Oct 04,2016

AMMAN — The sun has just risen over Maan, 220km south of the capital, casting a fiery glow that is reflected off the seemingly endless rows of black thin film photovoltaic (PV) solar power modules.

There is nothing but the gentle whirr of the plant’s inverters to indicate that the facility is silently generating enough clean electricity to power 35,000 average Jordanian homes.

Spread over 190 hectares, Shams Maan may not be stealing headlines, as other planned facilities across the Middle East are, but it is — for now — the largest operating solar power plant in the region.

Built in just 30 weeks from groundbreaking to commissioning, the facility’s engineering, procurement and construction team effectively added 1.7 megawatts (MW) of solar energy capacity per week to Jordan’s power generation portfolio, an unprecedented achievement in the Middle East.

Built by US-headquartered First Solar, Inc. — for a consortium consisting of Diamond Generating Europe Ltd, a subsidiary of the Mitsubishi Corporation; Nebras Power QSC, a subsidiary of the Qatar Electricity & Water Company; and Jordan’s Kawar Group — the plant employed a workforce that was almost entirely Jordanian.

“This is very much a project that was built for Jordan, by Jordanians,” says Raed Bkayrat, the Jordanian vice president of business development for First Solar in the Middle East.

“Our core team is Jordanian, as were the 600 workers we had on site at the peak of construction. At various times we also had a total of 200 workers from Maan onsite.”

He continues: “None of them had any experience in the solar industry, prior to this project. We have effectively invested 40,000 man-hours in training the workforce, which is a significant contribution towards Jordan’s ambitions to grow its solar energy portfolio.”

Meanwhile, at the plant, Hamid S. Jaber, First Solar’s construction manager, drives to a low ridge overlooking the site and stops to survey the area.

Covering sufficient land to build over 200 football pitches, the 52.5MW project utilises over 600,000 high performance thin film modules mounted on structures that allow them to track the progress of the sun across the sky.

“At this time, last year, this was all empty land. What we’ve achieved in such a short amount of time is incredible,” he says, with more than a hint of pride. Originally from Amman, Jaber had extensive experience in the conventional power generation industry in Saudi Arabia and in Jordan.

“It’s been an incredible experience for me. First Solar has several gigawatts of expertise in solar, and I feel that they’ve effectively transferred this to me and my team through training and through working alongside some of the most experienced professionals in the industry.

“And this is what we’ve achieved as a result,” he says, his arm sweeping across the horizon. “We did it on budget, on time and with an excellent safety record.”

His views are echoed by Owais Nabil, an engineer seconded to the project by the National Electric Power Company (NEPCO).

“I’ve been heavily involved in the commissioning process, ensuring that First Solar is complying with NEPCO’s regulations, while also gaining important experience,” Nabil notes.

“It has been fascinating to work with and learn from professionals who have worked on utility-scale PV power projects around the world,” he says, as he inspects an electrical junction box at the end of a solar array, dressed in protective gear.

“Considering Jordan’s plans for solar, every single person who worked on this project is now equipped with a valuable skill set. Each and every one of them is now well positioned to play a role in the government’s efforts to achieve energy security by harnessing our country’s most abundant resource, sunlight,” says Bkayrat.

Muneer Abu Samihah, the project manager for Shams Maan, agrees.

“There are very few people in this country who can claim to have built a project of this magnitude — I’m proud of the fact that I can. I’m also proud of the fact that we’ve developed a world-class project that is contributing so much to our future and the future of our country.”

Article contributed to The Jordan Times by Shams Maan