Solar power makes a big jump with new Negev project

Israel’s most ambitious renewable energy project will supply electricity for businesses in Eilat and beyond, says expert

A solar project in the Negev  (Photo credit: Courtesy)
A solar project in the Negev (Photo credit: Courtesy)

Israel is pressing ahead with developing alternative power sources like solar energy, despite the prospect of cheaper electricity rates, an expected benefit of the huge natural gas finds off the country’s shore. On Monday, a tender for the development and operation of the first phase of what is set to be the largest-ever solar energy field in Israel was announced by the Eilat-Eilot Renewable Energy Initiative.

The tender for the construction of a new 50 megawatt photovoltaic (PV) solar tracker energy system is set to be issued in October by the Israel Lands Administration (ILA), which owns the 1,000 dunam (247 acre) plot of land on which the PV field will be built in the Arava desert, about 28 km (18 miles) north of Eilat. It’s a state of the art tracker system, which moves the PV panels in accordance with the sun’s orientation, and it’s expected to come on line in 2016. This is the first of three tenders that will be issued over the next several years. When completed by the end of the decade, the entire project will produce 170 mw of electricity from the sun’s rays.

To lend some scale, said Dorit Davidovich-Banet, director of Eilat-Eilot, “all the industry and business in the industrial parks from Eilat to the Sedom Junction (about 150 kilometers north of Eilat) use 160 mw of electricity.” Existing solar fields in the Negev already produce 64 mw of power, so “we will be able to more than adequately supply the region with electricity when the entire system comes online,” she said.

At least half a dozen large international energy concerns have already said that they will bid on the project, said Davidovich-Banet. Among them is likely to be Arava Power Company, co-founded by partners David Rosenblatt, Ed Hofland and Yosef Abramowitz. Despite misgivings about the potential of the solar business in Israel due to government mismanagement and Abramowitz’s recent embracing of the solar industry in Africa (Energiya Global Capital, of which Abramowitz serves as CEO, currently supplies nearly 10% of electricity in Rwanda), Davidovich-Banet said that Arava Power “is set to bid on the project.” The reports of Arava Power abandoning the Israeli solar business “are just not true.”

Dorit Davidovich-Banet (Photo credit; Courtesy)
Dorit Davidovich-Banet (Photo credit: Courtesy)

The new Timna Solar Park will actually be doing double environmental duty, said Davidovich-Banet. Besides producing clean energy, the project finds a use for land that is utterly unsuitable for any other purpose. “It’s located on land that was part of the Timna Mines, but the mines on that parcel are now defunct,” she said. Given the large amount of empty space in the area and the parcel’s proximity to currently-operating mines, there wasn’t much demand or use for the space. By issuing the tender, the ILA is putting land that would otherwise be “wasted” to good use, said Davidovich-Banet.

With trillions of cubic feet of natural gas waiting to be exploited, it would seem an odd time for Israel to be renewing its alternative energy efforts, and for the ILA to undertake such an ambitious project. Solar is clean, with none of the by-products associated with fossil fuels, and we’re unlikely to run out of it anytime soon — but what about the cost? Wouldn’t it make more sense to exploit the cheaper gas, and build the renewable infrastructure when it makes more sense economically?

Davidovich-Banet has answers. That plan might very well make sense, she said, if gas were indeed cheaper than solar. “The cost of production of electricity from the sun is almost at a par with the cost of production from gas, when all the costs are taken into account,” Davidovich-Banet said, noting that Israelis can expect solar-generated electricity to come in at about 45 agorot (12¢) a kilowatt hour. The Israel Electric Company’s current residential rate averages out at about 50 agorot a kwh, depending on season. In Europe, gas-produced electricity comes in at a bit more than coal-produced, but it’s expected that the gas production cost for power in Israel will be somewhat lower than the current prices, which are based on coal, because of the lower rates the IEC will be paying for gas than European energy firms pay for their gas.

But that nominal price for gas-produced electricity ignores the very significant costs of protecting the gas installations, Davidovich-Banet said. To protect the fields, the Israeli Navy will have to deploy significant forces, as the platforms are vulnerable to attack by enemy warships — or terrorist frogmen. “It’s true the government is paying for those costs,” she said, “but it is still a drain on the national economy. You don’t have that problem with solar.”

In fact, the kwh cost for solar-produced electricity will also be a bit higher than the nominal cost Davidovich-Banet presented — closer to 60 agorot (18¢) a kwh. That’s because the project is trailblazing yet another innovation in Israeli solar electricity production, said Davidovich-Banet. “Often a solar system will have a backup system to produce electricity when the sun isn’t shining, and in many places they use natural gas for this.” But the Timna fields will be using stored heat to push electrical turbines during the “off-peak” hours (nighttime and cloudy days) when the PV panels take a production break.

“This method is used in many places in the world, but this is the first time it will be used in Israel,” said Davidovich-Banet, describing the storage system which takes excess heat produced during sunny periods and collects it in a special generator, which releases it when needed to produce electricity. “Electric companies like this system better than a gas or coal backup, because they are in control of when it is used and don’t have to rely on external supplies to keep the power going,” she said.

The project has generated excitement among Israelis involved in the renewable energy business. According to Eitan Parnass, director-general of the Green Energy Association of Israel, “The Timna Solar Park will substantially increase Israel’s renewable energy production and will play an important role in diversifying the country’s energy mix. This project also holds the potential to serve as the basis for international cooperation throughout the region with connectivity and supply of solar energy to the national grids of neighboring countries.”

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