David Faiman - Eliyahu Hershkovitz - 07102011
Prof. David Faiman in front of his solar panels at the National Solar Energy Center at Sde Boker. Photo by Eliyahu Hershkovitz
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Ilan Assayag
Field of curved solar panels in Kvutzat Yavne, September 11, 2011. Photo by Ilan Assayag

A scientist who immigrated from the U.K. and became one of Israel's top solar-power researchers is spearheading efforts to push the country into a new age. Prof. David Faiman, the director of Israel's National Solar Energy Center at Sde Boker, says the government must immediately invest in major solar energy infrastructure projects, coupled with a public relations push to convince the populace of their necessity.

Faiman moved to Israel right before the Yom Kippur war and says the subsequent Arab oil boycotts convinced him the country must embrace alternative energy, specifically that drawn from the sun, which he has spent the last decades of his career working to harness.

Faiman believes Israel is far from reaching its goal of 10 percent energy from renewable sources by 2020, and called the recent inauguration of a five megaWatt solar field at Kibbutz Ketura a drop in the bucket compared to the country's swiftly developing energy needs.

A professor of physics at Ben-Gurion University's Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research and chair of the Department of Solar Energy and Environmental Physics, Faiman has one solution, curved solar panels that minimize the economic and environmental cost of producing solar power, one of the biggest barriers to the field's development.

Recently, Kvutzat Yavneh, a kibbutz east of Ashdod, adopted a new solar technology inspired by Faiman's ideas. This year, the technology was exported to South Korea, and next year there are plans to ship the panels to Italy and China. The improved panels promise higher energy yields, reduced land use, lower per-unit costs and less environmental damage.

Faiman was born in Amersham, a small town outside of London, as German bombs were being dropped on British cities during World War II. He says he always wanted to be a successful physicist and attained physics degrees in the U.K. and the U.S., crowned by a post-doctorate at Oxford University. But at the same time, Faiman, who grew up in a Zionist home, says he kept looking toward Israel.

"I feel extremely privileged to have been born at a time and in a place that have enabled me to be part of a Jewish nation with a state of its own," he said.

Although Faiman had long pondered immigrating, it was his star-cross'd encounter with an Israeli actress performing a run in England with the Royal Shakespeare Company that sealed the deal for him.

That woman, Ofra, became his wife, and Faiman accompanied her back to Israel, just shy of 30, on the eve of the Yom Kippur War. Ofra went on to act and direct in Israel, while raising the couple's three children.

Faiman specialized in nuclear physics and worked for CERN - the European Organization for Nuclear Research, before immigrating to Israel to work with the Weizmann Institute.

But the Arab oil embargo that followed the Yom Kippur War jolted Faiman into rethinking his research in light of national needs.

"I did a lot of soul-searching as to what would be the most useful way I could use my scientific training. The subsequent oil crisis and Ben-Gurion University's decision to establish the Blaustein Institute helped me crystallize my scientific future," says Faiman. "At Sde Boker, I became a born-again 'Ziontist'."

Today, Faiman is at the forefront of developing the next generation of renewable energy systems, certain that Israel must turn to solar solutions. "I like to think that our grandchildren will find it hard to believe that we lived in a world in which electricity was not generated mainly from solar energy," says Faiman. "Just as my own grandfather, who was born in Russia in 1872, once expressed amazement to me that most people no longer know how to ride a horse."

Faiman is concerned about the effects that the country's consumption and population growth rates will have on Israel's energy requirements and its announced target of ten per cent renewables by 2020. "This straight line that has been rising for last 20 years at a rate close to two billion kiloWatt hours per year, reached 60 billion last year. What that means is, ten years from now, in the year 2020, we are going to be at close to 80 billion," says Faiman.

The ten per cent goal, out of a projected total of 80 billion, is eight billion, and with ten years to arrive at that figure, that would mean mandating an annual increase of 0.8 billion kiloWatt hours produced per year. "0.8 every year means something like 400 megaWatts of installed capacity. Nobody ever built a 400 megaWatt photovoltaic plant anywhere in the world. Nobody ever built even a 100 megawatt plant! So we actually have to build photovoltaic plants every year at four to five times the largest plant that's ever been built," says Faiman. "That's the meaning of ten per cent renewables."

The main reason that solar technologies have not yet been adopted en masse, in Israel and around the world, is that up until now the cost of producing electricity using solar panels has exceeded the cost of producing electricity by burning fossil fuels. Faiman and his colleagues hit upon a novel method for reducing panel production costs: separating the two functions of collecting energy and converting energy.

Although collection surfaces must be large, in order to catch as many solar rays as possible, Faiman realized that the "wafers" which convert these solar rays into electricity needn't be. By bending the panel into a parabolic dish and re-focusing all the sun's rays onto a small receiver only one-thousandth the size of the dish, Faiman's model minimizes the size of the most economically and ecologically expensive component of the panel.

Ordinarily, focusing so much solar energy onto a such a small area would burn the solar converter, rendering it useless. But Faiman hit upon another idea to turn that liability into an advantage. By running water or some other liquid over the solar converter, the radiated surfaces are cooled down to manageable levels. The heat energy absorbed by that liquid is then transferred to water stored in large tanks, making it unnecessary to use electricity or burn fossil fuels to heat running water.

At the program's pilot project at Kvutzat Yavneh, water pumped from the panels into a 5000 gallon storage system actually exceeds 80 degrees Celsius and needs to be cooled significantly before it can even be pumped into kibbutz members' homes for domestic comsumption.

Since 2009, Israeli company Zenith Solar has been making Faiman's ideas a physical reality, assembling the solar panel kits in a Kiryat Gat factory. Company co-founder and CEO Roy Segev says that by using the CHP technology - which stands for 'combined heat and power' - the panels are able to reach efficiencies of over 70%, as opposed to conventional PV panels, which record efficiencies of only between 10 and 15 per cent.

In addition to harvesting much more energy from a smaller space, which preserves precious land resources, Segev says that far less landfill is produced from their waste.

"The majority of the materials here are mirrors, plastic, metals, etc," says Segev. "They are 99% recyclable." Most importantly for most people, the CHP panels will soon be able to produce energy at parity with conventional energy sources, says Segev. "If we get these machines at mass production - not millions of machines, but rather at a rate of 500 to 1000 units a month - they would generate energy at less than 10 cents U.S. per kiloWatt hour."

Despite the impressive performance of Zenith's panels and the contracts they've signed with buyers abroad, the Israeli government has yet to invest in a large-scale solar power production plant, using CHP or any other technology. "It would be very nice if we were to back a local industry, rather than imported industry," says Faiman, but he stresses that Israel's solar energy needs are so great that there is plenty of business to go around. "I don't want to put the importers out of business. On the contrary, I want to give them so much business, they'll have money coming out of their ears."

In the current economic climate, it may prove difficult to convince government officials to invest in long term renewable energy infrastructure for the country. It may take a public education campaign to create a shift in consciousness and a groundswell of support for Faiman's plan. "We pay taxes, and out of our taxes, things which are perceived as being the common good are paid for, such as roads and schools and defense, you name it, all of the things that enable life to be tolerable," says Faiman. "If energy independence were to be considered a public good or a national strategic priority, then it could be paid for with our taxes."