Israeli solar energy innovator sees multiple ways to serve U.S. consumers

Israel-based Solel has a field of solar panels in California’s Mohave Desert that’s saving U.S. consumers 2 million barrels of oil a year. A single project in California using technology owned by Israeli solar energy innovator Solel, has been reducing …

Israel-based Solel has a field of solar panels in California’s Mohave Desert that’s saving U.S. consumers 2 million barrels of oil a year. A single project in California using technology owned by Israeli solar energy innovator Solel, has been reducing the United States’ dependence on foreign oil by 2 million barrels a year for nearly two decades. In the future, the company thinks its systems could significantly reduce the use of oil in power plants and cut the nation’s contribution to global warming, as well as create power sources that would be far less dangerous in a terrorist attack.

The California solar power stations using Israeli-developed technology in the 80s are still in operation in the Mojave Desert and are being maintained and upgraded by Solel. Solel was founded in 1992 to make use of the advanced solar energy technology developed by an Israeli company it bought out, Luz Solar Partners Ltd. The solar fields in the Mohave have a total capacity of 350 megawatts and replace energy that would probably be provided by oil-fired power plants, said Solel’s marketing specialist, Barbara Shaw.

Up to now these solar stations haven’t been profitable, but Solel executives are confident that, as new circumstances emerge, their technology can now meet many of the United States’ needs for low-cost, clean energy sources that couldn’t cause widespread damage if attacked by terrorists. Innovations in technology by Solel and others are making solar energy cheaper, while Sept. 11 and international pressure for action on global warming are raising the profile of solar as an energy source that’s ideally suited to meet the United States’ long-term needs.

Solel’s systems are comprised of fields of mirrored solar collector troughs that track the sun’s movements and concentrate its rays onto absorber tubes. Thanks to the innovative thin film coatings on the tubes developed by Luz and Solel scientists, the company’s products have very high absorption and low emission of heat. The absorber tubes contain refined oil that reaches temperatures of more than 800 degrees centigrade, depending on the need. Through a heat exchange process, the heat powers turbines at the plants that generate electricity.

This type of solar energy generation is becoming more realistic on a cost basis alone. When Luz set up the Californian solar energy stations, the price per kilowatt of solar energy generated in a large solar plant was around 40 cents. It has since dropped to around nine cents, and within the next few years will reach five cents, Shaw said.

But there are high-profile reasons why the U.S. market may not be willing to wait for solar energy to become competitive on a dollar-for-dollar basis with oil-fired plants and nuclear energy.

Since the World Trade Center attacks, the United States has become increasingly aware that conventional and nuclear plants could be inviting terrorist targets. Israel saw this first-hand in May when disaster was narrowly averted after two bombs attached to a gas tanker failed to cause the mass devastation intended at the country’s largest fuel depot. Building new plants using solar energy or replacing existing plants with solar plants could help contain and even reduce this threat.

In addition, solar plants would reduce the United States’ dependence on Middle East oil, a trend many analysts think would lower the nation’s exposure to the volatile politics of the region.

The United States is also under international pressure to lead the way in ratifying the Kyoto Protocol, a document drafted in Japan in 1997 and so far signed by 84 nations, which sets goals for reductions in emissions of so-called “greenhouse gases.” A large-scale move to alternative energy sources for power would make it far easier to meet the emissions standards set out in the treaty.

In addition to large-scale plants, Solel is also directing some of its attention to the market for power to individual homes, industrial plants and commercial buildings. The company’s latest product, SunPro, uses the same basic technology as its larger products, only with flat panels that can be mounted on a roof. The panels are more than 50 square feet in size and can reach temperatures of 250 degrees centigrade, Shaw said.

Besides electricity generation, Solel’s technology can also be used for space and water heating and for cooling, by carrying heat away.

Solel is headquartered near Jerusalem in Bet Shemesh, whose name means “house of the sun” in Hebrew. The company employs 75 people in Bet Shemesh and two other facilities in Jerusalem and in Sde Boker in the Negev desert.