Israel's solar power aspirations are a guiding light to the future
In 2009, Israel's Knesset set an ambitious goal – to make 10% of all of Israel's energy renewable by 2020. At the time, this struck many as an unrealistically tall order. After all, renewable energy only accounted for a paltry few decimal points of a percent of Israel's annual energy needs.
Today though, the image is much different. Thanks to widespread incentive programs, increased adoption of solar panels by private homeowners, and other clean energy developments, Israel is already up to 2.6% renewable energy. But, it is the culmination of years of effort that will really take Israel into a renewable future – as represented by the world's tallest solar tower.
Dubbed the Ashalim Project, the plant is actually comprised of three separate sites. These massive fields work like technological green-houses, gobbling up sunlight and repossessing it for energy. While each part of the project is impressive, the site of the tower is particularly striking. Resembling the impact crater of a technological meteor that has landed in the Negev desert, the tower stands in the center of dozens of concentric rings each made up of thousands of high-tech solar mirrors, radiating outward. It is an incredible sight, representing a national commitment to solar energy at a scale that has never been seen before.
Each site works in concert with each other utilizing both solar thermal energy (concentrating and converting the heat generated by the sun into harnessable energy) and photovoltaic (converting light into electricity using semiconducting materials) generation techniques.
The tower uses an uncommon method of turning light into usable energy. All of those thousands of concentric solar mirrors reflect and focus the heat of the sun on the very top of tower, which in turn heats a massive boiler used to spin a turbine. It is an absolutely incredible feat of ingenuity.
The other sites are focused on conventional photovoltaic conversion and solar thermal energy. More than 500 THOUSAND mirrors collect and concentrate the heat of sun and direct to a delicately arranged series of glass-insulated pipes. These pipes absorb that heat and transfer it to oil that is constantly circulated through those pipes which in turn heats water into steam to power turbines. The oil is reused and 90% of the water is captured and re-used making it not only clean energy, but one of the most efficient production sites of clean energy in the world.
Put together, the three sites will provide approximately 300 megawatts of electricity daily, effectively doubling Israel's renewable energy output.
Why renewable energy?
For many nations, the push towards renewable energy is a relatively recent phenomenon, mostly spurred on by economic and environmental concerns. For Israel though, renewable energy has been a long time fixation, dating back to the foundation of the country. David Ben-Gurion famously promised "to make the desert bloom” and a key part of that vision was securing a source of renewable energy. In 1949, Ben-Gurion established positions and offices for top researchers to examine revolutionary, and at the time unthinkable, renewable energy options. While other nations enjoying the post-war boom were happily burning up coal and gulping down fuel to heat their homes and run their cars during the '50s, Israeli minds were already prototyping and designing solar and wind alternatives, spearheading much of the work that has allowed solar energy to develop to the mature point it has now.
Part of this was practical. When Israel was an early nation, it was believed that there were few natural fuel sources within its borders. With often contentious political relationships with its oil supplying neighbors, it was indeed a savvy idea to consider alternatives. But it also is a continuation of the same attitude of self-sufficiency and innovation that drove many of the early kibbutz, the idea that a community should be able to come together and find solutions to their common problems.
The same drive can be seen today in both Israel's quest for renewable energy, and its modern innovation in water management. Despite all odds, Israel is indeed making the desert bloom.