Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Solar Dreams

Last I wrote, I was in a bit of a low. I suppose the nadir was my 30th birthday party, when all 15 of my guests canceled within 24 hours. At the time, I decided it was time to put some forward movement into my life, to get a job, and now I've got one.
I'm working for a Jerusalem-based company which develops solar-thermal power stations. The technology was developed by a now defunct Israeli company called Luz, named for the biblical city where the Jacob had his dream of angels ascending and descending a great ladder (Breishit/Genesis 28:10-15,) which he then renamed Beit El. Back in the 1980's, Luz developed a system for generating power by using parabolic-shaped troughs to concentrate sunlight onto a black pipe.

This collector tracks the sun on its path across the sky throughout the day.

Oil pumped through this pipe is superheated by the concentrated sunlight. The superheated oil is then used to boil water and run a steam turbine generator.

Solar Thermal Collector Array with steam power plant

In 1991, after building several solar-thermal power plants in California's Mojave Desert, Luz went out of business. The failure boils down to an end of tax credits for renewable energy and the falling energy costs of the 90's and early 00's. Now high energy costs and increased tax incentives in Europe and California have revived interest in renewables. Another factor is the worldwide panic over global warming. While neither I nor any scientist or engineer with whom I have discussed the issue over the past 8 years actually believes that there is validity to climate change theory, the enormity of the popular panic, especially among those who were swept into office in the United States earlier this month, will have some fringe benefits. Because solar technology results in zero emissions, if the cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions championed by President Elect Obama is actually passed into law, then there's going to be bonanza of renewable energy projects. To my mind, this can have only positive results. When Iran buys Uranium centrifuges, Russia purchases a new warship to bully its neighbors, Al Quaida finances the training of its next pilot, or a Palestinian Authority "activist" buys C4 explosive to incinerate innocent Israelis, the money that finances this evil can always be traced back to oil. Even from a purely economic standpoint, I think it would be fair to place a heavy tariff on fossil fuels to balance out the lives and treasure lost fighting wars to secure them.

While America is still waiting for some sort of renewable energy program, the Spanish government has commissioned the construction of forty 50-MegaWatt facilities in various locations throughout southern Spain. The deal is that if the facilities are online before the end of 2010 then the Spanish government has agreed to purchase power at a favorable rate for the next several years, which will make the construction economically feasible.
Solar collector arrays like this one have been operating in the Mojave Desert for decades

Meanwhile, the original members of the Luz team have reassembled into several competing companies. One of them, Solel, has stepped up manufacturing of parabolic troughs in the expectation of increased orders.
Most of the engineers from Luz reassembled to form the company Luz II, which is persuing the solar tower concept whereby a series of mirrors tracks the sun and concentrates the sunlight onto a boiler, which is used to generate steam and run a steam-power cycle. Their technology has great promise, in that it does not require sunlight to heat oil, which then heats water, but boils the water directly, resulting in greatly increased efficiency. Of course, their technology has never been tested in the real world, but they are in the beginning stages of designing an enormous facility for Southern California.
A Solar-Thermal Tower
As opposed to Luz II, with its hundred plus engineers, I'm working with a team of 9. We are very much a startup, and are focused on fulfilling the Spanish government's contracts with the more proven parabolic trough technology developed by Luz. On the one hand, working for a startup carries some risk, in that things can go downhill in a hurry. On the other hand, being in such a small company provides an opportunity for much more rapid advancement. Unlike a big engineering firm with layer after layer of bureocracy and waste, with corner offices and reserved parking spots, I get to talk with my CEO every day.
I do miss the hours of yeshivah learning I used to be able to do every morning, but I'm also enjoying the fast-paced startup atmosphere. We're located in Har Hotzvim, Jerusalem's business park, probably the only economically productive neighborhood in the city, with dozens of high-tech companies. There are kosher places for breakfast, lunch, and dinner all over the place, and I get to meet other young professionals from neighboring companies and listen to them complain about their bosses. There's also a shul (synagogue) across the street where I can catch daily prayers, and a few shiurim (Jewish learning opportuinities) as well.


xsoho said...

Hi, do you know any solution or possibilities like this for a small family or a big community? Thank you.

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