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The tender for building a solar power plant in the Negev will not give preference to Israeli companies. The inter-ministerial tenders committee decided that foreign firms can participate in the tender without a local partner.

The decision was made, among other things, to avoid the impression that the tender was written for the benefit of the only two Israeli companies who could compete for the power station: Solel and Luz 2.

The cabinet hopes that this change will make the tender more attractive to international firms with experience in the solar energy industry, and that the new conditions will allow the setting of appropriate minimum requirements for professionalism and financial strength for the bidders on the project.

Minister of National Infrastructures Benjamin Ben-Eliezer recently announced that the first stage of the tender will likely be published next month.

The power plant, which will be located near Ashalim in the western Negev and produce 250 megawatts of electricity, will be Build-Operate-Transfer (BOT). The winning bidder builds the plant, operates it for the license period, and at the end of the franchise transfers full ownership to the state.

A number of foreign companies have already expressed interest in the project, including Spanish energy giant Abengoa.

The tenders committee, headed by the treasury's deputy accountant general, Avi Dor, will soon publish the first stage, which includes planning the project. The committee has already chosen the group of legal and financial advisors that will accompany the tender process. The committee intends to complete the entire tender process by the fourth quarter of 2008.

However, there are still a number of major issues left undecided, including the number of tenders to be published. There is a debate over whether there should be a single, overall tender for the total amount of power production, or two smaller ones. There are also questions regarding the timing and order of publication of the tenders.

But the real remaining question is which technology will be required for the power station: solar thermal or photovoltaic. The solar thermal method harnesses the sun's energy to heat a material, such as oil or water, from which it is possible to generate electricity, while the photovoltaic system transforms solar energy directly into electricity.

However, it also appears that even if one of the possible two tenders requires a photovoltaic system, the total amount of electricity from such a plant will not be over 50 megawatts, out of the total of 250 megawatts.