NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- In the face of the striking weakness in global oil prices, Saudi Arabia has further challenged markets by seeming uncharacteristically comfortable with the lower prices, refusing to vote with OPEC to cut production. Many have been seeing the Saudi's willingness to let oil prices drop as retribution against the U.S.'s unrestrained oil boom. Others suspect a U.S.-Saudi conspiracy again Russia.
In fact, the real reason may lie in the country's deliberate development of solar energy to ensure a bright future in the face of eventually dwindling oil supplies.
In 2010, the Saudi government created the King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy, and officially said the nation was hoping to get 30% of its energy needs from solar power by 2034. Bids have been opened for the installation of 41 gigawatts of solar power over the next 20 years.
At that level, the Saudis will be one of the world's top solar producers. That's interesting and certainly gives more credibility to suggestions the Saudis could eventually export solar power to Europe during Europe's cooler season. It also shows that the greening of Saudi Arabia has begun, something Wall Street needs to better understand when valuing the price of oil in the future.
The promise of solar energy may contribute enough to the Saudi domestic economy in the future to give the kingdom more confidence that its oil-dependent economy isn't going to tank if oil prices remain weak. The Saudis can afford to let oil prices drop to retain their market share. The outlook for solar energy growth may make any downside more easily absorbed.
Back in February, SunEdison (SUNE) signed an agreement to explore building a solar factory in Saudi Arabia. The proposed $6.4 billlion plant would be capable of producing 3 gigawatts of electricity from solar panels, nearly as much as three nuclear reactors, as David Baker from the San Francisco Chroniclepointed out here.
The potential for battery storage solutions as a result of an increased focus on distributed power networks and smart grids makes ABB (ABB) a name to watch in Saudi Arabia. ABB, with its stock at its lowest levels in a year, recently signed a $14 million deal to provide Saudi Arabia Electricity Company with power transformers. Transformers are integral components to the electrical grid needed to safely and efficiently convert electricity between different voltage systems, like those powered by solar systems.
Two years ago, First Solar (FSLR) announced a research collaboration with the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology to test thin-film photovoltaic systems under extreme heat/dust conditions typically experienced in Saudi Arabia.
Chinese solar player Yingli Solarundefined , which has seen its shares trade at 52-week lows in recent sessions, has made it known it is looking to make a big push in the Middle East, so Saudi Arabia's growing appetite for solar power is a likely target for Yingli. Considering China is a top import/export trading partner of Saudi Arabia, Yingli may have a geopolitical advantage over many rivals in generating revenues from the Saudis.
General Electric (GE) has created a partnership called "GET Water" with Al Tamimi Group that is is bringing a fleet of GE Mobile Water Treatment Systems to Saudia Arabia. If desalination takes off in Saudi Arabia, GE seems poised for growth in that market.
Without renewable energy, the Saudis themselves may need to import oil to meet their own rising energy demand in the future. A fast-growing population, a rise in electricity needs on the high-end of the global ranking, and a growing need to bolster the national economy for the future are collectively causing the Saudis to seek partnerships to develop solar energy and fade existing reliance on oil (90% of the country's total revenues).
In fact, the World Tribune reported that at a recent Gulf Cooperation Council Solar Arabia Summit, Abdullah Al Shehri, governor of the Electricity and Co-generation Regulatory Authoruty said, "During the course of the previous two days of discussions, it has also been emphasized that while the focus of Saudi Arabia's national energy plan is to generate new power, the creation of jobs and development of the local economy is of equal importance."
The Saudi Arabia Solar Industry Association, a membership organization, is helping to build new jobs and encourage technological innovation to make Saudi Arabia one of the most energy-advanced counties in the world. According to the group's Web site, "Our goal is to bring the national and regional solar industry together, transforming the vast solar potential of Saudi Arabia and the Middle East into a commercially and environmentally-viable solution for our growing demand for electricity."
At the end of the day, the oil industry dominates the country's GDP, so it is vital for the Saudis to ensure future domestic economic growth, especially in a modern world more critical of fossil fuels and cautious when it comes to CO2 output and global warming. That means solar power could play a significant role in the modern evolution of Saudi Arabia economy, especially if they can achieve grid parity.
Solar power could also help the Saudis with water shortages the country is experiencing, playing an important role in water desalination for cleaning and agriculture.
At the time of publication, Licata had no positions in stocks mentioned.
This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.
TheStreet Ratings team rates SUNEDISON INC as a Sell with a ratings score of D. TheStreet Ratings Team has this to say about their recommendation:
"We rate SUNEDISON INC (SUNE) a SELL. This is driven by multiple weaknesses, which we believe should have a greater impact than any strengths, and could make it more difficult for investors to achieve positive results compared to most of the stocks we cover. The company's weaknesses can be seen in multiple areas, such as its generally high debt management risk, disappointing return on equity and poor profit margins."
You can view the full analysis from the report here: SUNE Ratings Report
TheStreet Ratings team rates ABB LTD as a Buy with a ratings score of B-. TheStreet Ratings Team has this to say about their recommendation:
"We rate ABB LTD (ABB) a BUY. This is driven by several positive factors, which we believe should have a greater impact than any weaknesses, and should give investors a better performance opportunity than most stocks we cover. The company's strengths can be seen in multiple areas, such as its largely solid financial position with reasonable debt levels by most measures, reasonable valuation levels and good cash flow from operations. We feel these strengths outweigh the fact that the company has had sub par growth in net income."
You can view the full analysis from the report here: ABB Ratings Report