A Tower of Energy May Rise in the Permian Basin

Abstract: An oilpatch story of sorts is taking place out near Monahans, TX, though it has little to do with the petroleum industry--and everything to do with the future of energy.

Analysis: Around Monahans in Ward County, TX, just west of Odessa and smack dab in the middle of the Permian Basin, local officials are in the midst of conducting due diligence on a proposal that could result in construction of the tallest structure not only in the United States, but in the world.

It's a solar electric power generation tower and if and when erected, it would thrust skyward 3,000 ft., making it nearly twice as high as the tallest structure in existence, which currently is the CN Tower in Toronto. It would be half again as tall as Chicago's Sears Tower. Even in an area long conditioned to the sight of derricks protruding from the flat landscape, this structure would get everybody's attention.

A U.S. company, SolarMission Technologies Inc. of Westlake Village, CA, holds the license to build such towers in this country--as well as in China, India, and Pakistan, among others--and they're dead set on erecting a whole passel of them in the Desert Southwest. Each is capable of generating electricity continuously at 200 megawatts (mW). That's enough, says SolarMission, to power 200,000 homes. And while nobody's telling, outward signs indicate that the Monahans area has a pretty good chance of getting the first one, though the company also is looking at sites in Arizona near Parker, in Nevada near Las Vegas, and even in the high and low desert areas of California. Potentially, each of these areas could be a site for either the first tower or subsequent ones.

SolarMission is a private company that is affiliated with an Australian company, EnviroMission Ltd., which in turn is apparently controlled by a German company, Schlaich Bergermann & Partners of Stuttgart. The German company--a civil/structural engineering consultancy among whose various areas of expertise are designing and building solar power generating equipment--designed the power tower or "chimney." In fact, Schlaich Bergermann built and operated a 50-kilowatt pilot tower in Spain in 1982 that operated successfully until 1989 and provided much of the data applied to the current design.

The Melbourne-based Australian company, which is partially publicly owned, reportedly is nearing the end of a feasibility study and arranging financing for erecting a power tower in New South Wales's remote Buronga district, far out in the Australian outback near NSW's border with Victoria. The Australian federal government and at least one utility company apparently are backing the project, which has an estimated cost of some A$1 billion (US$638 million). Unlike some other countries, Australia's electricity demand already has surpassed its supply. EnviroMission media reports say the tower could be built and running by 2006.

It would be some 2,800 ft. tall. The U.S. tower, if built in Texas, would be 200 ft. taller.

Most nonscientific folks are quick to explain why it's usually warmer on the top floor of a two-story house, should anyone ask. "As we all know," they'll relate in a somewhat haughty tone (meaning that you're probably not among them), "heat rises." Nevertheless, it's upon that phenomenon of physics that the power tower rests.

As designed, the Schlaich Bergermann/EnviroMission/SolarMission power tower setup starts at ground level with an enormous (2.5 to 3 miles in diameter) canopy made of transparent material. This canopy collects solar heat, the commodity supplied so freely by nature at such latitudes. Jutting from the middle of the canopy is the 3,000-ft. hollow tower, which tapers upward from a base 400 ft. in diameter to a top 18 in. in diameter and is composed of around 750,000 cubic yards of reinforced concrete.

Basically, solar heat is trapped under the canopy, creating a massive force of air heated to around 100 degrees F higher than the ambient temperature (on summer's hottest days around Monahans, that could easily be 205 degrees F). The laws of physics then demand that this air move upward at 38 ft. per second toward the much cooler air that exists at the altitude of the top of the tower. On the way, this powerful updraft passes through the rotors of 32 wind turbines placed strategically inside the tower base. The result is generated power that provides the aforementioned 200 mW of electricity.

The project would require 20.25 sq. miles (32.6 sq. km) of flat land, another commodity nature provides so generously throughout West Texas and at the other potential sites.

The cost per tower would be around US$350 million. That's a lot of money, of course. But it's comparable to the construction cost range these days for a deepwater floating drilling rig, and it's probably a lot less than what oil companies typically spend collectively in a year's time to keep wresting now-stubborn oil from fields in the Permian Basin area. Spokesmen also point out that unlike fossil fuel generators, the tower creates "green" electric power with virtually no carbon-based emissions.

Ward County civic leaders and business development people in Monahans are more than eager to have such an edifice in their midst. First of all, it would generate about 2,700 jobs during the 34 months it would take to build the tower complex. Fifteen more permanent jobs would follow. And in an area plagued for more than seven decades by the up-and-down oilfield job market, 34 months is at least the basis for a whole career to local workers.

Of course, the trickle-down benefits of such a project would buoy local businesses for a similar period in an area that outsiders might consider economically challenged. Oilfield jobs are hard to come by there, these days. Local officials estimate, for instance, that tower construction could generate as much as $900,000 each year for Ward County's three tax districts (county, city, and school). The total valuation is estimated to be in the neighborhood of $900 million or so, which could increase tax revenue by fully one-third.

Because of the due diligence now underway, SolarMission officials and Ward County officials are holding their cards close to their chests as they check each other out. However, Gene Brown, the affable president of the Monahans Chamber of Commerce and consultant to the local economic development organization, is both enthusiastic and realistic about the chances of the tower being erected in the area.

Brown said the Australian and U.S. tower companies are affiliated with world-class construction companies, including Australia's Leightons Construction Ltd. and New York City-based Turner Construction. Representatives of those companies have visited the Monahans area, he said, and have assured officials that while it's never been done before, building such a tower is well within the capabilities of current construction technology.

"They could build it either of two ways," he said, "either with pre-formed concrete panels built on the ground and erected by a self-contained crane, or in a continuous-pour fashion, with a self-contained concrete mixing plant that rises with the tower."

Chris Davey of SolarMission said the timetable for building a first tower is something on the order of four years, given full feasibility studies for "two to three" sites, environmental impact studies and regulatory approvals, and financing arrangements. Davey, a former chief financial officer at several companies, including Mobil Corp. (now ExxonMobil), joins Brown in stressing the simple rationale involved, which is that electric power demand will continue to rise rapidly around the world, and that the supply will have to come from both fossil-based and alternative sources. They're convinced that power towers will be needed to join wind and wave energy generators, as well as nitrogen-based and more conventional fossil fuel plants, to provide that power.

As for the Monahans area, the ever-positive Brown believes that government funding assistance, coupled with already established emissions trading benefits, vast swaths of land controlled by state and federal government and university land grants, will provide enough incentives to encourage tower construction. As with most first-time initiatives, he observed, the tower concept will have its ups and downs.

"But even in the event that the first tower might be built elsewhere, the fact that the Ward County vicinity is being considered has resulted in several other companies contacting us about the possibility of establishing other kinds of alternative energy source projects in our area," said Brown. "The Monahans area played an integral part in the creation of the Permian Basin oil and gas development era, so there's no reason why it can't be a major player in developing a solar power resource era, as well."

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