One on One: Reaching for the sun

BrightSource Energy founder recounts the rise and fall of his first major venture into solar energy.

goldman 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
goldman 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Following Arnold Goldman to a lot near his offices in Jerusalem's Har Hotzvim industrial zone to view a row of his solar panels, one wonders where the 65-year-old founder and chairman of BrightSource Energy - the parent company of Luz II - gets his own energy, if not from the sun. According to Goldman - whose first attempt at saving the world both ecologically and geopolitically took the form of Luz International - regrouping with his colleagues from the old days to "finish what we started" is "electrifying." Perhaps. Still, it takes a special kind of drive to be able pick up the pieces of a former failure, no matter how successful its initial run, or how much of its subsequent flop was due to forces beyond its control. That other forces have since emerged to create the right cultural and financial conditions for another go at it explains only part of Goldman's renewed passion for the project. Indeed, after an hour-long interview with the expat Californian who made aliya in the late 1970s with his wife and children, one gets the sense that he is ambitious beyond the norm - even for someone whose resume includes cofounding Electric Fuel and Lexitron (the first American word processing company), winning two international awards for his contribution to solar-energy development and authoring two books, A Working Paper on Project Luz and Moving Jewish Thought to the Center of Modern Science. So bold are his aspirations, in fact, that not only is he hoping to make his business successful (though he is that); nor is he merely bent on securing Israel's safety in the process (though he is that, too); he's actually got his heart and soul set on transforming the entire world. Tikkun olam's a tall order, indeed, as he himself acknowledges. Yet it's a goal he claims is achievable. "The technology and capability are there," he says, raising his otherwise quiet voice to express frustration. "It's the will that's lacking." Goldman - who holds a bachelor's degree in engineering from UCLA and a master's in electrical engineering from the University of Southern California - asserts that countries must drastically alter the ratio between their fossil-fuel and alternative-energy use. He likens what he considers overall resistance to doing so to the psychological block that characterized opposition to the Industrial Revolution. And this is why, he says, he isn't sure whether it will happen "in this cycle." Not that any such flickers of apprehension are making the slightest dent in Goldman's charging full speed ahead into a second try, mind you. Which may explain why he's retained the name Luz for the Israel-based BrightSource subsidiary - after the biblical city where Jacob dreamed of a ladder ascending to heaven. After all, dreaming and climbing seem to be the stuff Goldman is made of. Now all he needs is for the heavens to shine down on his efforts. What happened with Luz International - your first such endeavor - and what is Luz II all about? The first Luz, founded in 1980, was the attempt to define, design and put in place technology that could compete commercially in the American energy marketplace. Between 1984 and 1990, we built and installed nine solar power stations in California - in the Mojave Desert - which at the time constituted 90 percent of all solar electrical power delivered in the world. But to create that kind of record and capability, we had to be able to design products that were capable of providing energy at "avoidance costs" - costs that were established by the California Public Utility Commission for the electricity companies - in order to sell energy to them. We had to do this while making sure that investors got an acceptable return on their investments, and that we made a profit in designing, manufacturing and installing the equipment in the projects. Well, we were able to do that successfully nine times. When we got to the 10th project, we assumed that our investors from the previous projects would go along with this one, as well. And they might have, if we could guarantee the same fiscal conditions as before. However, the exemption for property tax we had enjoyed from the State of California ended in 1991. And solar and other renewable energy plants require working in a zero, or at least very low, property-tax environment in order to be economic. Why? Solar - or wind - energy is basically a fuel substitute. Like fuel, what solar thermal does is heat up water to make steam, which makes electricity. Unlike fuel, such as coal or gas or fossil - which when burned goes into the air, and therefore does not require property tax - solar energy requires a huge amount of solar-energy heat-producing equipment. In fact, large solar plants can have billions of dollars' worth of solar equipment. Equipment is considered "assets." And assets - unless expressly exempt - require property tax. Still, we decided to try to build the 10th project, because approximately 90% of the California State Assembly favored extending the property tax exemption. But, in his last few minutes in office, governor George Deukmejian vetoed the legislation, and this made it impossible for us to finance the 10th project. [Congress finally passed the exemption, but by that time, Luz had run out of money.] What is the logic of canceling a property tax exemption on a project that saves money in the long run? Wasn't it in California's interest to encourage such ventures? Yes, it was absolutely ridiculous. In California at the time, we employed about 2,500 people. That alone generated a lot of income and tax revenues. Beyond that, aside from the fact that solar energy doesn't create a "greenhouse effect" and doesn't make emissions, it's incredible for stabilizing cash flows, balance of payments and geopolitical influence. What happened in the interim since 1991 that brought you to where you are today? The Kyoto Protocol happened. [The Kyoto Protocol, agreed upon in 1997 and put into force in 2005, is a treaty under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, ratified by the European Union and other countries, requiring the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. The United States has not ratified it. Israel has.] When Europe really started pushing for clean energy, it created an atmosphere that influenced Californians. So, even though the US didn't adopt it, California - in sympathy - adopted a lot of its policy objectives, for example, requiring utility companies to put 20% of their portfolios toward renewable energy. In 2004, then, it looked like there was another opportunity for us to try and complete the work that we'd started years before. And the market was just so different this time. Wind had been quite successful in commercializing; utility companies now had departments that wanted to buy renewable energy; investment banks and major venture capital groups were funding such projects in a way that hadn't been in the '90s. In other words, now that renewable energy is the "in" thing, the time is ripe? Yes. And in the historic Luz, we had a collection of people who were trying to create a better world, while developing a good company and making a good living. At that time, we had a peak number of 500 people working for us in Israel. Over the years, we kept in close contact. And even though many of them are well-positioned, and some of them by now have their own companies, the idea of coming back together to finish what we'd started was electrifying. Indeed, a lot of people came back and put in so much know-how and capability into the organization that we were able to go out to the financial world and bring in [venture capital company] Vantage Point as a first investor. This enabled us to attract other prestigious investors, which gave us our start, and enabled us to bring in the historic team, as well as new talent. Most people are not familiar with the the whole science of solar energy, and think of it as a way to heat water for their showers from panels on their roofs. In this country, using solar power for anything else is foreign. Can you elaborate on how what you're doing is relevant to the average person? What we do is build very, very large solar-thermal fields, covering many, many dunams. A typical field might cover 4,000 dunams, for a 200-megawatt output. Solar-thermal systems use heat to make steam, and the steam drives a turbine generator, like that which is used in fossil-fuel stations. This gives the utility company the option of using solar energy to make electricity for the grid when the sun is shining, and to burn natural gas for the same purpose when it isn't, such as at night or in winter. Can't solar energy be stored "for a rainy day"? This is the focus of one of our research projects, which should be viable by our third or fourth project: to have additional solar fields that charge up melted salts or other heat-storage mechanisms in order to utilize stored heat to make steam when it's not sunny. Other than possibly being lucrative and environment-friendly, what advantage do solar fields have for the average consumer? Will they actually reduce electricity costs for the individual? Cost is really a complicated part of social structure. So, not only does solar energy work on global warming and air quality, but also on balance of payments and creation of jobs. In the US, the dollar has been grossly devalued, but a large part of that - maybe $500 billion a year - is petroleum-generated. Were cars to be pluggable - hybrids and electric - the balance of payments would be altered and dollars would be stronger. What about in Israel? In Israel, there are tariffs for solar energy - both roof-top and large-scale solar. But land constraints and other obstacles prevent the kind of large-scale solar projects necessary for developing solar energy cost-effectively. In order for there to be comparative costs between solar energy and natural gas at international prices, there would have to be cooperation with Jordan or Egypt, as well as credit for low emission and other even-playing-field policies put in place. Today, Israel anticipates getting a lot of its natural gas from Egypt, and I don't know the price structures, but in environments where policy and regulatory conditions are set up to give even-playing-field tax environments, the BrightSource second- and third-generation technology can basically compete with natural gas, which is what we're starting to do in California. But again, it has to be done on a very large scale. There has to be real commitment on the part of governments. Isn't the Knesset in the process of passing a law - like that of some countries in Europe - to encourage solar-energy use by offering citizens monetary reimbursement for any electricity they put back into the grid? Yes, many governments are beginning to come up with such legislation to encourage the private use of PV [photovoltaics] for homes. Do you consider that a hindrance to your own business venture? Not really. If you take the American market as an example, I think that if every household in the US were to have a PV on its roof, this would cover only about 10% of the electricity of the entire US. And clearly, nowhere near 100% of the homeowners will decide to install PV. According to a January 2008 Scientific American article, the US deserts have sufficient space for our kind of solar technology and others to provide up to 69% of the US's electrical needs. You mention that Israel has a size problem. The Negev is the largest, least-populated area in the country - and where you have set up your solar field here. Are you saying that it's not large enough? Well, what's been discussed for the Negev is putting in something like 1,500 megawatts. This would be significant, because Israel today has about 10,000 megawatts from the grid. Beyond that, however, for Israel not to have to use fossil fuel, it would have to rely on other nuclear sources, or on land-use and other forms of cooperation with other countries. Speaking of which, Luz II is based in Jerusalem, and its pilot plant is in the Negev. Are you an Israeli company or not? Luz II is a wholly-owned subsidiary of BrightSource, a US-based company that has overall corporate responsibility for the company, and is responsible for developing and financing projects in the US market, which is the center of our marketing efforts. Luz II's Israel branch does all the research, development and project engineering for the advanced solar-thermal technology of the plants. It acts as the system and project engineer for the entire project, and as the manufacture of the solar field, supplying all of the materials, logistics and quality controls, and will deal with some of the international sales to Europe from Israel. The plant we are dedicating today was basically designed, built and overseen by Israeli operations, which will validate its advanced technology, and ship equipment based on these designs to the US for projects being developed by BrightSource. Will you be selling your technology to Arab countries? There are potential opportunities there, but sensitivities, as well, of course. We have had some discussions about this and concluded that if any such deals were to take place, they would have to be done through the US company. What about the Palestinian Authority? The PA is both small and complicated, but at some point could be relevant, in the framework of a potential joint project with Jordan or Egypt - something which hopefully could happen some day. Where the bigger picture is concerned, however, there is much potential for European-African solar-energy cooperation, which could serve to industrialize many African countries. And it's hard to have dictatorial regimes where there's a complex industrialized society. Speaking of dictatorial regimes, what about the leaders of Arab countries, whose power rests on oil? Clearly, they would be the last to support alternative energy projects around the world, correct? That's precisely the point - and the reason other countries should be looking to alternative energy as a solution. And in spite of all the technology and capability that exist, no country in the world is making a commitment to make the transition at a transformational level - one that would alter security and geopolitical realities. Do you actually believe that if such a transformation were made, the world would no longer be dependent on oil at all? That's an exaggeration. The goal is to drastically reduce oil consumption, so as to alter the current balance.The fact is that 5,000 times more solar energy is generated every day than the world consumes. It's universally available and economically competitive. It simply has to be more intelligently balanced with fossil fuel. That kind of world is possible. But it requires making changes. One is legislating and mandating the use of pluggable hybrid and electric cars. A pluggable hybrid car with a good-sized battery range would reduce the fuel consumption of average vehicles by 70%-80%. This would reduce the need for petroleum so dramatically that countries like the US would be producing their own petroleum and wouldn't have to import it. And a country like Israel could become almost totally electrified. This not only reduces pollution, but makes the demand for - and therefore the price of - petroleum go way down. This, in turn, reduces the adversarial effect of all those petrodollars that are feeding the terrorists. But once the price of petrol goes down, doesn't that create incentive for the consumer to use it? That's exactly why such a move requires legislative and regulatory action. When you are faced with statutory requirements for environmental reasons, and you have the infrastructure for electrical cars available, you don't use the oil. The same goes for power stations. You make coal clean by socializing toward clean standards, and making them mandatory for all technologies. Legislative and regulatory action constitutes interference with market forces. Isn't that bad for the economy? But the economy that's in place now has been legislated! The whole fossil-fuel business has been subjected to protected monopolies and vested interests. For example, roads are usually paid for by sources other than the car industry, and land right-of-ways are provided by government decree, using the public air as a sewer for emission - for free. These and many more benefits are built-in interferences in the market that favor fossil fuel. This is also true in the area of bio-fuels, as in the case of the farmers in Iowa. They got all these subsidies for their ethanol-producing corn fields, due to the perception that this was a good fossil-fuel replacement. In fact, from an ecological point of view, it's pointless, because of the amount of fossil fuel and carbon-burning needed to produce the ethanol versus how much energy ethanol yields. So, why do you think this is? Because there are two senators per state. Iowa is one such state - the one that holds the first primary election. This is a case of managing interests. A fair managing of these interests, in a manner that meets the country's current social and political agenda - not just its historical one - would yield very different results. Every shift ends up having negative consequences, as well as positive ones. Industry created pollution. What might be some negative consequences of moving over to renewable energy? The using up of a lot of open spaces - desert land - is one example. We've all witnessed technological advances that we previously would have considered more like science fiction than in the realm of the possible. In 10 years, what developments of this sort will there be in the field of solar energy? The real shifting is probably not going to happen within 10 years. I mean, you can imagine this stuff getting more efficient and cheaper. But, in order for there to be the kind of advancement that you're talking about, there has to be a major shift in will. So far, there's been no serious movement in will. To what do you attribute this lack of movement and will? Inertia. The desire to keep things largely the way they are. There's resistance to change, because change involves a relocation of work, power, money, decision-making... Are you saying that when you tell people they soon will be pulling into charging stations to plug in their cars, instead of into gas stations to fill up their tanks, you encounter resistance? It's not so much the individual. But you see, what about all the people working in gas stations, for example? They hear that, and think it means they will be out of jobs. Haven't people throughout history always been initially afraid about becoming redundant when faced with modernization - such as in factories, when new machinery is introduced, or in offices, with the advent of the computer - but then discover that other jobs are created as a result? Absolutely. But the difference between the kind of modernizations you are referring to, such as word processors, got introduced into offices one by one, while renewable energy requires a structural change within an existing environment. A structural change like the Industrial Revolution? Exactly. And just as with the Industrial Revolution, jobs were not merely lost; others were created. And even more jobs. But people are fearful of such changes, and there will be a lot of dislocation when moving over to renewable energy. Institutional changes take either revolutions or Putins or tremendous cooperation with real institutional support. So, I think at the personal level, there are a lot of people who would welcome the change-over to reduced fossil-fuel dependence, but there's all this resistance on the part of institutions that want to protect their jobs and positions - and they're thinking: "Let it happen in the next generation, not mine." Nevertheless, the Industrial Revolution did take place. Do you believe that such a revolution will take place in the field of renewable energy? On the one hand, you say it has to, and on the other, you sound pessimistic. I think that it will. I hope for my own psyche and satisfaction that it will happen in this cycle, but I can't tell. There's a lot of momentum. Whether it's enough momentum is not clear. But I believe that it only has to happen in one significant place, and then others will follow its example. Which significant place do you have in mind - the US? Actually, I think Israel could be significant as a mindframe-setter. I mean, Israel is the third largest center in the world for international media. Were it to set such an example, it would get massive coverage, which would expose this transformational opportunity to others, who might then follow suit.