Ormat's innovation energizes geothermal technology

Ormat Industries operates numerous power plants around the world, reducing dependence on fossil fuels and making an impact in the fight against global warming.

Ormat power plant 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Ormat power plant 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Israel has little or no fossil fuel resources, so the idea of clean energy technologies, such as those that would tap the country's plentiful sun or windy hilltops, have always been appealing. Indeed, it was sun technology that was originally the research focus of a French immigrant named Lucien Yehuda Bronicki when he arrived in Israel in the 1960s. But Bronicki and his wife Dita found that their way to a multibillion corporation lay in an energy resource that doesn't even exist in Israel - geothermal energy, or the generation of electricity from the hot magma below the surface of the Earth. Today, their company, Ormat Industries, is the world leader in geothermal technology, and operates numerous power plants around the world, reducing dependence on fossil fuels and making an impact in the fight against global warming. "Geothermal seems to be a small application - it certainly doesn't get as much exposure as wind and solar these days," said Dita Bronicki, who now serves as Chief Executive Officer of Ormat Industries, which is traded on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange, as well as of Ormat Technologies, a subsidiary that is traded on the New York Stock Exchange. "But in those places where geothermal energy exists it is certainly the solution of choice for renewable energy." Bronicki was speaking at a London conference on clean energy last month. She later spoke to The Jerusalem Post in an interview discussing Ormat's being named one of the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange's five leading companies. "Ormat is one of the leading companies in the geothermal power sector, and we hope to continue to be a leader in alternative energy development, setting an example for other companies to follow," she told the Post. The geothermal option has a distinct advantage over wind and solar power when it comes to pricing. The cost of solar energy, using photovoltaic cells, ranges above 20 cents per kilowatt hour (kWh), though the price is expected to drop as volume increases. Geothermal is on the other side of the spectrum, with a cost of anywhere between 6-10 cents per kWh, a price at which it is competitive with fossil fuel alternatives such as oil, gas, and clean coal technology (though polluting coal is still far cheaper). Geothermal also has the advantage of being a dependable source of energy, and is not dependant on weather conditions or time of day. But what geothermal is dependant on is location. Almost all viable geothermal locations are part of the Pacific "ring of fire," a large geographical entity including the eastern coast of Asia, the American West Coast and western South America. Ormat's chief focus has been on the American West, where both demand and opportunities are widely available. Ormat geothermal power plants around the outskirts of Reno, Nevada supply all the residential electricity consumption in the city. The Ormat business model is one of vertical integration - where the company is fully involved in all steps of the process, from technological research to equipment production to power plant construction, and even operating the power plants on a long-term basis. Ormat's plants are operated on power-purchase agreements, where local power companies agree to pay a fixed rate for Ormat's power over a number of years - generally 20-25 years. "A year ago, people asked me 'why are you contracting out all your energy, you are losing out on the upside of the fuel price changes?' and my answer at that point was 'we want the stability, we want the certainty, we want the peace of mind,'" said Bronicki. "Well, today we do have that peace of mind." The fact that the power is fully contracted is certainly a comforting thing in these days of dropping energy prices. The contracts guarantee Ormat a secure cash-flow stream not only for operating needs, but for future growth, as well. Aside from geothermal energy production, Ormat applies the same technology to a different application - recovered energy generation, which takes heat that would otherwise be wasted from sources including industrial processes like cement-making or from gas turbines such as those along natural gas pipelines and generates electricity from that heat without burning additional fuel. This process, which can be viewed as essentially energy conservation or efficiency rather than renewable energy production, can be even more profitable than geothermal, but its applicability is limited to very specific situations. Ormat's business model places a greater emphasis on electricity generation than on equipment production - three quarters of Ormat's business revenue is from power plants which it owns. "Many of the power plants we have acquired are plants which we built years ago, when we were not as rich a company and we could not afford to own our power plants," said Bronicki. Ormat currently has 392 MW of geothermal and 22 MW of recovered energy under operation, and, in addition, has approximately 160 MW of capacity under construction and between 200 and 250 MW under exploration and development which will come online in the next 4 years. The other quarter of Ormat's revenue segment is manufacturing. Ormat manufactures equipment which is sold to power plants and even sells complete power plants. It is particularly in this area that Ormat benefits from being the most established and recognized player in the field, with a substantial global reach. Bronicki estimated the total supply of power from Ormat-built geothermal units to be around 1,000 MW. That is quite significant in a sector of about 10 GW (10,000 MW) worldwide and whose total theoretically viable capacity is estimated at some 50 GW. But a new technology called EGS, or enhanced geothermal systems, which will allow access to areas where underground heat is accessible but the water used for traditional geothermal production is not available, may revolutionize the field. If this technology - which is being researched by academics and private companies including Ormat - can become feasible, the world potential for production would jump phenomenally to some 200 GW, according to a recent MIT estimate. One of the reasons behind the growth of geothermal energy is the tax incentives and subsidies made available by governments. In fact, the recent "bailout bill" which was passed in the US Congress included a quiet provision which extended renewable energy incentives of 2 cents per kWh for a number of years. Similar legislation exists in Europe, as well. The recent drawback of fossil fuel prices from previous highs doesn't concern Bronicki, either. "Are you concerned about $75 oil?" asked one investor at the London conference, at a time when such a price was considered a gross exaggeration. "No, I'm not concerned," she replied. "Even at $60 - or even $50 - renewable energy is competitive without the incentives. "If oil would go down to $12 a barrel, like it did in the late 90's, then the price might outweigh the environmental concerns for some."