Interview: SolarReserve For the MENA Region?

SolarReserve tower
This week I spoke to Kevin Smith, the CEO of SolarReserve, the U.S. company constructing the largest 24 hour solar project worldwide in Nevada, who told me that they are beginning to be active in the Middle East North Africa region as well.

“We do have projects in development,” he said, “in Morocco, and Algeria and Saudi Arabia, Oman, which we’re looking at. There’s real opportunity there. So we’re looking at projects in those markets there, not as part of the Desertec program, but part of the buildup of the potential of solar in the Middle East and North Africa region.”

SolrReserve uses similar technology to the Gemasolar project built in Spain by Abu Dhabi’s visionary state-funded clean energy company Masdar. Because both use molten salt as both the transfer liquid and the storage medium, they can supply electricity long after dark.

(Related: Solar to Light Our Nights Gets Hotter)

“Our facility is a similar technology to theirs other than that ours is about six times as large as their project”, he told me. “So their project is really more of a pilot project. They’re I think 17 MW, we’re 110 MW. Ours is the first commercial utility-sized project of this type.”

I asked him for his impressions of Saudi interest in solar. He told me that among other projects Solar Reserve is looking at in Morocco, and Algeria and Oman, they are also looking at a possible Saudi Arabian project too.

I was surprised.

“Yeah, we’ve actually had a lot of really good reaction,” he said. “In fact our chief technology officer is in Saudi Arabia this week. We’ve had, we’ve been active for about eighteen months. The difficulties the Saudis have is their economy is all oil based. Really they want to maximise their exports of oil, but really what they’re using a lot of their oil for power generation in the country. It’s fine if oil is $20 a barrel, but now that they can sell it for $100 plus a barrel, it’s not a very cost-effective use of their oil.

“Plus they kind of see real declines in their oil production over the next twenty five years so they’re looking at ways to extend their oil export capability. They announced a program where they’re going to try and replace 20% of their electricity generation with solar by 2020, and thats a pretty big program, I mean, you’re talking thousands of megawatts”.

“They really only in the last couple of years, have started to really increase their solar activity. We expect there will be projects going into construction in Saudi next year. Hopefully with us, but certainly, with someone. We expect that their program will kick off next year. We hope we get can projects in construction in 2013.”

So soon?

“They’ve announced a request for bids that will be happening for later in the year. We hope in the next few months that they will identify that.”

What size are the Saudis looking for?

“Same size as our Nevada project, but they are really looking at multiple projects, so we could be looking at projects that are 500 MW and above – so like five Tonopahs, our Nevada-type projects on one site.”

I also asked him if he had any thoughts on the BrightSource (non) IPO that so terrified the solar world as a sign of certain doom. He was pretty blithe and unfazed by it.

“BrightSource is a good company. They’ve got strong projects in construction”, he said. “They are a different technology than ours. Clearly the markets right now are not very strong, either for Initial Public Offerings, or even just the business climate is weak right now. Its improving, we continue to see an improvement in the economy”.

“Our decision was not to look at IPO activity in 2012, we didn’t think the market makes sense right now and its clear from BrightSource’s activity that it’s not. You know, theyre a good company, they’ve got a nice pipeline of projects and we expect they’ll continue to be successful – we have a different business model, on IPO we’ll probably look at that next year”.

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