Firm plans gigawatt-capable solar plants

By LEAH KRAUSS, UPI Correspondent   |   March 7, 2006 at 2:28 PM
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SEDE BOKER, Israel, March 7 (UPI) -- The world's fossil fuel reserves are set to run out in 30 to 40 years, but Israel could be relying on solar energy for 80 percent of its power needs by that time, researchers in the country say.

"Time is at a premium ... for Israel, and I dare say for the whole world," said Dov Raviv, the founder and CEO of renewable energy company MST Ltd.

Raviv has conceived a plan to use existing technology to build the first gigawatt-capacity solar power plants on a large scale.

"I'm very optimistic," he said of the chances the government will jump-start the project with an $11 million investment.

"There is an inherent urgency" in developing alternative energy sources, and "the people in charge understand that," said Raviv, who, before entering the field of renewable energy, conceived and developed the Arrow anti-ballistic missile.

The first stage of the plan is to build a plant production facility, to take care of materials, logistics, electricians, cables, trucks, tractors and other elements that go into building a solar power plant in the field, according to Raviv's research partner, professor David Faiman, who is director of Israel's National Solar Energy Center in Sede Boker.

This stage would take four years and cost about $1 billion, Faiman said. Israel would need significant government and private investment to raise this sum, but Raviv's plan also includes a mechanism for paying this money back and later turning a profit.

In year five of the Raviv plan, the new production facility would build its first solar power plant. In year six, plant two goes online and plant one starts generating revenue; in year seven, plants one and two generate revenue while plant three goes online, and so on.

Throughout the process, the electricity will be sold at the going rate, which in Israel is about 9 cents per kilowatt hour, Faiman said.

"However, the only costs would be operation and maintenance, which amounts to about half a cent per kilowatt hour," he said.

"By year 20, the complete investment plus interest will be paid off" by the giant profit margin, Faiman said, and Israel will have 16 1 GW solar power plants in addition to the current, fossil fuel burning ones.

The country has a 10-gigawatt production capacity. Faiman said these plants would be maintained for generating electricity on rainy days and at night.

After year 20, the companies could continue charging 9 cents per kilowatt hour and make a "huge profit," Faiman said. Or, they could drop the price to as low as 3 cents, and "they would make so much profit they could still build a new power plant every year" with no outside investment, he continued.

Raviv and Faiman have dubbed this concept of the system paying for its own expansion "type-2" or "double" sustainability. The plan also envisions "triple" sustainability, meaning that by year 30, when the plant one needs to be replaced, there will be enough revenue not only to replace the old plants, but to keep adding a new one each year.

The two researchers analyzed Raviv's plan with conditions in California in mind for an article in an upcoming edition of Energy Policy. There, Faiman said, "The economics are hysterically good," meaning the plan would make even more money, faster.

The plan hinges on concentrator photovoltaic cells, tiny but super-concentrated versions of regular solar panels.

Most solar panels today use photovoltaic cells to collect sunlight and then convert it into electricity. However, because solar is a dilute form of energy, a vast area of photovoltaic cells would be needed to keep up with the world's energy demands, Faiman said.

"And that's a ridiculous way of going," Faiman said.

Instead, Faiman and Raviv advocate separating the solar panel's two functions. Instead of using photovoltaic cells to collect and convert the sunlight, their models use mirrors and lenses to collect the sunlight and concentrate it on the smaller, concentrator photovoltaic cells.

This approach saves trillions of dollars and increases the cells' efficiency, Faiman said.

But where do you put 16, 29, 35 power plants? Only half of Israel's tiny area is covered by desert. Under the Raviv plan, panels 200 meters square with magnifying glass-like lenses concentrating light onto concentrator photovoltaic cells would line the highways running through the desert. This could lead to complaints from those who say the view of the desert will be blocked.

"There will always be people who are against. I was against the construction of Highway 6, and now I'm an admirer and user," Faiman said, referring to the still-expanding national expressway that generated controversy for cutting through green spaces.

Like Highway 6, the plan seems set to go through.

"I strongly hope the government of Israel will support the project with an initial investment of $11 million," Raviv said. "This will allow us to design and prove the concept."

Although it's impossible to tell when government money will come through, Raviv said he has reason to hope it'll be within the next three months.

"The only question (after securing the initial funding) is raising a large credit line," he said.

Because Israel relies almost exclusively on foreign suppliers of oil, natural gas and coal, the government is fairly encouraging of efforts to go solar, a Ministry of National Infrastructures spokesman said.

The government goal is to rely on solar for 2 percent of Israel's energy needs by 2007, and to go 10 percent solar by 2010.

Beit Shemesh-based Solel announced last week it would build Israel's first solar power plant. However, this plant will be solar thermal, meaning that instead of converting the sunlight directly into energy, the light will be used to create steam that will power turbines.

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