Intelligent Energy

$5 billion solar scheme for U.S., Spain, Middle East

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Spanish, Abu Dhabi joint venture would build solar equivalent of 6 nuclear stations and silence critics of 'CSP' technology. Where will the money come from?

Coming to a field near you? Torresol is big on towers that hold a fluid that heats up in response to reflected sunlight. (In Spanish, 'torre' means tower and 'sol' means sun. Get it?). A different 'CSP' design runs the fluid through pipes at ground level. Both are more expensive than photovoltaics, critics say.

Torresol Energy, the Spanish-Abu Dhabi joint venture, is planning to plough up to $5 billion into building solar electricity plants in the U.S., Spain and the Middle East over the next 3 years.

The projects would have a combined capacity of about 6 gigawatts, roughly equivalent to 5 modern nuclear power stations. They will use concentrating solar power (CSP) technology, which uses mirrors to focus sunlight on a fluid that heats up and drives a steam turbine.

In making the announcement, Torresol is thumbing its nose at skeptics who believe CSP is too expensive now that the cost of a different solar technology, photovoltaics, has plunged.

Torresol is a joint venture between Abu Dhabi's government owned Masdar Group and Spanish firm SENER. Here, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan joins Spanish King Juan Carlos I at the official opening of Torresol's Gemmasolar plant in Fuentes Andalucia, Spain, last October.

"We are developing a pipeline of projects in Spain, the U.S., and in the Middle East North Africa region," Torresol president Enrique Sendagorta said late last week at the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi, according to the Spanish website Reve. "The investment would range between $3.5 billion and $5 billion."

At least one of the plants will be in Abu Dhabi. The Abu Dhabi government owns 40 percent of Torresol, through the government-owned Masdar Group, a renewable energy company. Spanish engineering and construction firm SENER owns 60 percent.

One caveat: Torresol will have to raise the money. I'm guessing that Abu Dhabi, with its oil money, will deliver a good chunk of it. That would help explain why at least one of the projects will be in the emirate, one of seven in the United Arab Emirates.

Still, Torresol will be knocking on bankers' doors.

"Despite the ongoing economic troubles facing much of the world, we believe we can achieve our goals as foreign banks are becoming more interested in financing solar projects," Sendagorta said.

He might have to make a strong case to the money men.  Several companies have backed away from CSP as rival photovoltaic prices plunge to near $1.00 per watt, making it arguably more competitive than CSP.

Google, for instance, recently said it would drop CSP (also known as solar thermal) from its portfolio of renewable investments. Google's past investments have included $168 million in Brightsource Energy's Ivanpah, Calif. plant.

During last November's G20 Summit of world leaders in Cannes, the chairman of Spanish utility Iberdrola, Ignacio Galan, issued a scathing attack on CSP economics, saying CSP "could be extremely dangerous for economic recovery."

Like Mark Twain's death, Torresol believes reports of CSP's demise have been exaggerated.

Germany's Solar Millennium had invested heavily in CSP before announcing it would shift technologies to PV at its Blythe, Calif., plant, only to file for insolvency in December.

When Solar Millennium switched to PV at Blythe, it said it would retain a big picture commitment to CSP, which, it noted, was still suitable in certain markets and environments, including the Middle East and Africa.

CSP is the main technology behind the Desertec Industrial Initiative's 40-year vision to supply 15 percent of Europe's electricity from solar plant in northern Africa and the Middle East. (In fact, Desertec has just announced a 2-gigawatt installment in Tunisia. Watch for a subsequent post soon here on SmartPlanet).

Desertec - a largely German consortium - and Torresol remain CSP champions. In Mark Twain fashion, they clearly believe that reports of CSP's death are an exaggeration.

Coming soon: watch for our story on a 2-gigawatt solar project in Tunisia that will furnish sub-Mediterranean electricity to Italy. Another boost for CSP.

Photos: From Torresol. Mark Twain image from twainquotes via Wikimedia

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Mark Halper

Contributing Editor

Mark Halper has written for TIME, Fortune, Financial Times, the UK's Independent on Sunday, Forbes, New York Times, Wired, Variety and The Guardian. He is based in Bristol, U.K. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure