Desert solar panels
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Riyadh’s solar megaproject poses considerable challenges. Scientists at King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology are trying to solve some of their big problems.

When Saudi Arabia and Softbank announced the world’s largest solar project, a pharaonic plan to build 200 GW of solar panels in the desert, one of the first criticisms was the difficulty in sustaining it.

A system of this type requires special attention, both because of its size and the location of installation. This is why engineers from King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST) have already set to work: the main objective is to make the future factory – which will cover an area twice the size of Hong Kong – resistant in difficult desert conditions. Starting with the possible sandstorms that will hit your structures.

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In fact, the team of scientists are testing solar panels in the laboratory under various physical constraints. They simulated the effects of a sandstorm on photovoltaic modules in a cylindrical chamber to check their durability, while other machines demonstrated their mechanical resistance to shocks.

These are of course not the only challenges the Saudi PV dream will have to solve: to manage the amount of energy the project plans to produce, experts say the Kingdom will have to invest large sums of money to improve its electricity grid. and construct large-scale battery storage facilities.

We can do itยป, Explained Adel al-Sheween, director of the solar laboratory of the technological city, evoking the great ambition of the project. “It will take time, but we have all the raw materials: the sun, the earth and above all“.

The Saudi tech city was built some 30 years ago in a village near the capital to conduct clean energy research. But it is only now that it seems to have gained the right momentum. A dynamic driven both by the need to diversify the domestic economy and by pure geopolitics.

As James Dorsey, an expert on the Middle East at St. Rajaratnam’s School of International Studies in Singapore, explains. “The problem with Saudi Arabia is that Iran and Qatar have gas reserves that you don’t. This is one of the reasons why renewable energies feature high on Prince Mohammed’s reform agenda: not only to prepare the kingdom economically for a post-oil future, but also to ensure its continued geopolitical importance.. “