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In Israel, solar power that won't need subsidies

On Monday, ZenithSolar unveiled a new solar dish that could make the cost of solar energy competitive with fossil fuels.

By Ilene R. PrusherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 28, 2009

ZenithSolar's rotating dishes can harness up to 75 percent of incoming sunlight, roughly five times the capacity of traditional photovoltaic cells.

Sebastian Scheiner/AP


Kvutzat Yavne, Israel

In a country that ranks among the world’s highest for average number of sunny days per year, solar energy has long been seen as a key natural resource here.

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All the more fitting that on the eve of its Independence Day Israel launched what it said was the first solar farm of its kind, billed as a breakthrough that will make it affordable to reduce reliance on fossil fuels.

The technology, a system of rotating dishes made up of mirrors, is capable of harnessing up to 75 percent of incoming sunlight – roughly five times the capacity of traditional solar panels. In addition, using mirrors to reduce the number of photovoltaic cells needed, it makes the cost of solar energy roughly comparable to fossil fuels.

While this technology has been implemented elsewhere, Israeli start-up ZenithSolar – working in conjunction with Israel’s Ben-Gurion University – is a pioneer in combining it with a water-based cooling system that increases the photovoltaic cells’ efficiency and produces thermal energy to boot.

“We’re the first to develop a cogeneration machine which will harness sunlight to produce thermal energy together with electrical energy at the same time,” said Roy Segev, founder and CEO of ZenithSolar, at a launch party Monday at this kibbutz, or communal agricultural settlement, located on Israel’s coastal plain east of Ashdod. This flagship plot of 16 dishes known as “Z20”s – which look like semiflattened satellite dishes with the texture of a disco ball – will generate about half of the total energy needs of this community of some 200 families.

Related story: Click here for a video showing how MIT students concentrated the sun's rays so intensely that they were able to light a wooden 2-by-4 on fire.

Israel has long sought to make the most of its location: the Negev Desert, not far from here, gets about 330 sunny days in a year. Israel recruited its first solar-energy pioneer in 1949 just after the state was founded, and Israelis have have been using solar panels on their roofs to heat water for decades – more than 1 million households in a nation of 7 million have such setups, according to a recent Business Week report.

In June 2008, the government introduced a feed-in tariff, a program launched with great success in Germany and elsewhere that enables smaller-scale producers of renewables to compete in the energy market.

In 20 years, virtually free electricity?
Only recently has there been a push in Israel to commercialize solar energy. Sollel, another Israeli company that developed a solar-powered turbine, signed a deal in 2007 with Pacific Gas and Electric Company to build what promises to be the world’s largest solar plant in California’s Mojave Desert.

But the idea of affordable solar energy on a mass scale had a place in Professor David Faiman’s heart for decades. Originally from London, “where I was vaguely aware that there was a sun in the sky,” he came to Israel in 1973 as a physicist. Shortly afterward, the oil crisis of the 1970s began.