Q&A: how plastics innovation can spur on renewables with SABIC

Ilaria Grasso Macola 28 May 2020 (Last Updated May 28th, 2020 10:03)

While plastics manufacturing may be notoriously fossil-fuel reliant, the skills and technologies involved are also well placed to lead in the development of renewables. We spoke with Saudi Arabian plastic producer SABIC to learn about its commitment to renewable energy projects.

Q&A: how plastics innovation can spur on renewables with SABIC
“We’re aiming to cut our greenhouse gas (GHG) and energy intensity by 25% by 2025 and Yanbu is integral to this,” said Frank Kuijpers. Credit: SABIC

Scientists have calculated that 22kWh are required to produce a kg of plastic, four times the amount of energy used to produce a kg of steel.

Multiplied by the 359 million metric tonnes of plastic produced globally every year, it becomes evident that plastic manufacturing is responsible for a vast amount of the world’s CO2 emissions.

Data from the Centre for International Environmental Law (CIEL) showed that in 2019, the plastic lifecycle – from manufacture to end of life disposal – produced 850 million metric tonnes of greenhouse gases. According to CIEL, CO2 emissions could reach 1.34 giga tonnes by 2030 and 2.8 giga tonnes by 2050.

It’s clear then that plastic manufacturers need to do more to combat climate change, and one company is already leading the way by getting involved in green energy production.

Plastic and chemical manufacturer SABIC is using its expertise to develop floating solar panels in Japan and China, as well as produce carbon nanotubes for energy storage, and is investing $300m in a solar farm in Saudi Arabia.

SABIC’s corporate sustainability general manager Frank Kuijpers discusses the company’s innovative projects and the rationale behind them.

Ilaria Grasso Macola (IGM): When did SABIC start working on renewable energy projects and why?

Frank Kuijpers (FK): Issues such as resource and energy efficiency, climate change, and plastic waste could be seen as a threat to our business and value chain, but we see them as an opportunity to adapt.

Our drive to achieve sustainability is not only helping solve some of the world’s most important challenges, but it’s also re-shaping our business. This drive, coupled with the burgeoning renewables and technology landscape, has led us naturally to investment in renewable energy.

Customers and the public increasingly want guarantees that those solutions have been produced with the global environmental context in mind.

Our manufacturing affiliates in Saudi Arabia are committed to these targets and over the last five years, we have completed over 170 initiatives with a total investment of $1.2bn.

We also embed our focus on reducing carbon dioxide emissions, energy intensity and renewable energy into our risk mitigation plans for mega-projects at every stage.

IGM: What is SABIC’s approach to renewable projects?

FK: We are always working to minimize our impact and ensure that we are viewing our business strategy from a sustainability angle. As such, we have adopted several of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals – including affordable and clean energy – as a roadmap to guide our efforts.

We also recently published targets that will see us install 4GW of clean energy by 2025 and 12GW by 2030, to provide electricity to our plants and sites. We’re open and transparent about our ambitions so we’re looking at renewable energy projects for all our operations around the world.

Although the production of chemicals and materials takes a lot of energy, our solutions are also proving vital in the development of innovative solar panels, wind turbine blades, battery storage and more. The more we can fuel our operations from renewable sources, the more sustainable our business and society can become.

IGM: What are the benefits of floating solar farms?

FK: Traditionally countries which have limited or challenging land resources have not been able to capitalize on renewable energy as easily. Where land is scarce or unsuitable for solar installations, the cost of building ground-mounted power plants is driven upward by high land prices and opportunity costs.

Floating systems can be deployed on natural or man-made lakes or reservoirs and help countries meet their renewable energy targets.

Japan has committed to increasing its use of renewable energy to 24% by 2030 – more than double its current production – and new technologies such as floating solar farms are making a significant contribution to this ambition and helping the country adapt to its mountainous terrain and high population density.

IGM: SABIC has worked on floating solar farm projects in Japan and China. Do you expect floating solar wind farms to become a global trend?

FK: After ground-mounted farms and building integrated PV systems , floating models are the third-largest method of solar energy generation. We fully expect that we will see more floating systems deployed as society grapples with increased pressures.

IGM: What is the Yanbu project and what stage is it at?

FK: The Yanbu solar project is the first large-scale initiative of its kind in Saudi Arabia by the private sector and it is a flagship project for SABIC.

We have signed a memorandum of understanding with Marafiq and The Royal Commission for Jubail and Yanbu. The Royal Commission has identified the site and pre-development work has started. At the same time, the feasibility study has been finalised and we’re looking forward to the next steps, which will see us cement our position as a regional leader in the development of large scale renewable energy projects.

IGM: What was the rationale behind SABIC’s decision to invest in a solar power project like this?

FK: We’re aiming to cut our greenhouse gas and energy intensity by 25% by 2025 and Yanbu is integral to this.

At 300MW, the solar PV in Yanbu will produce enough energy to operate all our local operations during the day. We’re driven to be more sustainable and the project will reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and free-up those hydrocarbons so they can be put to other uses.

IGM: Is the current Covid-19 pandemic going to affect SABIC’s production and participation in renewable energy projects?

FK: Covid-19 has undoubtedly impacted some initiatives in the short-term but SABIC is constantly exposed to trends in the chemicals marketplace, the wider global economy, and input cost fluctuations. We are strong, diversified, and resilient so we will weather this storm and maintain our medium and long term focus.

IGM: What predictions can you make about SABIC’s future involvement in renewable energy projects?

FK: With others in the industry, we signed up to a World Economic Forum initiative to develop low carbon technology and drive more electrification of our production processes.

In the short-term, our goal is to be more efficient, and invest in energy efficiency and low-carbon technologies that will decrease our footprint. At the same time, we’re bringing sustainable benefits to our customers and society through our solutions. From insulation materials to make homes and offices more energy-efficient, packaging products which increase the shelf life of foodstuffs and lightweight materials that improve transportation, we’re going to continue innovating new sustainable solutions.

Looking further ahead, our alignment to the UN SDGs – including affordable and clean energy – will not only influence how we grow as a business but, by making them a core part of our long-term strategy, we will be in a position to make meaningful contributions to their progress.