from the September 2007 issue

California utility to buy power generated by solar array

Israeli company Solel, which develops and implements solar thermal technology, has signed a contract with Pacific Gas and Electric Company to build the world's largest solar plant in California's Mojave Desert.. The utilitiy will purchase 550 megawatts of solar power to be generated by troughlike arrays of mirrors spread over nine square miles in the Mojave Desert.

The purchase, one of the largest ever of solar power, will help the utility meet California's aggressive mandate: namely that utilities have enough renewable sources online or under contract to supply one-fifth of the electricity they sell by 2010. The new solar plant is expected to begin producing energy in 2011 or 2012. This contract, along with similar ones recently signed by Southern California Edison, represents the resurrection of thermal solar arrays, a technology first deployed in the 1980s that failed in the 1990s because of the collapse in the price of natural gas.

But with the price picture shifting and state mandates for renewable energy spreading, an Israeli company, Solel Solar Systems of Beit Shemesh, is betting that this technology will now pay off. The approach may lack the appeal of the more familiar rooftop photovoltaic cells, like the ones used in California's "Million Solar Roofs" campaign, but it costs only around half as much for each unit of energy produced.

P.G.& E. executives said that during peak summer hours, power from the mirrors in the Mojave Solar Park Project would provide electricity to hundreds of thousands of homes. Fong Wan, P.G.& E's vice president for energy procurement, said in an interview on Tuesday that "we view concentrated solar as one of the most promising technologies for us."

While P.G.& E. executives and Solel's president, Avi Brenmiller, would not specify how much the utility will pay, people close to both companies put it at slightly more than 10 cents a kilowatt-hour - roughly what an average kilowatt-hour sells for at retail to American residential customers.

Electricity will be produced using a six-foot trough-shaped mirror that focuses rays of the desert sun on a pipe less than three inches in diameter, heating a fluid inside to 750 degrees Fahrenheit; the fluid will release steam to drive a turbine. Small motors will tilt the mirrors to keep them facing the sun.

The solar plant, planned to be built in the desert between the Nevada state line and Barstow, Calif., would consist of four modules of 140 megawatts each, Mr. Brenmiller said. "It's going to be similar to existing plants in style," he said, but added, "it will be a little larger than the largest one ever built."

Reprinted from the Israel High-Tech & Investment Report September 2007

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