Israel trails almost every developed nation in the percentage of electricity it derives from renewables. It’s goal is to get only 10% of its power from renewables by 2020. That compares with only 2.5% today. Israel has a large supply of natural gas in offshore fields which it relies on for 70% of its electricity. It also has little available land for solar panel installations. But in the Negev Desert region, a large concentrated solar power project is currently under construction.
Concentrated solar power uses the rays of the sun to heat water and turn it into steam. The steam is then used to turn a conventional turbine to generate electricity. When stored in insulated containers, the heated water can continue to produce steam — and therefore electricity — long after the sun sets. That allows for what is known in the world of renewable energy as time shifting.
Energy produced at one time of day can be stored until it is needed later in the day. Since the highest demand for electricity usually occurs at the end of the workday when the sun is setting, traditional solar panel farms see a reduction in output just when the grid needs electricity the most.
Israel trails almost every developed nation in the percentage of electricity it derives from renewables. It’s goal is to get only 10% of its power from renewables by 2020. That compares with just 2.5% today. Israel has a large supply of natural gas in offshore fields which it relies on for 70% of its electricity. It also has little available land for solar panel installations. But in the Negev Desert region, a series of concentrated solar projects are currently under construction.
Concentrated solar technology, or CSP, has been developed by BrightSource Energy, the American company responsible for the largest thermal plant in the world. Located in the desert in California, it has 170,000 mirrors that focus the rays of the sun on a tower 140 meters high.
The Ashalim project, deep in the Negev desert, is made up of three plots, with a fourth planned in the future. Each uses a different solar technology. One project is a concentrated solar installation with a tower 250 meters tall. Because of the lack of available land, the heliostats — the mirrors that focus the sun’s rays on the tower — must be pushed closer together. Another is a grid scale storage facility and a third is a conventional solar panel farm.
Together, the installations will be Israel’s largest renewable energy project when completed in 2018. They are expected to generate 310 megawatts of power, or about 1.6% of the Israel’s energy needs. That translates into enough electricity to power about 130,000 households, roughly 5% of Israel’s population according to Israel’s Electricity Authority.
“It’s the most significant single building block in Israel’s commitment to CO2 reduction and renewable energy,” said Eran Gartner, chief executive of Megalim Solar Power Ltd., which is building one part of the project. Yaron Szilas, CEO of Shikun & Binui Renewable Energy, the lead developer of the second solar-thermal plot, said combining the three technologies was a wise move because each has its own advantage.
Israel has developed some of the world’s most advanced solar energy equipment and enjoys a nearly endless supply of sunshine. But Israeli solar companies, frustrated by government bureaucracy, have mostly taken their expertise abroad. Countries with cooler climates have outpaced Israel. Germany, for example, gets nearly 30% of its energy from renewable sources.
“Israel has the potential to be a sunshine superpower,” says Leehee Goldenberg, director of the department of economy and environment at the Israel Union for Environmental Defense, a non-governmental organization. Despite some steps in the right direction, “Israel’s government hasn’t really been pushing to reach its small goals regarding solar energy.”
Israel has often been reluctant to hand out huge parcels of land, a necessity for large scale solar power production, Gartner said. Large projects also demand access to state owned infrastructure like gas, water, and electricity. Making connections to those utilities in remote areas like the Negev desert is expensive and time consuming.
But the price of electricity from the sun is falling dramatically the world over, making solar power the first option for utility scale power even if government incentives are lacking.
The developers in the Ashalim project say they want Israel to step up its renewable energy goals. “With all the sun that we have and how progressed we are in technology, these goals are very, very, very modest,” Szilas said. “But these are the goals that were set, and we are working toward it.”