The Multinational Monitor


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U.S.-Saudi Solar Plan

Appropriate for Whom?

The energy crisis can make for strange bedfellows and even stranger projects. Martin Marietta Aerospace recently won a contract for the construction of Solar Village, the first project under a$100 million solar energy program jointly funded by the United States, the world largest oil consumer and Saudi Arabia, its largest oil exporter. The project is designed to produce electricity for two desert villages near Riyadh with a total population of 3600. Its $16.5 million price tag means the electricity it generates will be the most expensive in the world.

"Only the U.S. and Saudi Arabia have the money to gamble on such a prestigious, expensive and as yet experimental program servicing so few people," says Theodore Rosen of the U.S. Treasury Department, the government agency financing the deal. He claims the objective of the U.S.-Saudi program is to promote alternative energy sources for developing countries.

The major U.S. multinational Martin Marietta, primary contractor for the project, has been expanding rapidly into the solar energy field; many feel it will .soon become a world leader in solar technology. Solar Village won't hurt. When completed, it will be the world's largest photovoltaic facility, with a capacity of 350 kilowatts.

Projects like Solar Village worry appropriate technology advocates who consider solar energy an important potential vehicle for breaking Third World dependence on Western technology. Todd Bartlemm, solar expert at the International Institute for Environment and Development, says the Solar Village project may portend increased competition between major multinational firms working to produce large-scale, capital-intensive solar technologies, and smaller Western firms and Third World governments concentrating on smaller-scale applications. He cites Solar Electric International, a small Washington, D.C. firm started last year, as one developing solar water pumps and crop dryers that could become highly economical in many Third World villages.

In addition to Martin Marietta, many major Western oil companies now lead the field in solar research and development. U.S. support for large-scale projects may lead to misplaced priorities, Bartlemm says. "We can't move from one form of dependence to another," he warns.

Unfortunately the other experimental products of Solar Village seem limited in value, as well. General Electric, United Technologies and Honeywell are participating in a $3 million subcontract to build devices that don't appear to be a high priority for many Third World villages: solar-powered air conditioners.

- Leslie Wolf

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