TOM PARRY: REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK
Looking to the sun
Revolutionary solar power from Israel
Aug. 15, 2007
The Ben-Gurion National Solar Energy Research Center has a name more impressive than its actual appearance. The centre is a collection of trailers and mobile homes clustered behind a fence in Israel's Negev Desert. Despite the humble surroundings, the work going on behind its doors is at the cutting edge of solar technology. It could change the way we produce energy — in theory, at least.
Prof. David Faiman of Israel's Ben-Gurion National Solar Energy Research Center. (Tom Parry/CBC)
The head of the centre is Prof. David Faiman. When I met him, he looked like a cross between a college lecturer, Santa Claus and Roy Rogers. Faiman sports a thick white beard, a straw cowboy hat to guard against the desert sun and sunglasses, perched slightly askew on his nose.
From the moment we shook hands, he began speaking about his work. And the focus of his work is "The Dish." The Dish appears at first glance to be a giant satellite ground station. In fact, it is a giant mirror. And what this mirror does is focus the sun's rays onto one single super-heated point.
Like an angry child with a magnifying glass incinerating ants, Professor Faiman can concentrate the sunbeams to an intensity a thousand times their strength. But Faiman isn't using this enormous power for something as mundane as zapping bugs, of course. He's using it to create incredible amounts of electricity.
"By concentrating the light a thousand times, we were able to produce 1,500 watts from a cell that normally gives only one watt," Faiman explains.
The breakthrough solar technology?
Faiman and his team have been experimenting with using concentrated sunlight and a very durable solar panel to produce more electricity than ever thought possible. In theory, this is the breakthrough that solar energy has been waiting for — the one that makes it more practical, reduces the price of production and makes it cheaper than coal-fired, nuclear or even hydro-electric plants. But Faiman isn't popping the champagne cork just yet.
"It will feel wonderful when I see the first solar power plant using this technology in use. Until I see that, it's just another theoretical paper."
Prof. Faiman's solar dish in Israel's Negev Desert. (Tom Parry/CBC)
It could be a while before Faiman's experiments pay off with real world results. But he does envision dishes like his dotting the Israeli desert in the not too distant future.
"Take 120 kilometres of highway," he says, "and take 50 metres on each side of the road. That's twelve square kilometres. That's enough for building 1,000 megawatts of generating capacity. So, you can simply have these dishes in a line, hooked up to the overhead power line, and you've basically used land that's not used for anything else."
A solar collector made by Solel Solar Systems. (Tom Parry/CBC)
It would be easy to write off Faiman as a dreamer. But the fact is, Israeli solar technology is already producing power, not in Israel but in the United States. In California's Mojave Desert, huge swaths of land are covered in mirrors soaking up the sun's rays and producing formidable amounts of electricity. The mirrors are the work of another Israeli company, Solel Solar Systems Ltd. Its head office is in Beit Shemesh, west of Jerusalem. Beit Shemesh, as you might expect, is Hebrew for "House of the Sun".
On the day I visited, I was greeted by Solel's President Avi Brenmiller. Brenmiller is an advocate, more of an evangelist, for solar power. A tall, imposing man with a voice like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Brenmiller's every word seems to say, "I told you so" to anyone who doubts the potential of solar energy.
"I think it's the beginning of a peak," says Brenmiller, when asked about the current state of the solar power business.
"A couple years ago, I was very busy trying to convince people that they should do it. Right now, everybody is telling me, okay we are convinced. Let's see if you can deliver."
Sounding like The Terminator at times, it makes sense that Brenmiller's biggest business success is in Gov. Schwarzenegger's California. Solel has nine fields of solar collectors soaking up the sun's energy in the state. And just recently, it signed a contract to build another massive expanse of mirrors that will be the world's largest solar generating plant.
New plant will use more than one million mirrors
"That's the largest solar plant ever built in the world. It will be supplying power to 400,000 families. And we plan to build more plants of that size," Brenmiller says.
"The problem was always, 'When can you become really competitive with other sources of energy?' and we calculated that at that size of a plant, we could really compete with other sources of power," he adds.
Close-up of some of the glass tubes used in Solel's collectors. (Tom Parry/CBC)
The new Solel plant in the Mojave will use more than a million mirrors and cover more than 6,000 acres of ground. The technology developed by the company uses curved mirrors to focus sunlight to heat glass tubes filled with oil. The heated oil is used to boil water. The steam drives turbines that produce electricity.
"This is the only working proven [solar] technology in the world which works at commercially supplying power to the grid," boasts Brenmiller.
While California is its biggest customer, Solel has sold its mirrors in Spain and is eyeing India and China as potential markets. As for Canada, the Great White North may not have enough sunshine to make this kind of solar project viable. The technologies developed by Solel and under development at the Solar Energy Center in the Negev are more suitable to desert climates.
Brenmiller, however, says they are working on solar panels that could be used in northern regions. And, Prof. Faiman adds, even if Canada doesn't end up with fields of mirrors and solar dishes, it may one day buy electrical power produced from solar fields in the southern U.S.
A world leader but not in Israel
What disappoints both Faiman and Brenmiller is that while Israel is quickly becoming a world leader in solar technology, Israel has been slow to embrace solar energy on a wide scale. Most Israeli homes are equipped with solar water heaters, but the bulk of Israel's electricity is produced at coal-fired generating stations. Faiman attributes Israel's reluctance to go solar to nervous politicians.
"There is a reluctance of governments to do anything new," he says, "That is a fundamental problem of governments all over the world. No politician wants to risk doing something that nobody's ever done before. Because if it doesn't work, it's the end of his political career."
The Israeli government has expressed interest in building at least one solar generating station like the ones in California. But Brenmiller is waiting to see a signature on a contract before he starts celebrating.
Both Faiman and Brenmiller admit solar power may never replace the electricity produced in hydroelectric, nuclear and fossil fuel plants. But they firmly believe the world can reduce its reliance on these other technologies simply by looking toward the sun.
- Solar Revolution: a Series from CBC Radio, Toronto
- Calgary's solar suburbs
- Anatomy of a solar community
(Note: CBC does not endorse and is not responsible for the content of external sites - links will open in new window)