Apart from being gifted with vast reserves of oil and natural gas, the Middle East (comprising of countries such as Saudi Arabia, Oman, Yemen, Egypt, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel and Turkey) also happens to be in the so called 'Sun-Belt' of the earth thereby receiving several terawatts of power in the form of solar radiation. The use of this renewable form of energy however, is still fractional compared to its overall potential although there currently are several plans to exploit it at a larger scale.
Solar energy can be used in several ways viz. direct heating, generating electricity by the use of concentrated solar technologies, photovoltaic panels, or water desalination among several other uses. On an average, the solar radiation incident on this region is about 6 kWh/m2/day which is equivalent to producing 1.5barrels of crude oil from each m2 annually.  The daily average solar radiation does vary from one month of the year to the other, with highs of around 730 W/m2 during March and lows of about 302 W/m2 during August. Talking specifically of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), its total land area is of about 2.5 million km2. If 15% efficient PV panels were to be used for electricity generation, and a sunshine duration of 9 hours a day as assumed with an average solar radiation of 500 W/m2, it would take about 1165 km2 (less than 0.05% of the GCC's area) to meet its annual electricity demands of about 288,000 GWh. 
Solar energy is currently utilized in the following ways in the Middle East.
PV Systems: This involves the generation of electricity by the use of semiconductor materials which release electrons and get positively or negatively charged upon the incidence of sunlight. Saudi Arabia for example has PV systems in several villages for localized power generation. Oman has also invested about $89 million in a pilot PV plant which covers an area of about 200,000 m2 and has an installed capacity of 20 MW. 
Solar Thermal: This includes using solar radiation in parabolic trough systems to concentrate sunlight onto some sort of thermal oil which can then be run through a set of heat exchangers to produce superheated steam to run steam turbines. Sunlight can also be concentrated using an array of heliostats onto a central receiver where it heats up molten salts to high temperatures and subsequently runs steam turbines. Also, a system of parabolic dishes could focus sunlight into a Stirling engine to produce electricity. The U.A.E for example has invested in concentrated solar power by building a 100MW solar facility, Shams1, which extends over an area of 2.5 km2 and generates power for about 62,000 homes, making it the largest concentrated solar power facility in the Middle East. Qatar has invested over $1 billion in solar power plant projects which are targeted to produce about 100 MW of solar power within the next five years. 
Water Desalination: Since this region has limited sources of fresh water, desalination is the chief means of producing potable water here. According to a study, the demand for desalinated water in the Middle East is about 300 billion cubic meters per year.  Bahrain, with its Al Hidd Independent Water and Power Plant (IWPP), has a current desalination capacity of 136 million liters per day (MLD), which is expected to increase to 409 MLD in the coming few years once the plant's construction is completed. 
There are several projects in the Middle East which are underway in the field of solar energy which are being carried out in collaboration with European leaders in the field. By 2015, it is expected that the renewable energy utilization in the GCC alone, will reach 13 Terra Watts (TW), most of which will come from solar technologies.  Hence, the utilization of solar energy is on the rise in this region with increasing governmental investment.
© Misam Jaffer. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.
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