A Day in the Desert with Renewable Energy Technologies

June 26th, 2012

Day four of our study in Israel started quietly in Beersheba after, a welcome time after hearing about the rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip while we visited yesterday.  We took special note of the recently posted paper Safe Area signs on the stairwells.  Breakfast offered more fresh Israeli dairy products, potato and cheese bourekas, fish, cucumbers and tomatoes, breads, eggs, plus more.

Looking down from the Leonardo Hotel Negev into the Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba

Looking down from the Leonardo Hotel Negev into the Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba

Beersheba is the fourth largest city in Israel and the center focus of the Negev.  It is historically prosperous, with a near zero unemployment rate in 2008 before the economic downturn.  It was described as a place for desert living and much lower prices than Tel Aviv.

Leaving Beersheba for the desert, we traveled to the Jacob Blaustein Institute for Desert Research (BIDR),  located near the kibbutz where David Ben-Gurion retired to after leaving the Prime Minister’s office.  Ben- Gurion was said to love the desert, saying people should ascend to the desert, not go down to the desert, believing the desert was key to Israel’s future.

Bedouin roadside community in the Negev Desert.

Bedouin roadside community in the Negev Desert.

On the way to the BIDR, we heard that there was another rocket attack from the Gaza, this time towards Beersheba, setting off alarms in the City and forcing people to take cover.  Having just left the city an hour earlier, we all can better understand the risk people feel around Gaza when tension flares up.

We met Professor Pedro Berliner, Director of the BIDR, in the main building.  The main atrium has a water sculpture that serves as a “swamp cooler” using the cooling effects of water evaporation to keep the space comfortable in the heat - great for the US southwest but not a technology for humid Washington DC.

Dr. Pedro Beriner, Director, the Jacob Blaustein Institute for Desert Research

Dr. Pedro Beriner, Director, the Jacob Blaustein Institute for Desert Research

Dr. Berliner explained how the Institute was started to conduct research to allow the sustainable settlement of the Negev Desert.  In time, its purpose was expanded to address sustainability in all dry lands around the globe.  It focuses in three areas; energy, water and food production - with a need to recognize and research the interrelationships among the three.  It looks at low tech approaches that can be implemented in areas lacking sophisticated management support and high tech applicable to modern countries such as Israel.

Energy research ranges from genetic manipulation of algae to maximize lipid production for use creating liquid biofuels, to how plants cope with the desert, to production of secondary metabolites for medicine, to water runoff harvesting use in agriculture-forest co-production.  They have found that even the relatively productive Israeli trickle irrigation systems still waste 40% of the water - leaving room for more efficient uses of water for agriculture in an arid environment.

Professor David Faiman and Project Interchange Energy visitors – Department of Solar Energy and Environmental Physics, BIDR

Professor David Faiman and Project Interchange Energy visitors – Department of Solar Energy and Environmental Physics, BIDR

Professor David Faiman followed showing his research on solar, started when he first came to Israel in 1973.  His research on concentrating solar photovoltaic (solar electric) systems is now being used by Zenith Solar in a hybrid concentrating solar electric system that produces electricity and hot water.  They are also researching use of energy storage - a key technology to allow collection of solar energy during sunny days for use at night and when cloudy.  He calculates that Israel can achieve a 90% penetration of the electric use with proper energy storage and management of the electric grid - a tall challenge requiring turning academic research into policy and action.

Dr. Faiman, solidly in the academic mode, described working on these solar and energy problems at an intellectual and technical level.  He recognizes the need to make them cost effective, but is trying to solve the big problem and leave the tension between the technology and economics to others.  This highlights the need to fund basic research, but also illustrates the gulf that often exists between academic researchers and business.  While Ben-Gurion University has a technology transfer office, It is similar to many US universities in not doing a good job bridging the gap between research and getting the good ideas to business and into the marketplace where they can meet society’s needs.

Bright Source Energy’s Solar Tower in Dimona, the Negev Desert

Bright Source Energy’s Solar Tower in Dimona, the Negev Desert

Our next stop, Bright Source Energy’s R&D facility, where the company develops electric generating technology using a field of mirrors pointing to a steam boiler at the top of a tower.  These need large areas of desert - with the research 6 megawatt sized research tower needing 3 acres of mirrors.  Bright Source is selling their systems for use by Pacific Gas and Electric for electricity generation and by Chevron for enhanced oil recovery in California.  The technology needs very dry desert conditions, with even the Negev not being as dry as they like.  We won’t see these in the US East Coast and Midwest humidity.

Leaving Bright Source, and after a lunch stop at a strip shopping area along the road in the desert - a modern version of an oasis? - it is back to Tel Aviv, the beautiful blue Mediterranean and the launch of Nation-E’s new battery storage technology .

Nation-E is a German-Israeli company offering battery storage technologies for electric vehicles (e-mobility) and to store renewable energy generation for use when demand for electricity is at its peak and electricity is most expensive.  This German partnership is particularly interesting as it parallels the Northern Virginia Regional Commission’s more than 10-year learning exchange with Germany.

This was the third day of Nation-E’s kickoff of this new technology.  The company officials were very excited at their prospects, and very tired at the end of three long days kicking off the new products.