Solar power may finally deliver

(Nur Energie’s CEO Kevin Sara speaking at The Engineering Club event at The Building Centre)

“We believe we will be connected to Europe by 2020,” Nur Energie’s CEO Kevin Sara told the audience at The Building Centre, explaining his company’s TuNur project to export Concentrated Solar Power from Tunisia, along a 600km cable, to a robust grid connection in central Italy, and then on to Europe. The 2.25GW plant will deliver through a 2GW HDVC cable and generate more than 9,000 GWh of 100 per cent renewable power. When the plant is eventually built (currently there is only a weather station monitoring wind/sand storms) it will consist of 100km squared of mirrors reflecting the sun to a tower which absorbs the heat and transfers to a steam-driven turbine. This can produce energy even when the sun goes down.

It’s a hugely ambitious project but Sara says the science and business stack up – it’s the regulation that’s been the challenge. The pricing of CSP is competitive compared to offshore energy and new-build nuclear but, as Sara noted with wry reflection on the fossil fuel industry, “the energy business is about who gets the subsidy”.

Local supply chain

The most impressive aspect of Sara’s story, which faced tough questioning by the audience at the Engineering Club event, was turning problems into opportunities. Despite Tunisia having five governments in five years, the project is rooted in the local country – the supply chain can be sourced locally and 60 per cent of the value add is local, so Tunisians will have a serious stake in providing the skills not just natural resources.

Sara assumed that laying the cable under the sea would be more challenging than land. Indeed, there are different regulations for near shore and far shore, but there are already models for this in the telecoms industry, and regarding the cable itself, there is a significant existing knowledge resource from the North Sea oil experience. With land however there are issues of rights of way, environmental issues which involved circumnavigating certain areas and geographic factors such as dry salty lakes and quicksand.

While Europe and the US are increasingly attracted to extracting shale gas, Sara believes the interesting battleground is China – their CO2 emissions fell 2 per cent in 2014, through using more renewables and less fossil fuel.

Beyond the engineering and logistic challenges, it is perhaps energy security and the influence of oil prices that may yet make Sara’s dream a financial nightmare.

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