsible for planning multi-agency responses to major incidents such as oil spills.

The Saudi Wildlife Authority (SWA) was created in 1986 to protect the Kingdom’s terrestrial and marine environments. The authority administers 16 protected areas around the country and works to safeguard endangered species and habitats and to promote awareness of wildlife and nature.

The Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs deals with planning and building regulations, some of which may have a direct bearing on environmental issues. In addition, individual municipal authorities such as Riyadh Municipality, the ADA, or the Royal Commission for Jubail and Yanbu also deal with development proposals and environmental projects in their respective areas of influence.


The state-owned or partially state-owned entities that are responsible for Saudi Arabia’s heavy industries and utilities also play a significant role in managing the environmental impact of their operations and in commissioning innovative solutions to improve energy efficiency, reduce emissions and manage waste. Although there is some overlap in their activities, the Saudi Electricity Company (SEC) is responsible for electricity generation, transmission and supply, while the Saline Water Conversion Corporation (SWCC) handles desalination. Independent water and power producers (IWPPs) complement the work of these agencies.

The utilities sector, which is gearing up for further privatisation in the years ahead, is overseen by the Electricity and Cogeneration Regulatory Authority (ECRA). Cogeneration plants, which produce both electricity and desalinated water (or in some cases steam), have been used by the SEC and SWCC to reduce the required level of feedstock. Some independent power producers (IPPs) and IWPPs also make use of cogeneration plants.

In addition, the petrochemicals giant Saudi Basic Industries Corporation (SABIC), which is 70% government owned, and the national energy company, Saudi Aramco, both produce annual reports detailing their efforts to improve their environmental performance, and the two companies regularly collaborate with both businesses and academic institutions in order to help fulfil these goals.

Greenhouse Gases

According to UN data released through the US Department of Energy’s Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Centre ( CDIAC), Saudi Arabia’s per capita production of carbon dioxide reached 21.1 metric tonnes per person in 2011, the most recent year that data is available, while the country’s total carbon dioxide emissions stood at around 551m metric tonnes in the same year. Saudi Arabia ranked 11th in the world in 2010 for total CO emissions from natural gas flaring and fossil fuel burning, with China, the US and India ranked in the first, second and third places.

According to a presentation given by Abu Naser Khondaker, a researcher at King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals (KFUPM), at the Saudi Environmental Technologies Conference in May 2012, a team of experts from KFUPM, PMU and Saudi Aramco is jointly developing national greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions inventories for the Kingdom. Khondaker said that a report based on 2010 emissions was being prepared but added that “access to quality data remains a challenge”.

However, detailed statistics for emissions collected in 1990 and 2000 were submitted to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change ( UNFCCC) in 2005 and 2011, respectively. These figures show that in 2000 the CO emissions were 13.63 tonnes per person when UN figures show the population was 20,145,000. The data for Saudi Arabia for that year shows total CO emissions were 258m tonnes and that was the most recent year for which carbon dioxide output data is available.

Electricity generation accounted for 33% of this total, road transport for 21%, fuel combustion from desalination for 11%, petroleum refining for 8% and the petrochemicals industry for 3%. According to this data, the total CO produced by the transportation, refining and exploration activities of the oil and gas sector was 3.87 tonnes, or 1.5% of the total.

A CDIAC report showed that changing practices in the oil and gas industry have had a dramatic impact on its CO emissions. It said that in 1974 gas flaring, where natural gas found during oil exploration is burned off, accounted for 76% of the country’s CO emissions, but that by 2008 this had fallen to less than 1%. However, it is also important to note that in 1974 there were fewer than 7.5m people in Saudi Arabia and the latest figures suggest that there will be around 30m by the end of 2015.

Utility Emissions

The utilities, petrochemicals and energy industries have also been making considerable investments in technology to improve their fuel efficiency, which may also have had an effect on the proportion of CO emissions they produced since the detailed breakdown of 2000. At that time, electricity generation and desalination together accounted for some 44% of total CO into 33% and 11%, respectively.

However, since 2000 there has been a shift towards more fuel-efficient cogeneration facilities that are designed to produce both electricity and desalinate water. The introduction of these has seen the total fuel used for desalination reduced by half.

According to figures provided by the Electricity CoGeneration Regulatory Authority (ECRA), of the total 69.5 GW of installed electricity generation capacity in 2013, 35.7 GW (or around 51%) was in plants that were less than 10 years old, while 2538 cu metres per day of desalination capacity out of a total of 5931 cu metres per day, or 43%, was in facilities built in the past decade.

The Kingdom’s electricity plants have also been upgrading their technology to improve efficiency. “Converting all open-cycle power plants to combined-cycle power plants will raise the efficiency from an average of 33% to hopefully more than 45%,” ECRA’s governor, Abdullah Al Shehri, told OBG.

One of the IWPPs, the Shuaibah Water and Electricity Company (SWEC), reports that its main plant – one of the world’s biggest water and power cogeneration facilities, operational since 2010 – is using advanced technology to reduce GHG emissions. “The Shuaibah IWPP is the first plant in Saudi Arabia utilising the flue gas desulphurisation technology along with low NOx burner and electrostatic precipitator in ensuring full compliance to the World Bank emission requirement,” said the company’s website.

According to the US Energy Information Administration, Saudi Arabia had to generate twice as much electricity in 2013 as it did in 2000 to meet growing demand, while the ECRA has reported that the Kingdom will need to spend $140bn before 2020 to meet rising demand for electricity and SR91bn ($24.3bn) on new desalination capacity. This rapid expansion will present opportunities for firms specialising in technology that can lessen the carbon footprint of the new utility plants.

Renewable Power

ACWA Power, a Saudi Arabian business that has stakes in several of the country’s IPPs and IWPPs including Shuaibah, announced in January 2015 that it had secured a 25-year power purchase agreement to build a 200-MW solar power station in Dubai that will use photovoltaic solar panels to generate electricity to supply 30,000 homes every year. According to the company, the project will be able to reduce carbon emissions by an estimated 469,650 tonn