Editor's Notes: The sun shines, again, on Luz

Israeli solar energy pioneers, are getting ready for a comeback.

By DAVID HOROVITZ
July 6, 2006 23:33

 
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Early in what, to this layman, is his largely impenetrable book on Moving Jewish Thought to the Center of Modern Science, the engineer-visionary-businessman Arnold Goldman writes a few sentences that I actually think I got my head around. He says that he is the only person he knows who disputes that 1+1 is always 2 or 1+1+1 are always 3. After all, two hydrogen molecules and one oxygen molecule, in the right environment, he explains, become not three but two water molecules. A puff of smoke can become an atmosphere. A small number of amoebas in a properly conditioned pond become a large number of amoebas. In short, he asserts, 1+1 is only 2, and 1+1+1 are only 3, when the entities involved do not interact. And that's not all. According to Goldman, all countable entities in our one universe do interact, directly or indirectly, with all other countable entities. So 1+1=2 and 1+1+1=3 "are just incorrect approximations based on a non-interaction assumption, sometimes good in practice, but never good in theory." Sweet, you might say. Oy, Goldman would respond. Or rather, as he puts it: "When I give my standard rebuttal to this [1+1=2] premise to those who have the patience to listen, at best, they will give a polite nod indicating that they think the example is cute. I have never received the desired reaction that 'you have really opened my eyes.'" Hence the book. The second book. Goldman's first book was an 18-year struggle entitled A Working Paper on Project Luz, whose completion accompanied the rise of the extraordinary firm he founded - the solar energy-pioneering Luz International. In its final days of operation, Luz was producing a staggering 90 percent of the solar energy-generated electricity in the world. At its height, it was employing 500 people in Israel and 2,500 in the US. Between 1984 and 1990 Luz built nine Solar Electrical Generating Systems (SEGS) in southern California, and was producing 2% of the area's energy needs with, says Goldman, the reasonable ambition to raise that to 10%. The solar-energy fields it built more than a decade and a half ago - two million square meters of glass, on four times as much land - remain the world's largest and most productive. Luz was, to properly use a devalued word, a unique company. For one thing, says Goldman, it built into its ethos "the fact that we were going to make mistakes. The only thing you could get fired for here was for not warning other members of the team that you'd discovered or even made a mistake that would result in a serious problem that had to be solved. "We knew that we were not perfect. Things were going to go wrong. The challenge was to fix them. And we did. We had this extraordinary mix of bright minds, cutting across scientific disciplines. And as a result, each of the new SEGS was 10% more effective than its predecessor. These SEGS were essentially laboratories. We were getting better each time." The key to Luz's success was the alliance of Goldman's vision with a team he assembled of young, Israeli innovators. "I'm 63 now, but I was the old guy even then," he smiles gently. "I was 35, 36. Most of the others were in their 20s, post-army." They were scientific and technical free-thinkers, pushing boundaries in that supportive environment constructed by Goldman where failure was just an obstacle on the route to success. As it prospered, Luz appeared poised to become the Israeli equivalent of Sweden's Volvo or Finland's Nokia - the manufacturer of a product of such earth-shaking impact as to become its home country's dominant, trademark firm. Except that, with Luz's product, energy from the sun, the sky truly was the limit, the potential as close to infinite as made no difference. But, like Icarus, Luz flew too high. To be competitive with conventional energy suppliers, it needed its solar fields to be exempt from property taxes. Such exemptions were guaranteed in California through 1990, but had to be legislated afresh for 1991. The firm assumed the extension would pass easily when the California state assembly approved it with over 90% of votes cast, and went ahead with the construction of its 10th plant, only to see the governor veto the bill as practically his last act in office, possibly under pressure from threatened conventional suppliers. Congress finally passed the exemption in 1991, but Luz, which had to spend $20m. a month to keep the construction project going, had run out of money a few months earlier. "The failure was shattering - financially, and personally," says Goldman, the most soft-spoken and self-effacing of geniuses. So shattering, indeed, that it has taken him a decade and a half to recover. But now Goldman is trying again. He's regathered much of the Luz team of old. He's putting together financing, having personally financed Luz II's quiet rise from the ashes over the past couple of years. He's written that second book as a kind of manifesto for getting things right this time. "I've spent 20 years analyzing what went wrong,' he says, implying that there was a deeper cause of failure than mere stalled legislation; that there was something more cosmically awry with Luz. "I'm probably wrong again," he says in that self-effacing way of his. "But I hope it won't collapse again. I had no choice, on a personal level, but to give it another try." IT IS no great surprise that a pioneer in so fundamental a field - connecting between the heavens and the earth - could become obsessed with the divine aspect of energy. Goldman comes from what he calls an assimilated Jewish background in Los Angeles. But he followed his first degree in engineering and his second in electrical engineering with a prolonged and profound study of Jewish texts, having been alerted to their relevance by an ex-priest he befriended. Having established what he says was the world's first word-processing firm in the late 1960s, Goldman came here from California in the late 1970s with his wife and three kids to develop and commercially apply his thoughts on the sources of energy - to benefit mankind ecologically, to boost Israel economically and, he readily acknowledges, to generate high incomes for his team and their financial backers. The company name he chose reflected the mindset: Luz is the biblical city where Jacob dreamed of a ladder ascending to heaven, the city that the patriarch renamed "Bet El" - the house of God. Goldman and his colleagues were building their own path up to the primary energy supply sustaining us, deepening the connection, maximizing the celestial resource. The company's success lay not in introducing revolutionary solar energy designs, he stresses, but in refining and improving existing designs to an unprecedented degree. "There are lots of elements to gathering light and reflection on glass," he notes with dry understatement. "You have to maximize the amount of sun hitting the panel and being collected into a heat pipe. A lot of light has to hit that heat pipe. In the case of our design, that heat pipe heated oil, which required high efficiency. There were innumerable issues to maximize." But Luz had a "terrific team - tight integration, great skills." Since the firm went belly up, lots of companies have been copying its old designs, he says. But his reassembled team is uniquely capable of taking the technology forward. "Basically no one else has done it since we died," he says. "No one has done anything of significance." GOLDMAN IS slight, bearded, earnest and intense. And his conversation is a mix of hard-headed business talk and mystical observation. One minute, he can be explaining the technical complexities of solar-field construction. The next, he is asserting that the Hanukka miracle of one day's jar of oil lasting the Maccabees for eight is easily explicable given the potential for greater maximizing of energy resources. And if that sounds relatively banal, he'll challenge your founding assumptions further: "How many times have you lost your keys," he asks me, " looked for them in a drawer, been sure that they weren't there, looked again a short while later and found them? Plenty of times, right? Well, things disappear all the time. The insistence that things are there all the time is a kind of idol worship." His second book, too, moves rapidly from earthy business lingo to cosmic contemplation, exploring the relationship between "consciousness and things," and featuring, for instance, a lengthy discussion as to why the linguistic sources of the Hebrew word for his prime resource, the sun - shemesh - proved a complicating factor in Luz's operations. But the proven business experience cannot be disregarded. Goldman built the first incarnation of Luz into a company with a $300m. annual turnover. He attracted some of the best minds this highly creative country can offer, and welded them into a peerlessly competitive operation. And now he's doing it again, with his sights set even higher. "The energy companies have become more efficient since Luz went out of business," says Goldman. "But we have improved and refined our technology. There are new materials. New applications. We had a $300m. turnover then? I expect 10 times that much now. Before, we were looking overwhelmingly at the US market. Today, because of the growing imperative for clean fuel, for renewable resources, the market is far wider. There's an international appetite, which offers the potential for inroads in Europe, in North Africa." The softness of his tone, the mildness of the body-language and the unflinching acceptance of the failure last time combine to make his confidence the more compelling. And there can be no doubting the grandness of the ambition. "We can produce energy less expensively and more cleanly than anyone else in the world,' he says with simple drama, walking me along the corridors of his empty new offices in Jerusalem's old Luz building, and pointing me towards a wall-sized color photo of one of those still-functioning Californian solar-energy fields. "If we reach our potential," he adds slowly, "we can produce energy in proportions never before visualized." Arnold Goldman is putting the group together again, Blues Brothers-style. "The Luz Brothers are back," he says disarmingly. If he has done his celestial sums right this time, the impact - for Israel, for the planet - could be truly dazzling.

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