PV Program Called 'Ineffective'

A government plan to take advantage of Israel's abundant sunlight to produce energy in a non-polluting and renewable manner has been described as misguided and ineffective by experts in the field. Launched with much fanfare on July 1, the program aims to promote the widespread use of photo-voltaic (PV) panels by households and businesses to generate electricity. As an incentive, the surplus electricity that is generated but not used will be purchased by the Israel Electric Corporation (IEC) at a large mark-up over standard electricity rates. But critics say the initiative is more of a gimmick than a serious plan. They claim that the 2.01 shekels per kilowatt-hour price offered for the surplus electricity is so far in excess of the 0.48 shekels the IEC charges consumers that if a significant amount of electricity were to be generated under the plan, a staggering state subsidy would be required. Moreover, they claim that typical PV panels take up 10 square meters, too large to be easily installed on most home rooftops. A commercial enterprise willing to cover a sufficiently large area with PV panels might be able to take up the IEC's electricity purchase offer and make a profit, but the plan limits each supplier to PV panels with 50 kilowatt capacity. Homes are limited to 15 kilowatts. With annual electricity consumption in Israel approaching 10,000 megawatts and the IEC projecting a major increase in demand over the next decade, the overall cap of 50 megawatts included in the PV incentive plan looks pitifully small, say the critics. One of the first customers to sign up for the plan, Applied Materials, a manufacturer of equipment for the semiconductor industry, was reported to be installing PV panels generating 300-350 kilowatts on the rooftops of the company's three buildings in the Rehovot Science Park. A company employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told The Report that the decision had "nothing at all to do with the IEC's incentive plan" and "was taken as long ago as January, inspired by a similar initiative at an Applied Materials plant in the United States." She scoffed at media reports that the solar panels will provide the company's Rehovot buildings with all their electricity needs as well as a surplus. "Solar panels won't cover more than a small fraction of the electricity we need," she said. Prof. David Faiman, a world expert on PV cells and a researcher at Ben-Gurion University's Blaustein Institutes at Sde Boker, is convinced that any attempt at producing electricity on a national scale using current PV technology is misguided. He compares the panels to an item more familiar on the Israeli skyline, the solar water heater. "The typical Israeli solar water heater takes up two square meters on a rooftop, generates 2000 kilowatt-hours per year, and pays for itself within five years, with no subsidy," he points out. "With 1 million solar heaters installed on Israeli roofs, that translates into savings equal to about 4 percent of the IEC's annual output." A PV panel, in contrast, can produce 1,500 kilowatt-hours annually, less than the solar water heater, even though it takes up five times as much space. "Let's assume that there is sufficient space on Israeli roofs to hold 1 million PV panels - which is very doubtful." continues Faiman. "Then the amount of electricity the country would produce by solar energy would be only 3 percent of annual consumption - not a big deal. And because a PV panel can cost $10,000 to install, without a subsidy the average Israeli would not get a return on the investment until nearly 70 years have passed. A serious national subsidy would cost the state billions of dollars - enough to replace all of the IEC." Faiman is currently experimenting on methods to boost the efficiency of PV cells significantly, and reports he is seeing breakthroughs in his work, enough to make him hopeful that one day Israel will be able to generate its electricity needs through PV farms in the Negev. But that day is years away, and, for now, he recommends looking elsewhere for alternative energy sources. In response to the criticisms, Dr. Ilan Suliman, vice chairman of the Public Utility Authority, which initiated the plan together with the Infrastructure Ministry, says that the incentive program must be regarded as only the "first stage" of a broader plan. "We are talking about the introduction of new technology to the market, with a new set of technical and safety standards," he tells The Report. "This has to be done in a gradual process. We also limited the amount of PV panels per customer in order to ensure that this is adopted in a decentralized and widespread manner. We have already registered broad interest in PV technology on the part of the public, and we are confident that, along with other solar-thermal ways of generating electricity, future stages will bring about greater and greater use of renewable energy sources for Israel's electricity."