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Something New Under the Sun

Something New Under the Sun

May 8, 2009

Alternative Energy, Business & Management, Desert & Water Research

JUF News — Ecclesiastes, biblical author of the phrase “There’s nothing new under the sun,” might think twice were he to visit Kvutzat Yavne, a kibbutz on Israel’s central coastal plain.

A strange new plant is sprouting in a small field adjacent to the community’s dwellings. It’s not some genetically engineered vegetable; rather it’s the world’s first solar farm, dedicated in late April.

During a pre-launch visit I saw rising from the earth a crop of concave, mirrored panels looking more like radio telescopes or satellite dishes than like conventional solar panels. Soon they’ll provide much of the community’s energy and hot water needs, saving the equivalent of about 40 tons of heating oil per anum.

Mounted on pedestals and frames—which are made of recycled and 100 percent recyclable materials, and can be angled for maximum exposure to the sun—each panel focuses light onto a small “concentrated photovoltaic” collector.

Measuring only 10 square centimeters, the collectors convert sunlight into electrical energy. Water passing through the system cools it and converts the heat into thermal energy.

Any kid who’s used a magnifying glass to burn a leaf would instantly understand the principle; concentrated sunlight produces tremendous heat—in this case more than a thousand times the power of direct sunlight. Thanks to photovoltaic technology, along with the light comes electricity.

The new technology was developed by Israel’s solar energy guru, Professor David Faiman, chairman of the Department of Solar Energy and Environmental Physics at the Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

Working with him were colleagues at Germany’s Fraunhofer Gesellschaft for Solar Energy Systems.

ZenithSolar, a 3-year-old Israeli startup, is commercializing the system, assembling and testing the 100+ square-foot units in Kiryat Gat, in JUF’s Partnership 2000 region. What’s so hot about it?

Visitors to Israel are familiar with the sight of solar hot water heaters, which for three decades have adorned the rooftops of virtually every Israeli apartment building.

What makes the concentrated photovoltaic system the hottest thing in solar, and sets it apart not only from low-tech water heaters, but also from other solar energy systems, is efficiency, according to ZenithSolar CEO Roy Segev.

The energy conversion efficiency of the patented Zenith system—the amount of energy produced in proportion to the amount of energy measured as incident solar radiation—is as high as 75 percent, compared to 12 percent-40 percent efficiency for conventional photovoltaic systems generating either electricity or hot water.

“Our goal is to utilize every suitable roof, backyard, and open space in Israel to turn households, hotels, and factories into net producers of electricity and thermal heat,” Segev said.

According to Segev a single unit can contribute half the energy used in a typical California house, with an expected payback period of about five years.

In addition to the solar farm at Kvutzat Yavne, the system is set to be installed in an Israeli chemical plant, with wider distribution in Israel and beyond to begin toward the end of the year.

For obvious reasons the southwestern United States and other regions with reliable sunshine are prime locations, according to Segev, who admitted there was less utility for his system in areas like Chicago.

Additionally the company is focused on commercial rather than residential applications, given both its cost and energy characteristics.

“Due to its high electricity output and high temperature output, ZenithSolar is focusing on customers and projects that will be able to directly benefit from high-temperature thermal heat for hot water needs,” Segev said.

He said that in municipal, industrial, and hospitality market settings, concentrated solar systems can pay for themselves within five years. (Watch a video of the debut of the solar farm.)

Chicagoans were treated to a glimpse of the future of solar energy and other breakthrough sustainable technologies during an environmental symposium featuring Professor Faiman and other Ben-Gurion researchers.

The event was presented by the Great Lakes Region of American Associates, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and co-sponsored by JUF’s Jewish Community Relations Council.