Intelligent Energy

Oil firm's African solar farm will transmit sub-Med electricity to Italy

Oil firm's African solar farm will transmit sub-Med electricity to Italy

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Once again, petroleum money is backing a huge solar power project, in this ambitious 2-gigawatt scheme. But are cracks appearing in the grand Desertec plan?

Top Oilfield Services, a Tunisian oil and gas engineering company, is joining with Nur Energie - a British solar firm with a French name - to build a giant solar park in the Tunisian desert that will transmit electricity under the Mediterranean to Italy.

The joint venture, called TuNur, plans 2 gigawatts of capacity, nearly equal to 2 modern nuclear power stations.

The ambitious project would build  "a new low-loss transmission line to Italy" that would go live in 2016 according to a press release from the Desertec Foundation, a global sustainable energy group with Mediterranean roots and strong German ties. It does not say who will build the subsea cable.

TuNur plans to install thousands of mirrors that would reflect sunlight onto a fluid that would heat up and drive steam turbines - a technology known as concentrated solar power (CSP) and also as solar thermal. At night it would tap energy stored from the process. It could supply electricity to 700,000 European homes, the release claims.

Some solar enthusiasts dislike CSP. For among other reasons, they believe it is too expensive now that the price of a different solar technology - photovoltaics (PV) - has plummeted. Some - including Google with its renewable energy fund - have even shifted support from CSP to PV, which is the technology in most rooftop solar panels.

But others are standing firmly behind CSP. Last week, Torresol, a Spanish-Emirati joint venture, announced it would spend up to $5 billion building CSP plants in the U.S., Spain and Middle East, including in Abu Dhabi.

Another criticism leveled against CSP, especially in desert regions like Tunisia's, is that it requires large amounts of precious water to clean the mirrors. But CSP's advocates, like Desertec, counter that they can deploy an alternative cleaning technique using little water.

"The project has been designed to reduce water requirements to a bare minimum by using a dry, air-based cooling system (for cleaning)," the press release states.

The TuNur plan, with Topfield's expertise, also highlights what seems to be a growing trend: Money from the oil industry is helping to back solar. Torresol's scheme will rely in part on oil money from Abu Dhabi, the emirate that owns 40 percent of Torresol through its Masdar Group, a renewable energy company.

Dubai's planned 1-gigawatt solar park would almost certainly receive oil money. And late last year, Canadian oil and gas transmission firm TransCanada bought 9 solar projects from Canadian Solar (even as oil giant BP exited the solar business, marking an exception to the trend).

In receiving Desertec Foundation's endorsement, the TuNur project exposed some possible cracks in Desertec. The Foundation has an overarching vision to deploy sustainable energy schemes in the Mediterranean, Europe and around the world. It invests in the Desertec Industrial Initiative (Dii), which is a consortium of 21 shareholding companies - Germany has the most members with 9, Spain is second with 4 - aiming to build CSP, photovoltaic and other renewable energy plants in Northern Africa and the Middle East that would supply 15 percent of Europe's electricity by 2050.

After Desertec Foundation's press release heralded TuNur, Dii issued a release in which it seemed to distance itself from TuNur. The release ran under the headline "Dii's comment on the TuNur project announced by Desertec Foundation and Nur Energie,"  but curiously spoke mostly about Dii renewable energy projects in the North Africa region and not about TuNur.

While the Desertec Foundation now endorses TuNur for meeting Foundation criteria, the Dii comment appeared to give something less than ringing approval.

"Should projects such as that of Nur Energie also contribute to the development of renewable energy, Dii would most certainly encourage their endeavours," the Dii press release said. TuNur backer Nur Energie is one of Dii's 35 non-shareholding "associate partners."

I asked Dii spokesperson Klaus Schmidtke to elaborate on the Dii statement. "We are very happy with different projects in North Africa, including Nur's," he told me by phone today. Dii's function is to "enable" North Africa/Middle East renewable energy projects, not to build them, he insisted.

Still, Dii shareholders like Siemens, Abengoa, ABB, E.ON  and Schott Solar must want more than an "enabling" role. Certainly, they'd like a share of the actual work when it comes around - such as in Morocco, where Dii "enabled" work will begin this year on a 500-megawatt plant, which Shcmidtke said could use CSP or PV. (Dii, which once leaned towards CSP, is becoming more interested in PV with the PV price decline).

Meanwhile, construction could also begin soon on a separate, non-Dii solar project in Quarzazate, Morocco totaling 2 gigawatts, financed by the World Bank.

Desertec Foundaion and Dii were never going to have an easy job given North African and Middle East politics and revolutions, licensing, government approvals in many countries including European ones, rights of way and more. On top of that Dii requires the co-operation of competing businesses - the nemesis of any industry consortium (maybe that buzzword collaboration isn't all it's cracked up to be). Dii members Siemens, ABB, Schott Solar, Abengoa, RWE, E.ON and others compete against each other in various business areas.

But politics aside, you still have to like the vision, which does seem to be taking shape.

Images from Desertec Foundation

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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