Region embracing solar energy

02 November 2009

Small projects using photovoltaic technology are moving forward rapidly but progress has been slow on large, concentrated solar power generation schemes

Algeria, Morocco, Iran and Egypt are all working towards building the world’s first integrated solar combined-cycle (ISCC) power plants. Three such schemes are due for completion in 2010 (see table), with a further project in Iran to be tendered this year.

ISCC plants work by combining solar power with a waste heat recovery system attached to a gas turbine plant to increase the efficiency of steam turbine electricity generators.

Projects under way in the region range in capacity from 140MW in Egypt to 470MW at Ain Beni Mathar in Morocco. Solar power, through the inclusion of a solar field, where thousands of mirrors concentrate heat from the sun, contributes about 10-15 per cent of the electricity generation capacity of these plants. Iran has the greatest solar contribution, with 67MW, equating to 16 per cent of generating capacity, at the 430MW Yazd power plant.

Project delays

According to the project schedules, Morocco’s Ain Beni Mathar plant will be the first to be completed in mid 2010. The 470MW power plant has a 20MW solar field and is being built by a joint venture of Spain’s Abengoa with France’s Alstom. But sources on the project say there is a six-month delay.

This means Algeria may open the world’s first ISCC plant, as the 150MW Hassi R’Mel scheme is scheduled to finish by October 2010. The contractor is Abengoa subsidiary Abener, with fellow Spanish firm Cobra. Hassi R’Mel will be closely followed by Egypt’s Kureimat at the end of 2010.

Iran is yet to award its engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) contract but, according to consultant Fichtner of Germany, which led the feasibility study, the preliminary design is complete and invitations to bid are expected this year. The Iranian Energy Ministry says the project is set to cost $322m, with the 67MW solar field costing $85m.

“By using solar thermal energy to supplement steam generation, the 280MW plant would save 21.1 million cubic metres of gas a year”

Kuwait has also completed a feasibility study into building an ISCC plant at Al-Abdaliya, southeast of Kuwait City. Japan’s Toyota Tsusho conducted the study in 2008 and concluded that by using solar thermal energy to supplement steam generation, the 280MW plant would save 21.1 million cubic metres of gas a year. Toyota Tsusho advised that the scheme be built using a 25-year build-own-operate-transfer contract, but the Electricity & Water Ministry has yet to reveal when this might go out to tender.

Worldwide, plants are also planned in India and Mexico. German and Spanish firms are heavily involved in the design and construction of all of these schemes (see table, page 9). Germany and Spain are ahead of most countries in terms of the use of renewable energy technology thanks to legislative reform and market support. Germany introduced a feed-in tariff that effectively subsidises renewable energy in 1991 and, as a result, more than 15 per cent of Germany’s electricity was produced using renewable sources in 2008.

Many countries in the region are seeking to mimic this. Egypt is working towards 20 per cent renewables by 2020, Jordan 7 per cent by 2015 and Algeria 5 per cent by 2010. Abu Dhabi has also stated its desire to achieve 7 per cent renewable generation, mainly using solar thermal energy, by 2020.

Financial support

Japan is also active in the region’s push towards renewable energy and has taken a financial as well as technical role. Japan’s export agency, Japan Bank for International -Co-operation (JBIC), says it is keen to provide technical and financial support for renewable-energy projects.

So far, it has provided $170m to the Egyptian Kureimat plant, where Japanese firms Kawasaki Heavy Industries, Chiyoda Corporation and Mitsui & Company are working with Spain’s Iberdrola and Egypt’s Orascom Construction Industries.

But for some countries, such as the UAE, hybrid plants are not ‘clean’ enough. Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Doha are all planning concentrated solar power (CSP) projects, which rely solely on heat energy to create electricity.

CSP is favoured over large-scale photovoltaic generation because of the high capital costs of photovoltaic technologies.

The two main types of CSP plant are parabolic troughs, which use oil in pipes to transmit heat that creates steam to drive turbines, and towers, which use molten salts.

“Parabolic troughs have a long history but towers show a lot of promise,” says Erin Gardener, Dubai-based sustainability consultant at the UK’s Buro Happold. “These are test installations at the moment, and although they have been running successfully, they are not commercially deployed.”

According to Gardener, towers have storage and efficiency advantages but parabolic troughs are easier to build and expand. However, the fact that the parabolic trough system is tried and tested gives project financiers confidence and means less uncertainty for a scheme.

The most advanced CSP project in the region is the Masdar Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company Shams 1 project, with a planned capacity of 100MW, which is understood to be using parabolic troughs. The EPC deadline on the scheme has been extended until the end of September. Sources close to the project say the site has been moved, but Masdar declined to comment.

“There are some quite big units on hotels and this is serving to push the market for solar water heating”

Hanjorg Mueller, senior adviser, GTZ

The scheme has already been retendered after four groups submitted bids in October 2008. They were Spain’s Abengoa Solar with France’s Total; Saudi Arabia’s Acwa Power International with Spain’s Iberdrola; German firms Man Ferrostaal with Solar Millennium; and Spain’s Sener and Grupo Cobra. In March 2009, MEED learned that Masdar had selected the Abengoa/Total consortium as the preferred bidder for the scheme.

Dubai is not planning to tender its own project until 2012 and Qatar has not released any details beyond a forward planning note by Qatar General Electricity & Water Company (Kahramaa) that calls for 3,500MW of solar energy by 2013 and a total of 4,500MW by 2036.

The world’s largest concentrated solar power plant to date is the 354MW solar energy generating system in the US Mojave desert. The final phase was completed in 1991, with the first 14MW phase becoming operational in 1984, indicating that Qatar’s timescale is extremely ambitious.

Across the region, more progress has been made on small-scale solar generation. Tunisia has established a market for solar thermal water heaters through the use of subsidies. There are now more than 100,000 square metres of solar collectors installed in Tunisia on private houses as well as some commercial buildings. 

Libya has also had much success with localised energy production. It has used photovoltaic panels to electrify rural communities since 2003. It began by using the panels to generate a current for cathodic protection of oil pipelines in the 1970s, and moved on to powering telecommunications equipment and water pumping stations.

In 2003, it started electrifying rural areas using photovoltaic panels after calculating that this was cheaper than connecting them to the national grid. It now has more than 440 completed projects and overall photovoltaic products generate 1.87MW of power a year. It plans to have more than 10MW of capacity by 2020.

Anticipating growth in the photovoltaic panel market, Abu Dhabi’s Masdar announced in May last year that it would be investing $2bn in the manufacturing of photovoltaic film. Its initial $600m has gone into establishing a facility in Erfurt, Germany, with a view to opening an Abu Dhabi base in 2010.

From small-scale photovoltaic plants to large-scale CSP facilities, solar energy plans are progressing throughout the region. Governments are committed to solar power but industry insiders say cost issues are slowing down the larger projects.

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