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ACS Cobra

Energy Innovations on a Global Scale

The thermal solar industry may have been gathering weight and recognition as of late, but now a new breakthrough from Cobra, a Madrid-based arm of the ACS Grouhe international expert engineering, operations, installation and maintenance services company, is set to pave the way for realizing the operational potential of this renewable energy resource.

ACS -Cobr a has achieved dispatchable solar thermal power through its heat storage facilities beginning with its landmark power plant, Andasol 1, near Guadix in Granada, Spain. Andasol signals a new chapter for solar thermal and o ability to store renewable power and, consequently, achieve a virtually zero carbon electricity supply. Jose Alfonso Nebrera, Director General of ACSCobra, spoke to IRJ about what Andasol means for solar thermal, for the 2020 renewable energy targets, for the cooperation of the international power market and the other ground-breaking projects in development at ACS-Cobra.

Developing ACS-Cobra and ESTELA.

Nebrera has been working in the energy business since completing his studies in engineering in 1974. During this time, he has seen the evolution of ACS-Cobra from an excellent, but relatively small, local contractor, to a world leader in energy related construction and services. In the last few years, he devoted a large portion of his time to the C.S.P. industry, as co-founder of Protermosolar; the Spanish Concentrated Solar Power Industry Association, and ESTELA, or, the European Solar Thermal Electricity Association (of which he is president today).

“I started in the construction of nuclear power plants for a large portion of my career, and I started working for Cobra back in 1988. I’ve been in the company for more than 21 years now. Cobra became part of the ACS Group around 1992, and from that moment on, I’ve been involved in the ACS energy business,” he recalls.

“We first started here in Spain by promoting the Andasol plants which we took over from Solar Millennium in around 2003. They were trying to develop the projects, but they didn’t have the financial capacity or technical credibility with the Spanish authorities to create the proper legal framework.”

ACS-Cobra made an agreement with Solar Millennium and subsequently, through the then just born Protermosolar, created by ACS, SENER [SENER Ingeniería y Sistemas S.A] and Abengoa Solar, agreed with the Spanish ministry on the legal framework to make the promotion of Andasol and other plants possible with the necessary level of feed-in tariff.

“By 2007, and following a suggestion from Schott Solar, we decided that it was a good time to start a new European association for the immerging solar thermal industry, which we called ESTELA, and I became the president at that time,” Nebrera says.

“ESTELA is now one of the main parties to discuss solar thermal related issues with the European Union institutions. We have a lot of interchange with the European Commission. That means that the president has to spend a lot of his time with ESTELA activities, which means that probably 30 per cent of my time is spent with ESTELA.”

Today, ESTELA takes part in the discussion, development and promotion of a multitude of solar thermal issues, both within Europe and worldwide, including the leadership of the Solar Industry Initiative of the E.U. Strategic Energy Plan, multiple contributions to the Mediterranean Solar Plan or the development of a C.S.P. Cost Roadmap.

“The activity and role of ESTELA is more intense than ever before, and it will grow as energy becomes more and more of a priority for the E.U. political, social and economy scenario,” Nebrera says.

ACS-Cobra’s renewable energy projects

Nebrera says that for the most part, ACS-Cobra’s energy projects are executed within the company’s industrial branch, ACS S.C.E.

“A large portion of our €7.5 billion per year revenue is in the world of energy—electricity, gas, virtually any aspect of the energy business. A large and growing portion of that is our work within renewables. From a renewables point of view, we are very much involved in wind farms and C.S.P. We have something like 1.3 gigabytes of wind farms in operation, mainly in Spain, and we’re promoting projects in other countries around the world,” he explains.

“We’re presently one of the main owners [companies] of thermal solar. We have 150 MW of thermal solar plants operating, the two Andasol and one Extresol plant. In fact, we’re the only company with dispatchable thermal solar plants operating, and I guess we’ll be this way for the next year or so.”

Nebrera says that there are plants being built in Spain which come complete with storage, however those will not be finished until around the end of 2010. Meanwhile, ACS-Cobra continues to build and improve on its own solar thermal plant projects.

“We are building another four plants of the same kind and with the same characteristics, with incremental improvements in technology and cost reduction, with a total investment in the seven plants of more than €2 billion,” Nebrera says.

“Simultaneously, we’re working on the design of the next generation of plants that will contain different features from the ones we’re building now. We’re not linked to any particular technologies. For example, we’re working in one tower power plant in association with SENER, which is being built in the Seville province for Torresol, a company owned by SENER and MASDAR from Abu Dhabi. It’s a 17 MW power plant and it’s a very interesting technology as well, with higher tempearatures and 15 hours storage. We’re also working for other clients in power generation construction in many different technologies,” he continues.

ACS-Cobra has been working on the Castor offshore Underground Gas-Storage (U.G.S.) project, located off Spain’s east coast, for the past three years. In May, 2009, the company was able to launch the construction, and the storage will become operational in 2012, with a total investment of over €1.5 billion.

“Getting all of the necessary permits for the project took a long time, as permitting is sometimes even longer than the construction of the project itself. Now we have almost all of the permits we need, however, there are still some that we expect to gain by March 2010, and for the time being we are progressing with the fabrication of the jackets and the platforms,” he says.

“We have already sub-contracted the pipe connection from the platforms to the onshore facility, and we have also gained the contract for that onshore facility. Basically, we have contracted or subcontracted around 85 to 90 per cent of the job.”

Nebrera adds that despite the delicate financial aftermath of the global financial crisis, the project financing for the Castor U.G.S. project will be a success and will set an important milestone in the industry.

“Putting together the banks and work on all of the details in the financial contracts is taking quite some time, but we expect to sign everything by the first quarter of 2010,” Nebrera says.

Meanwhile in Mexico, ACS-Cobra is working on a unique project which Nebrera says, from a company perspective, is very important in terms of the size and technology involved.

“It’s a project on the development of natural gas fields for PEMEX in Mexico. We’re developing three large gas fields so far, where we are doing all of the drilling, wells construction and the associated infrastructure for the piping and facilities and everything to deliver the clean gas to PEMEX,” he reveals.

“This is a project of around $2 billion which will be developed over the next fifteen years. It’s a new approach to contracting using very intelligent rules which were created by PEMEX for this specific kind of job. This allows the company to profit from a large project which is financed by the contractors, so we are financing all of the activity based on the actual value of the gas—which we deliver to PEMEX.”

The Andasol breakthrough

Of course, all of these latest projects come after Andasol. Nebrera says that when ACS Cobra took the project over, Solar Millennium remained involved with a 25 per cent ownership share.

“We contracted as E.P.C. contractor a joint venture of Cobra [80 per cent] and SENER [20 per cent], and the E.P.C contractor sub-contracted to Flagsol, a sub company of Solar Millennium, the engineering of the solar field and the H.T.F. (Heat Transfer Fluid),” he says.

“A few months ago, we bought the remaining 25 per cent that was left under the ownership of Solar Millennium, so presently 100 per cent of the two plants are owned by Cobra.”

Andasol has been in operation for one year now, and Nebrera stresses that this breakthrough power plant ought to be understood worldwide for what it proves: the successful storage of solar thermal energy.

“The heat storage is a novelty, something entirely new in the thermal solar industry, and is working very well. This is very important for the future of how much thermal solar we can accommodate in our electricity systems, because it is already happening that solar thermal plants are dispatchable. I think this is essential for the future—not only for thermal solar as a technology but also for all of us in terms of the possibility of having, in the medium-term, a very low carbon electricity supply,” he says.

“I think that a number of very influential people are not fully aware that this is happening. It is important that everybody knows that heat storage in solar thermal plants is a reality, it is working very well and is a technology that is proven. It has to be improved but it is already working very well.”

Nebrera says that the limitations of renewables, such as the lack of predictability with wind and running water plants, beg the question, “how much renewable-based energy can be actually accommodated by the electricity systems?”

“We are already proving through the operation of Andasol one and two, and now Extresol one, the answer is that thermo solar electricity can cover a lot of the future electricity needs of countries or territories which already have a sizeable good resource, in terms of radiation, or are close to deserts where the amount of radiation is very high. That is Europe’s case,” he explains.

Actualizing energy potential: solar thermal and beyond

Consider hydro and biomass energies. They can be harnessed, stored, and dispatched when needed. The electricity from large hydro dams is fully dispatchable, and biomass can be burned as demand dictates. But Nebrera explains that the only other renewable resource which can be dispatched is solar, with a worldwide potential which is several orders of magnitude above hydro and biomass.

“To have a lot of dispatchable solar within a relatively isolated system such as the Iberian Peninsula system, as Spain and Portugal are quite well integrated, would be beneficial in terms of the system security and stability, and it can help to accommodate additional amounts of non-dispatchable sources, such as wind or P.V.,” he says.

“In time, the interconnection of the European Baltic and Mediterranean countries (in a kind of super grid) should be designed not to serve the needs of a specific country or region, as the present national or regional grids do, but to transport large amounts of electricity from one corner of this vast territory to the other, with acceptable losses.”

Nebrera says that the creation of this muchdiscussed super grid would be of huge benefit to both the electricity market and the E.U. pursuit of the 2020 renewable energy goals. It appears that including and beyond harnessing solar thermal, cooperation is key to achieving E.U. renewable targets at a reasonable cost.

“If you have to install a storage or back-up capacity, for example in Spain, to accommodate the 40,000 MW of wind that some people are projecting for 2020 or 2025, it is going to cost a fortune. If we were very well connected with the rest of Europe we would not need to cover the same backup or storage considerations,” Nebrera says.

“The more wind energy is integrated into the grid, the more important is to share wind and all other resources such as solar and hydro amongst European and neighbouring countries—very important in terms of reducing cost and improving our chances for getting to a low carbon economy in a relatively short time.”

Speaking of costing a fortune, cost must be considered a pivotal issue when looking at both solar thermal energy potential in 2010 and looking ahead to 2020 goals. “Looking at how components and materials costs are evolving, we are more optimistic in terms of the future cost decrease of the C.S.P. electricity, but we will have a much more educated approach when we complete the ESTELA´s cost roadmap in a few weeks.” In light of the global financial crisis, Nebrera highlights regulation to be a driving force in moving on from the last two difficult years.

“From the financing point of view, our perception is that things have improved within the last four or five months, and will improve more in the next five or six months. By the end of 2010, we should be in more or less a business as usual situation regarding the financial markets. That would be very good from the viewpoint of our activities and all of our colleague’s activities,” he says.

“But of course, this industry is going to need some help for a number of years ahead, and there is a lot of new regulation to be done between now and the end of 2010. Did you know that there is a deadline of December 25, Christmas Day, of 2010 which is the last day of the transposition of the R.E.S. [Renewable Energy Sources] Directive? There are crucial events in Europe and worldwide which we are expecting for 2010—a very interesting year in the aftermath of the Copenhagen meeting. If we, as Europeans, are successful in promoting the changes which are already there in the Directive, and are to be implemented and made operational, I think that a new era for European electricity will appear very clearly—resulting in a lot of business for companies like us, not only in generation but also in transmission.”

Just as the super grid offers cooperative development between the European Union (E.U.) member countries- as well as neighbouring countries- towards achieving our 2020 targets, Nebrera says that being based from Spain, a country rich in natural renewable energy potential, could well play in ACS-Cobra’s favour.

“We are convinced that in Spain, we’re lucky to have a lot renewable resources, not only sun, but wind also. We may have the possibility of cooperating with other European countries in achieving the targets for 2020,” he says.

“Furthermore, our connection with Morocco will be crucial in the initial stages of the Mediterranean Solar Plan development (M.S.P.).”

He adds that the goals put forward by the Renewable Energy Directive are yet to be developed, but this could well be done through transposing them from the Directive through to the national legislations of E.U. members.

“Once those mechanisms are transposed, the market will appear for plants to be built, for instance, in Spain, Greece, and Portugal, with an aim to export part of the green rights associated with the generation of electricity to countries like Belgium or Luxembourg—countries which are probably short of internal resources to achieve their targets,” he says.

“In our opinion, that could create a market for renewable energy plants to be built wherever there are lots of natural resources, then the feed-in tariff and difference in cost would be taken by the countries that don’t have the natural resources to achieve their goals, possibly through some sort of Green Electricity Certificates European market.”

So where can solar fit into this grand plan of a brand new united electricity market? That is where the potential for developing the Mediterranean solar plant steps in.

“The M.S.P. is an initiative of the Union for the Mediterranean (U.f.M.) countries and presently the

European Commission, and everybody is working to make this plan possible. I think that there is a lot of political momentum around the convenience of going ahead with the Mediterranean Solar Plan,” Nebrera says.

“We expect to have something operational by the end of 2010 possibly and, through ESTELA and Protermosolar, we are working closely with the Spanish presidency of the European Union, the European Commission and some of the Union for the Mediterranean partners countries to accelerate as much as possible, the deployment of those mechanisms that are envisaged in the directive to make the pioneering projects happen within the next one to two years. I think that’s a major aspect of the cooperation between Europe and the neighbouring countries for the next decade, and we are looking forward to the appointment of the U.f.M. Secretariat to offer our ideas and help to this endeavour.”

ACS-Cobra, solar thermal and beyond

When you consider the potential for far-reaching change and development offered by the Andasol one and two and Extresol solar thermal plants today, it seems strange that still some influential people remain unaware of how significant this achievement is both for ACS-Cobra and for our renewable futures.

“It’s here and it’s working. We have to improve the performance and reduce the cost of the electricity produced and those are the challenges for the future,” Nebrera says.

“It’s here and it’s working. We have to improve the performance and reduce the cost of the electricity produced and those are the challenges for the future,” Nebrera says.

Through their pioneering technology, expertise and sheer commitment to renewable innovation which can benefit everyone worldwide, ACS-Cobra is literally lighting our futures with its solar thermal projects.
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