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Iraq may soon replace oil wells with solar panels Open in fullscreen

Austin Bodetti

Iraq may soon replace oil wells with solar panels

A solar panel is attached to the top of an electricity pylon in Baghdad [Getty]

Date of publication: 11 June, 2019

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Analysis: As Iraq prepares for a future without the petroleum industry, many Iraqi environmentalists are encouraging their country to turn to the renewable energy industry.

While Iraq's long-term prosperity has remain intertwined with the petroleum industry since the country gained independence in 1932, Iraqi entrepreneurs, environmentalists, and officials anticipate their nation-state taking a different path in the coming years.

Many Iraqis believe that renewable energy and solar power in particular can sustain Iraq's economic growth in an era when the international community and the world economy are beginning to prioritise sustainable development over fossil fuels. If all goes according to plan, solar panels will start to replace oil wells throughout the Iraqi countryside.

"Iraq will get many benefits out of providing support to the renewable energy industry," Haydar al-Ebady, cofounder of the Iraqi company Bilad UTU Energy Solutions, told The New Arab.

"This step would allow the Iraqi Electricity Ministry to decrease the load on transmission systems, which have been under strain since the 1990s. The lack of fossil-fuel consumption would also improve environmental and climate conditions in Iraq significantly by reducing contributions to the greenhouse effect."

Iraq's attempts to switch to the renewable energy industry represent a recent phenomenon. The Iraqi Electricity Ministry announced just this May that it was seeking bids for the construction of seven solar parks across Babil, Karbala, Muthanna, Qadisiyah, and Wasit Governorates. For its part, the United Nations Development Programme has been offering Iraqi officials assistance since earlier this year.

It is more efficient to install solar panels in Iraq than in Europe

"It is more efficient to install solar panels in Iraq than in Europe," said Azzam Alwash, founder of the environmental organisation Nature Iraq.

"After the end of the age of oil, I envision the south of Iraq being populated by forests of solar panels to generate electricity as part of an integrated electrical supply and management network, where Iraq will begin to export electricity instead of fossil fuels. Moreover, power can be produced at night by dams in the upper reaches of the Tigris and the Euphrates."

Iraqi officials are following in the footsteps of their counterparts throughout the Persian Gulf.

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State-owned enterprises such as King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST) in Riyadh, Qatar Solar Technologies (QSTec) in Doha, and Masdar in Abu Dhabi are spearheading Emirati, Qatari, and Saudi efforts to prepare for the energy industry's likely shift from fossil fuels to renewable resources.

Bahrain, Kuwait, and Oman have their own plans to embrace solar and wind power as part of a wider bid to fuel economic development while limiting the ever-worsening effects of climate change.

Given that the member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council still depend on their oil reserves just as much as Iraq now relies on its, all the countries of the Gulf have a vested interest in coordinating their transitions to the renewable energy industry.

Iraqi entrepreneurs in particular will benefit from the expertise of KACST, QSTec, and Masdar. Iraq can also work with another influential neighbour: Turkey, which has set some of the most ambitious objectives for alternative energy in the Middle East.

"My vision is that Iraq and Turkey will create a publicly owned joint venture that will oversee the electrical grid –with solar power being generated during the day from Iraq and hydroelectric energy at night from Turkey," proposed Alwash.

"Extra power produced during the day and not immediately put into use can go toward pumping water back into the reservoirs to recharge the batteries of Iraq's upstream dams. Thus, we can manage water and electricity to the benefit of the two countries. Any extra energy can be exported to Europe, given that the Turkish networks are already connected to Europe."

Despite having a wealth of oil reserves as well as two of the world's best-known rivers, Iraq has long struggled with droughts and energy crises.

Cooperating with Turkey on hydropower and solar power could contribute to mitigating both these problems by lessening Iraqi-Turkish tensions over the Euphrates and the Tigris.

The less Iraq burns and exports fossil fuels, the less Iraqi officials will have to worry about oil spills and other environmental issues, which have turned into a persistent concern for Iraqis.

The less Iraq burns and exports fossil fuels, the less Iraqi officials will have to worry about oil spills and other environmental issues, which have turned into a persistent concern for Iraqis

Foreign direct investment will further strengthen Iraq's foothold in the renewable energy industry. Britain, China, Russia, and the United States, which already enjoy substantial diplomatic and military ties to the Middle Eastern country, would reap economic and political benefits from supporting Iraqi startups that specialise in alternative energy.

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Meanwhile, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the Islamic Development Bank, the Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development, and similar development finance institutions can lend Iraq the money that it needs to jumpstart the renewable energy industry.

"Iraq can provide many forms of support for investors, including the abolition or reduction of tariffs and taxes," said al-Ebady.

"The government can also support industrial investment by encouraging investors to set up large factories for lithium and lead-acid batteries as well as plants for solar panels in the silicon-rich western regions, which would reduce the cost of setting up solar parks."

The Iraqi National Investment Commission is backing the Iraqi Electricity Ministry's push for an increase in the use of solar power by courting foreign direct investment in solar parks throughout Iraq.

This capital will enable Iraqis to find alternatives to the petroleum industry while decreasing Iraq's carbon footprint and readying the country for a future after peak oil.

As the world braces itself for the pernicious consequences of global warming, alternative energy will give Iraq an opportunity to steady itself.

"Iraq must develop a good business environment for investors so that they put money toward producing solar power in the country's south, giving Iraq the energy that it needs now and for the future," Alwash told The New Arab.

"When Iraqis' environmental policy incorporates integrated management, we can start exporting our excess energy – a renewable resource – instead of selling oil."


Austin Bodetti studies the intersection of Islam, culture, and politics in Africa and Asia. He has conducted fieldwork in Bosnia, Indonesia, Iraq, Myanmar, Nicaragua, Oman, South Sudan, Thailand, and Uganda. His research has appeared in The Daily Beast, USA Today, Vox, and Wired.

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