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Israeli energy — Sun power in the desert

Last week I was in Israel learning about energy and culture as a guest of Project Interchange and the American Jewish Committee.  They invited me and seven other energy professionals from the U.S. to see how Israel is dealing with its energy issues and to learn about advances Israeli companies might be making in the world of energy.

My first blog on the trip covered wave power, EVs and natural gas, today’s blog talks about something that folks in the Middle East should be enjoying more than they are, solar energy.

In the bible it says that Jesus went into the desert to fast and be tempted by the devil.  When one visits Israel and the West Bank you find out that he didn’t have to go very far!  Israel (especially the southern part) is mainly a desert country.  With that kind of sun you’d thing solar would have an increasing role in the nation’s energy needs.

But as they say often in the Middle East, it’s complicated.

Distributed solar

The black dots on the top of this residential building in Ramallah shows the popularity of solar water heaters

When it comes to rooftop solar panels attached to hot water tanks on roofs in Israel and the West Bank, they are ubiquitous. As you see in the picture to the left, almost all houses and high rises have the black water tanks and solar panels that help bring hot water to the occupants with little use of grid power.

But we saw little use of distributed solar for general electricity.  Electricity prices are relatively high (14 cents/kwh if our math is right) but new natural gas finds could keep them in check in the coming decades.

The sun will continue to shine brightly on this desert nation so the future of solar energy should be good, if the people decide to take advantage of it.  So far, beyond heating water, they really haven’t.



Solar power R&D

Here is where the action is.  We took a tour of the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev’s solar research center where academia and the private sector are testing PV and concentrated PV (CPV) opportunities that could bring changes to the solar energy world.  Given how much sun we “enjoyed” the desert sun during the tour, there is no doubt this is a place to test the technology.

We also stopped by California-based BrightSource’s test facility (also in the Negev).  As you can see in the picture, the Bright Source model is to have sun rays reflect off of mirrors toward a center tower here it gets so hot that water turns into steam that runs a turbine that generates electricity. BrightSource is building the solar thermal facility in the Mojave Desert in California and they are testing the technology in different places.

A view of BrightSource mirrors reflecting the sun's rays to the tower.

This is what the mirrors are pointing to…a tower that collects the heat from the mirrors to create steam from the water in the tower











Bottom Line

In a land of extreme sun, Israel and the West Bank could be leaders in the use of solar power.  As prices come down (or other electricity prices rise) I believe you’ll see more and more solar use in this part of the world.  On the final day of the trip, we stopped by the Masada castle overlooking the Dead Sea.  The tourist buildings on the bottom of the mountain we’re bathed in the coolness of air conditioning.  Being the energy geeks that we are we looked at the source of the power and saw utility poles connecting the buildings to the grid.  We wondered if we came back to Masada in 15 years, how much of the land would be covered in solar panels to provide the power needed to keep the buildings cool.  Only time will tell.

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