The sun does shine in Israel

Just because there are no solar power plants here doesn't mean there are no local companies with the experience to build them.

solar 88 (photo credit: )
solar 88
(photo credit: )
The decision by the Ministry of National Infrastructure to lock out Israeli companies from bidding on a private tender to build a solar plant in the Negev comes straight from Chelm. The ministry's claim that "no Israeli company has the required experience," as reported in the The Jerusalem Post, belies the truth beyond comprehension. I am sitting here in my office in Jerusalem's Har Hotzvim Tech Park, looking at a rendering of the solar power plants built in California by LUZ in the late '80s. Until this day, those plants produce 354MW of solar power, enough to provide electricity to a city the size of Washington, DC. Until it closed in the early '90s, LUZ had about 500 employees in Israel and four to five times as many in California, all busy constructing plants for Southern California Edison for use during peak power demand times. Those plants - which represented 95% of all of the solar power produced worldwide at the time - were conceived by brilliant young Israeli engineers directed by the visionary leadership of the founder of the company, Arnold Goldman (who, among his many achievements, was also the creation of word processing as we know it today). When the company ran into financial difficulty and was forced to close, its technology was transferred to Solel, now operating in Beit Shemesh, so that spare parts for existing plants continue to be produced on a regular schedule. Solel has since developed its own business model, but the coating of the central receiver pipes for the fields in California continues to be produced in the original LUZ building here in Jerusalem. THE Post article notes that "There are currently no solar power plants in Israel, rendering all Israeli companies ineligible to apply, unless they join forces with foreign companies." And why are there no solar power plants in Israel, given the fact that it was Israeli technology that brought the concept to operational levels in the '80s? Perhaps because, as is the case regarding building sorely needed desalination plants, strategic thinking is simply not a strong point within our governmental hierarchy. I vividly recall a visit to Israel in the late '80s by the then chair of the California Energy Commission, along with a group of California legislators. At a presentation at the Rabin Power Station in Hadera (then called "Maor David"), the commission chairman asked, "How come there are no solar power stations in Israel, when the Israelis are building such plants in California?" The response of the spokesperson for the IEC was typically Israeli, "Well, they work in California. When they work in Israel we will build them in Israel." There was some further progress... almost. At a gala dinner at the Inbal Hotel (formerly the LaRomme) during that period, an agreement was signed with the Israel Electric Corp. to build Israel's first solar power station in the Negev. In attendance were a host of dignitaries, including representatives of various suppliers of LUZ who were looking forward to additional sales as a result. On the way out of the hotel after the dinner, I overheard two IEC executives talking. One said to the other, "Nice dinner, but the plant will never get built." Clearly it was not in the interest of the public power producer in Israel to shift away from fossil fuels. No experience in building solar plants? Well, LUZ, which successfully built nine operating plants, is back in business now as LUZ II (a BrightSource Energy Company) and clearly has the capacity and financial backing to build utility scale solar projects. No solar power plants in Israel? Well, whose strategic mistake was that? Certainly not the private sector's.They had the capability and interest to do this 20 years ago but the government simply could not see the forest for the trees. Seems as if nothing has changed given the Ministry of National Infrastructure's insistence, even today, that "no Israeli company has the required experience to offer a bid." Chelm personified. The writer, president of Atid EDI Ltd., a Jerusalem-based economic development consulting firm, from 1985-1990 was a vice president of Luz Industries Israel Ltd.