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.

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

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.

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.

“I did a lot of soul-searching because of the energy crisis. I thought it was crazy that the whole world should be at the beck and call of a small group of countries that have oil, whereas we all have sun,” he says in an interview in the shade. That swayed him to switch over to Ben-Gurion University’s Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research, where he is now chairman of the department of Solar Energy and Environmental Physics. Professor Faiman also directs Israel’s National Solar Energy Center.

Faiman’s area of research involves not just harnessing the sun but increasing its intensity. The idea is referred to as CPV – Concentrating Photovoltaics – a technology in which mirrors increase the light incident onto semiconductors, which increases energy output.

“By using mirrors to concentrate the sun’s light, you cut down by 1,000 the amount of photovoltaic material you need, and you’ve essentially opened the door to affordable photovoltaics,” explains the white-bearded professor, a straw hat on his head to protect himself from the afternoon blaze, already strong even on a mild April day. “The beauty of the mirror-based system is that since you have to cool it, you can get 50 percent more energy out of it in the form of hot water.”

He says that after the installation of such a system is paid for – one Z20 would now run about $15,000 a pop – electricity or water-heating costs would be mostly based on maintenance costs, rather than pricey fuel.

“The world is consuming the energy equivalent of 200 million barrels of oil a day,” Faiman says. “If we can reduce that, the environmental footprint will be enormous.... And in 20 years, if we in Israel move in this direction, 60 to 70 percent of our electricity needs will not cost anything, and at that stage, what you pay will be based on the operation and maintenance costs.”
A dig at oil-rich adversaries
ZenithSolar hopes to offer its technology further afield. But can it work everywhere, even in the places without nearly as much sun? Faiman says it can, since the machines track the sun even on a cloudy day, but it might not be cost-effective.

Faiman, who is about to embark on a lecture tour in the US, explains that it would not be worthwhile to open a farm in Illinois or Pennsylvania, he found. But it would work to build one in El Paso, Texas, and then ship the electricity north.

“It turns out that in the case of Texas, it would be thoroughly cost-effective for the amount of sun available there,” he says. “Other states could buy it from Texas and transfer it by cable.”

The very use of the word “farm” to refer to these massive dishes planted in dirt puts a new spin on an old motto about making the desert bloom. As one of Israel’s veteran founders, Israeli President Shimon Peres, spoke at the inaugural ribbon-cutting here, he made a bold prediction that the technology would empower countries that lack oil – Israel among them – and made something of a dig at the countries which have oil.

“Today, terrorism is nourished mainly from those countries that have oil, including Iran,” Mr. Peres said. “Solar energy is democratic and it can change the face of the world.”

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