Israeli solar thermal company Solel just scored a deal with PG&E to build an estimated $2 billion massive solar thermal plant in California’s Mohave Desert. Not a lot of people have heard of the 250-person company, or even really solar thermal technology for that matter. So we grabbed a few questions with Solel’s President Avi Brenmiller in downtown San Francisco:
Q). Why will solar thermal work this time around when it has not been picked up over the past decades?
A). When natural gas came to the market in the 1990’s it was so cheap nobody thought that anyone would need anything else other than that. Energy prices went down – no one cared about clean energy, so there was no future then. That was then. Now we know natural gas is not as cheap as it was, and there is the global warming issue, together with the fact that right now we are doing it cheaper than we were back then.
Q). How is it cheaper now?
A). The technology has improved. If you look at the same collectors, they look the same but they produce 50% more power. The same mirrors, the same tubes, but we have the technology and reliability, new materials, coatings, the design. We’ve learned a lot.
Q). How is the company financed now?
A). We are financed by a couple of Belgian investors and we have been lucky enough to grow the company based on orders for the power project that we did we Florida Power and Light. We are growing very rapidly and as we grow we will probably look for other sources of financing. I don’t know about venture, things are moving so fast these days, we don’t know where we are going.
Q). How important is solar thermal to the modern energy consumption?
A). Solar thermal can be one of the major resources for energy for the world. As far as where the sun is shining the sun should be the source of energy. That is becoming a reality now.
Q). What is the solar energy industry like in Israel?
A). We have the solar powered water heaters which are on each roof in Israel by law – and this is very advanced. However at the end of the day it is less than 3% of the total consumption of energy in Israel. What we are trying to do is make it a major factor.
Q). What is your background?
A). I’m a mechanical engineer, graduated at Ohio State in the US and went back to Israel. Since 1998 I went into the solar business. It is a business that makes you feel good – you know what I mean? Being a mechanical engineer is not such an interesting life, but solar energy is interesting and good for the world. And if you’re good at it then you can also make some money.