The Saudi Arabian sovereign wealth fund and the Japanese technology conglomerate SoftBank are planning the world’s largest solar projects.
The world’s largest private equity fund – Softbank’s $100 billion Vision Fund, will provide the initial equity for the first phase of the scheme. The Vision Fund is part-funded in turn by the Saudi sovereign wealth fund (and other investors such as Apple and Foxconn).
Incidentally the Vision Fund has caused a huge ruction in the previously clubby Venture Capital industry, as it dwarfs its competitors, and is cheerfully capable of funding multiple companies in the same industry instead of picking winners (it has funded 4 separate ride-sharing companies, for instance: Uber, Didi, Ola, and Grab).
Today, the total solar deployment around the world has a capacity of around 400 gigawatts (which is slightly more than that generated by nuclear).
The largest single installation is the Tengger Desert Solar Park in China, at just over 1.5 gigawatts.
For comparison, the largest solar installation in Australia is the 220MW (0.22 gigawatts) Bungala solar farm near Port Augusta.
SoftBank and the Saudis say their solar project will have a capacity of around 7.2 gigawatts in 2019 (in two projects of 3GW and 4.2GW respectively), and 200 gigawatts by 2030.
The project would result in panels taking up vast tracts of the desert equivalent to a million football pitches. So yes, this is a huge deal.
Saudi Arabia’s electricity sector, perhaps unsurprisingly, is currently heavily oil-dependent. As domestic petroleum is heavily subsidized, it accounts for around 60% of the kingdom’s electricity generation.
But domestic oil consumption is rising, meaning a potential reduction in the amount of oil Saudi Arabia has left to sell abroad. So there’s a large economic transformation angle to the solar push.
Also surprisingly, perhaps, Saudi Arabia is a signatory to the Paris Agreement on climate change, but has never been clear as to how it intends to achieve its carbon emissions reduction target.
The Softbank deal makes things somewhat clearer now. In addition, Saudi Arabia is also particularly sensitive to climate change.
According to the protagonists (Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and SoftBank chief Masayoshi Son), the first phase will cost $5 billion (or US69.4 cents per kW). The Vision Fund will contribute US$1 billion in equity, while the rest of the financing will come from project-financed debt.
By the time the project is completed, it will have cost an estimated US$200 billion.
That includes the cost of labour, panels—which will be imported initially but with plans for local production capacity—and an unprecedented network of batteries that will be able to store this energy for measured distribution over the Saudi grid.
Under the terms of the arrangement, the plant would supply enough electricity not only for Saudi Arabia but much of the Middle East via exports. The projected savings are up to US$40bn annually and 100,000 direct and indirect jobs are expected to be created.
Son said “The project will fund its own expansion,” via the profits generated in each step of the build-out helping fund the subsequent phase.