Sde Boker Makes Solar Energy Viable

The afternoon Negev sun shone brightly on the solar panels at the National Center for Solar Energy near Sde Boker. The center's director, physicist Prof. David Feiman, squinted into the light. "After 30 years of research on solar energy, my life's work of experiments in how to produce electricity from the sun, I can say this year that I know how to manufacture solar energy that will compete with conventional energy," he says.

A few months ago, the center's scientists managed to develop a new technology of solar, or photovoltaic cells, that Feiman says will make the production of solar energy so efficient that the cost of the photovoltaic cells that convert solar energy into electricity will be negligible.

In an ordinary solar panel of the type in use today, the silicon that makes up the cells is very expensive, making it a costly product. According to Feiman, photovoltaic cells carry out two functions: First, they change the light into electricity, their essential task; second, they store the light.

"The principle is to focus the light using little material," Feiman says. "We constructed a large, parabola-shaped glass plate. It not only absorbs the light, it also focuses it on one point, a thousand times more than regular sunlight."

According to Feiman, "an ordinary photovoltaic cell, which is 10 by 10 centimeters, normally produces one watt of electricity. We managed to extract more than a thousand times more - 1,500 watts. In this way, the cost of a cell is 1,500 less, becoming almost nothing."

"No one has ever produced so much electricity from a solar cell at this strength," he says.

The Solar Energy Center is now collaborating with an Israeli start-up company, Zenith Solar, to create a home system of solar cells based on this technology within about a year. "What is good for the home is also good for the country," Feiman says.

Israeli solar energy technology is already used extensively in power stations throughout the world. At the center at Sde Boker, which belongs to the Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, two solar panels are installed, each one about 100 meters long, moving in synch with the sun. An oil pipe is at the center. The panels, built by Sollel, a Beit Shemesh company, are not based on photovoltaic cells, but rather focus the light on the pipe, causing it to heat up. Heat produced by panels of this type turn into steam, which moves turbines.

Last month, Sollel signed a contract with the U.S. company PG&E, to build the largest power station in the world, in the Mojave desert in California, which will have about 7,000 such panels and will cover about 14 square kilometers. It is due to go into service in about four years, providing 553 megawatts of electricity.

The British-born Feiman has lived at Midreshet Sde Boker since 1976, when he began researching solar energy. A world expert in the field, he says the economic model he has built will allow a significant part of Israel's energy to go solar within the decade.

"We're paying about 10 cents per kilowatt/hour. If the government taxes the Electric Corporation one cent per kilowatt/hour, it will amount to about a half billion dollars a year. In a decade, we won't need any outside funding. If we want to solve Israel's energy problems, we should stop building conventional power stations and build a solar power station every year of one gigawatt - equal to two of the type of station Sollel is building in California."

The National Infrastructure Ministry said it would "soon be determining electricity rates for home photovoltaic systems. At present, the parties are working on removing obstacles that have to do with land use."

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