Israel marks start of work at thermal solar ‘sea of mirrors’ plant in Negev
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Israel marks start of work at thermal solar ‘sea of mirrors’ plant in Negev

The 121MW Negev Energy gleaming plant produces heat from the desert sun to create electricity; pity the price is as much as six times that of photovoltaic technology

The Negev Energy thermal solar plant at Ashalim in the Negev (Shoshanna Solomon/Times of Israel)
The Negev Energy thermal solar plant at Ashalim in the Negev (Shoshanna Solomon/Times of Israel)

Israel officially marked the starting of operations of the nation’s largest renewable energy project — a 121MW thermal solar gleaming power plant in the Negev desert, seen as a key part of the country’s national target of generating 10 percent of its power from renewable energy sources by 2020.

The inauguration of the Negev Energy plant at Ashalim was held in the presence of Israel’s Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz and US-Israeli businessman Naty Saidoff, who last year took control of Shikun & Binui, a construction firm that is one of the main players behind the mega project.

The plant started production in April and is operating at 95% of its full capacity. It will supply 0.75% of the nation’s electricity, to some 70,000 households. The plant will also help reduce some 245,000 tons of CO2 emissions per year, the equivalent of taking 50,000 vehicles off the road, the website of the project says.

“We are creating electricity from the Israeli sun,” Steinitz said at the ceremony.

Israel will likely reach the 10% target set for 2020, he said, and has already set a new target of 17% of electricity generated by renewable energy by 2030, while also mulling increasing that target even further.

Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz speaking at the Negev Energy thermal solar plant in Ashalim in the Negev; Aug 29, 2019 (Shoshanna Solomon/Times of Israel)

In the past, Steinitz said, the main purpose in Israel was to attain energy security. Now public health has also become a priority and Israel is set on shutting down all of its coal plants and relying just on clean energy sources, such as natural gas and renewable energy. Ninety-five percent of the renewable energy in Israel comes from solar power, he said.

“We are in the middle of a huge historic process,” Steinitz added. If once 65% of electricity was produced by coal, today coal accounts for less than 30% of the electricity supply, with the rest replaced by natural gas and solar energy.

Israel’s forefathers were promised “a land of milk and honey,” Shikun & Binui’s controlling shareholder Saidoff said at the event. They found instead “only desert and swampland. They dried up the swamps and took the arid area and turned it into a resource.”

Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, left, and Naty Saidoff, controlling shareholder of Shikun & Binui, at the Negev Energy thermal solar plant in Ashalim in the Negev; Aug 29, 2019 (Shoshanna Solomon/Times of Israel)

“Israel has turned salt water into water” Saidoff said, referring to the desalination plants that have been set up in the country. “And now it has taken the sun, and turned a curse into a blessing. People turning on their air-conditioners in Tel Aviv get the power to cool themselves from the desert sun.”

A ‘sea of mirrors’

Solar power offers a clean alternative to fuel- and carbon-fired electricity plants, which contribute to global warming with their heat-trapping CO2 emissions.

The Negev Energy project at Ashalim is part of three plots of desert land that have been earmarked for the production of solar energy, with a fourth planned for the future.

Each of these plots use a different solar technology. Together, the fields are Israel’s largest renewable energy project, set to generate some 310 megawatts of power, about 1.6% of the country’s energy needs — enough for about 130,000 households, or roughly 5% of Israel’s population, according to the Israel Electricity Authority.

The three plots are made up of the following: the 390 hectare Negev Energy project that generates thermal solar energy and is able to store energy even when the sun goes down; a 250 meters (820 feet) solar tower, that also generates thermal solar power, with thousands of mirrors focusing the sun’s rays onto the tower, heating a boiler that creates steam to spin a turbine and generate electricity. This tower started producing electricity at around the same time as the Negev Energy project. And a third plot uses the more common photovoltaic solar panels, which convert sunlight directly into electricity. The fourth plot will also be made up of photovoltaic solar panels.

50,000 mirrors, known as heliostats,encircle the solar tower in the Negev desert, near in Ashelim, southern Israel, December 22, 2016. (AP/Oded Balilty)

When Israel issued tenders for the projects, combining the three technologies – Negev Energy with its storing facility, the Tower and the photovoltaic systems, was seen as a wise move, because each has it own advantages.

Driving to Ashalim in the Negev from Tel Aviv, the sun-reflecting off the thermal solar tower makes it look like a Tower of Babel set up by aliens. It can be discerned from the highway, standing tall and shiny in the desert. The bus then drives past the field of photovoltaic panels, and then turns to the Negev Energy project, a sea of concave mirrors reflecting the strong sunlight.

The Ashelim thermal solar Tower, as seen from the highway, looks like a shiny Tower of Babel built by aliens (Shoshanna Solomon/Times of Israel)

Thermal solar energy involves generating electricity from the heat of the sun, and not, as photovoltaic panels do, from sunlight. Because a large amount of heat is needed for the thermal solar plants, deserts, such as the Negev, present ideal conditions for such plants.

The Negev Energy thermal solar plant uses “parabolic through technology”, originally developed by Israeli firm LUZ International Limited.

During the thermal solar process — the light of the sun is absorbed by parabolic mirrors that are supported by a metal frame throughout the solar field. These mirrors have the ability to rotate, and track the sun, and heat up a fluid (a sort of an oil) that flows in tubes that are positioned at the center. The fluid reaches some 400 degrees centigrade, and by using heat exchangers, the thermal energy is then transferred to water to generate steam that propels the turbine to produce electricity.

The advantage of the thermal reflector systems is that because they initially produce heat, this heat can be stored, and it’s an important consideration if you need to produce electricity after sunset. Photovoltaic panels, on the other hand, produce electricity immediately, making storing electricity less efficient.

The Negev Energy project uses a molten salt storage system that enables it to hold and provide additional 4.5 hours of clean energy each day, at full capacity, even after sunset or during cloudy days. The yearly average of daily operations is 11 hours, the company says on its website. Because it is able to store energy, the plant produces 33% more energy than the adjacent Tower thermal solar plant, company officials explained.

A gleaming white elephant in the desert?

The most glaring downside of this shiny new thermal solar project is the fact that the electricity produced by the Negev Energy plant for the next 25 years, as determined by the tender process, will be at a price that is already as much as six times that of competing photovoltaic power plants.

It’s because, over the years — since the launch of the Israeli tender for the solar plants in 2008 and up-to the time when this type of electricity has actually come online — thermal solar technologies, once considered a key trend in renewable energy, have become outdated, and the costs of electricity production have remained static, whereas photovoltaic technology has advanced in strides. This has made electricity production from the photovoltaic panels much more efficient and thus much cheaper.

The Negev Energy thermal solar plant at Ashalim in the Negev is a 121MW plant that is seen as a key to Israel reaching its renewable energy target of 10 percent by 2020 (Shoshanna Solomon/Times of Israel)

When Israel issued the tenders to set up the solar power plants in Ashalim, the price of electricity produced by the thermal solar technology was almost identical to that produced by photovoltaic technology, at around NIS 1.0 ($0.28) per kilowatt hour (kWh). The tender price for electricity from the thermal solar Negev Energy plant was set at NIS 0.9 (or 90 agorot) per kWh, according to data provided by the Finance Ministry. This would be supplied at a fixed price to Israel Electric Corp., Negev Energy’s sole customer, for a period of 25 years.

It is standard in such tenders to ensure that there is a buyer for all of the electricity produced, otherwise the projects wouldn’t be able to raise the funding necessary to make them happen.

Meanwhile, because prices of photovoltaic energy have plunged, today competing plants using these technologies can sell electricity to Israel at prices as low as NIS 0.15 per kWh, according to The Electricity Authority. This increases the overall electricity costs for the end consumers.

In April, Calcalist reported that the total electricity cost for the consumer will rise by some 2% because of the higher costs of Israel’s two thermal solar energy plants.

At the time of bidding for the Ashalim tenders, the solar market in Israel was at its early stages, and electricity tariffs for solar power stations were about NIS 1 per kWh, the Finance Ministry said in an email to The Times of Israel. Thus, the most accurate way to compare prices is to look at the historical price, when the tender was closed, rather than compare the price currently received by plants using photovoltaic technology, the ministry said in an email.

“The solar tariff for photovoltaic solar power plants has been significantly reduced over the years and is the most prominent technology today, but solar thermal technology has advantages over photovoltaic technology as it enables energy storage, which helps manage the national electricity system by generating energy at the facility even during no-sun hours,” the ministry said.

A truck cleaning the thermal solar mirrors of the Negev Energy Ashalim plant from dust; Aug 29, 2019 (Avshalom Sasoni)

Steinitz also addressed the price issue on Thursday. “Today, photovoltaic technology is cheaper” than thermal solar energy, he said. But the situation was different when the tenders were finalized, he said. “And Israel is committed to what was decided and agreed upon,” as part of the tenders.

Had the government halted the tender, it would have had to pay billions of shekels in fines to the tender winners, Calcalist said in April.

Eran Doron, the mayor of the Ramat HaNegev Regional Council, said that the contribution the plant has had on the region, providing jobs to locals, both Jews, Muslims and Bedouin, and relocating some 140 engineers and technicians to the area, cannot be measured, he said.

“They say thermal solar energy is not relevant, but it is too early to say,” he added. “We are producing here energy till midnight.”

At the height of the construction work, some 1,300 employees worked at the plant, officials said, with some 300 coming from the local Bedouin community, who underwent training for the job. The plant today employs 70 workers.

Negev Energy is held by Shikun & Binui Renewable Energy, a subsidiary of Shikun & Binui group (50%), Noy Fund, which invests in infrastructure projects (40%) and TSK (10%). TSK sets up turn key projects and supplies technological solutions for power plants using both conventional and renewable resources.

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