Jordan’s energy sector ‘in transition’

IMPACTED BY global oil prices and regional instability, energy officials are racing to develop a wide array of local energy sources to boost domestic production and ensure the Kingdom’s energy security for future economic growth. Insecure supply Despite the advancement of several mega-projects, the biggest developments in the Jordanian energy sector in 2011 came not by a drill or the stroke of a pen, but by explosions hundreds of kilometres away. Multiple attacks on the Arab Gas Pipeline in Egypt between February and September deprived Jordan of its major energy supply, highlighting the insecurity of energy imports and the need for greater reliance on domestic energy sources. The cuts in Egyptian gas supplies, which Jordan relies on for 88 per cent of its electricity generation needs, forced the country’s power plants onto diesel and heavy fuel oil, costing the treasury millions of dinars and pushing the national energy bill to record highs, over JD4 billion. According to former energy minister Khaled Toukan, the attacks highlighted the Kingdom’s need to reduce reliance on energy imports, which account for 98 per cent of the country’s energy needs and cost the country 23 per cent of its gross domestic product.

The government is scouring for alternatives to meet a five-year "gap" ahead of the development of several – projects within the next decade to boost reliance on domestic energy sources from 2 per cent to 40 per cent by the end of the decade. Oil shale One of these is what some energy experts refer to as Jordan’s very own "black gold" – oil shale. The resource is projected to make up to 14 per cent of the Kingdom’s energy mix by the end of the decade, and, if energy officials have their way, become a major pillar of the country’s economy. Jordan is home to one of the five largest shale reserves in the world with an estimated 40 billion tonnes of shale oil in sites ranging from Irbid in the north to Maan in the Southern Badia.

The centrepiece of the Kingdom’s oil shale plans is a 44-year agreement with Estonian state-owned firm Eesti Energia to produce 35,000 tonnes of oil shale per day and entailing the construction of the first oil shale fired power plant in the country. A recently endorsed agreement with British-Jordanian firm Karak International Oil is expected to produce an additional 15,000 barrels of oil per day by 2016. Despite the enthusiasm surrounding the energy source, there are several obstacles facing the development of Jordanian oil shale – the resource has higher than average sulphur content, while doubts remain whether electricity generated from oil shale will be cost competitive with traditional fossil fuels. Some of the Kingdom’s largest shale reserves – millions of tonnes located along the north-eastern desert – are hundreds of metres below surface level and cannot be mined by conventional methods. The ministry has contracted Royal Dutch Shell to employ an experimental method, in situ conversion, under which the energy giant will heat the ground over an extended period of time before oil can be extracted. With the project still in its exploratory phase, it is far from certain whether the eastern shale reserves can be feasibly exploited. Nuclear power Officials in Amman have prioritised the development of nuclear power, which is to account for 16 per cent of the country’s energy mix and has the potential to transform the Kingdom from an energy importer into an electricity exporter.

The Jordan Atomic Energy Commission (JAEC) is currently vetting offers from three technology providers – Canada’s AECL, Russian AtomStory Export and French-Japanese consortium comprising AREVA and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries – for the construction of the Kingdom’s first nuclear reactor by the end of the decade. With plans in place for a second reactor by 2022 and up to four reactors by 2030, nuclear power is projected to overtake fossil fuels as Jordan’s largest energy source within the next 20 years. With international cooperation agreements with 12 countries, Jordan’s nuclear programme has drawn praise from the International Atomic Energy Agency for its commitment to safety, transparency and international conventions. Despite its promise, the Kingdom’s nuclear programme is not without its detractors. Environmentalists and anti-nuclear activists have raised concern over the reactor’s potential impact on public health, claiming that the proposed site, Balama, outside Mafraq and some 40 kilometres northeast of the capital, is too close to residential areas. Opponents question the environmental impact of a reactor operating near groundwater resources relied upon by citizens and farmers alike, and the disposal of spent nuclear fuel. Amidst the protests over health and safety concerns, the greatest challenge to Jordan’s nuclear programme is a matter of water and costs. Water considerations spurred officials to place the reactor location near the Khirbet Al Samra Wastewater Treatment Plant, which under current plans would supply the reactor with 30 million cubic metres annually for cooling purposes. The Kingdom’s reactor would become only the second in the world to rely on recycled wastewater for cooling, and the first among Generation III models. Even with the planned addition of a strategic partner, Jordan must also share the burden of the up-front investment costs – estimated at over $5 billion – and will likely have to surpass the treasury’s legally binding 60 per cent public debt ceiling in order to finance the project.

Energy officials in Amman argue that stable electricity prices and the presence of vast uranium reserves – estimated at over 100 million tonnes – will more than make up for the initial investment. Alternatives Home to wind speeds of up to seven metres per second and some of the highest solar radiation rates in the world, Jordan has long been cited by energy experts as an ideal candidate for renewable energy. Officials have privately acknowledged, however, that the country is unlikely to meet the national energy strategy’s goal of renewable energy accounting for 10 per cent of the country’s energy mix by 2020. The Kingdom’s first wind farm, a 40-megawatt plant in Kamsheh near Jerash, has been held up in negotiations over tariff pricing for over two years, while planned solar mega-projects in southern Jordan have faced a myriad of financial and bureaucratic obstacles. Meanwhile, taxes and customs imposed on a series of materials needed for renewable energy technology have made the industrial adoption of renewable energy economically infeasible, according to the Jordan Renewable Energy Society.

Ministry of Energy officials have repeatedly reiterated their commitment to alternative energy, pointing to the passage of the Renewable Energy Law and the development of the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Fund to support and develop the sector. Officials in Amman have even considered a feed-in tariff, under which the government would subsidise electricity generated by renewable sources, to encourage the private sector to consider solar and wind energy. With the development of renewable energy "several years away", officials are pinning their hopes on Risheh, largely unexploited gas fields along the Jordanian-Iraqi border, as another key to the country’s energy independence.

British Petroleum is currently in the exploration phase of a mega-project designed to boost Risheh’s productivity from 21 million cubic feet to up to one billion cubic feet daily within the next decade. With nuclear, oil shale and natural gas projects several years from completion, and the country’s ongoing reliance on increasingly volatile international markets, the Kingdom’s energy sector remains in a state of "transition", energy officials say. "Energy independence is vital to Jordan’s national security, water security and economic security," Toukan previously told The Jordan Times. "Energy will be key to Jordan’s future development and strength."

The Jordan Times.