Abu Dhabi is not content to just sell you the oil that fuels your SUV; now its going to sell you sunshine to keep your lights on and power your electric car when the internal combustion engine goes the way of the buggy whip. Masdar, the oil-rich emirate’s $15 billion renewable energy venture, and Spanish technology company Sener on Wednesday announced a joint venture called Torresol Energy to build large-scale solar power plants in Australia, Europe, the Middle East, North Africa and the United States.
Torresol initially will invest $1.2 billion in three solar power plants to be built in Spain but the company is targeting the global “sunbelt” for future expansion. Masdar will take a 60 percent ownership stake in Torresol with Sener holding a 40 percent stake. A Torresol spokesman declined to reveal the dollar amount of the investment. A prime market for Torresol will be the U.S. desert Southwest, where companies like Ausra, BrightSource Energy, Solel and Abengoa Solar are competing for contracts with utilities PG&E (PCG), Arizona Public Service (PNW) and Southern California Edison (EIX). Torresol potentially could shake up that market, given its very deep pockets and ability to independently finance billion-dollar solar power plants.
The venture is just the latest move by Abu Dhabi to control what Masdar CEO Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber described to Green Wombat recently as “the whole value chain” of renewable energy, from research and development to manufacturing silicon for solar cells to the large-scale deployment of green technology.
The irony is too rich to leave unsaid: A leading oil producer invests billions in carbon-free energy while a leading consumer of fossil fuels - the United States - continues to subsidize Big Oil while while offering only tepid support for green technology. It is inevitable that climate change will foster the rise of renewable energy - the only question is which countries and companies will profit from the new energy economics. It is entirely possible that the U.S. will trade energy dependence of one kind - on Middle East oil - for another - on Middle East and European solar technology - in the era of global warming. It’s no coincidence that most of the solar energy companies with contracts to build utility-scale power plants in California and the Southwest have overseas roots - Ausra hails from Australia, BrightSource was founded by American-Israeli pioneer Arnold Goldman, Solel is based in Israel and Abengoa is headquartered in Spain.
Torresol plans to build solar power plants using a technology it calls a Central Tower Receiver system. It’s similar to technology used by competitors like BrightSource in that fields of mirrors called heliostats focus the sun’s rays on tower that contains a receiver. In this case the receiver is filled with salt which when heated vaporizes water to create steam that drives an electricity-generating turbine. The company says it intends to have 500 megawatts of solar electricity online by 2012.