I went to Israel a few months back. One of the reasons for my trip was to investigate the Arava Power Company. Arava operates a solar farm in the Negev desert. As you can imagine, the Negev has great conditions for solar; the cost for the local utility is less than the wholesale price of the electricity from other sources. Here is their demonstration plant.
And here is the next phase of the project.
Pretty impressive, no? What, no, you say? It isn’t impressive? I guess I can see why you’d say that, considering as it is just an empty field. I have two answers for you. The first is that Arava finally started work on the new project, with the first panels installed in October; serious work got underway jointly with ET Solar and EDF this month.
So the project is underway. But that answer isn’t interesting. The interesting answer is why the company has had so much pushback against its plans to build utility-scale solar in an environment where it should be cheaper than the alternatives.
The simple answer: from the utility’s point of view, solar power is not cheap. The reason is intermittancy. Not just intermittancy in the sense of the sun not shining at night, but intermittancy in the sense that passing clouds (and even the Negev has passing clouds) can cause output to drop 95% in a matter of minutes. That means that the utility needs to keep gas plants ready — and on days with the risk of clouds those plants will need to be spun up and burning fuel in order to start generating quickly.
The Israeli government has been abetting the utilities, holding up permits and unpredictably altering the feed-in tariff for solar. Arava officials told me that the government also weirdly decided to raise the land rent (land in Israel is state-owned) on solar farms. (The link is worth clicking; it corroborates what the Arava people told me.) Solar in Israel is moving, but not that fast.
But now from California comes news that could change everything.
Cheap storage would, of course, utterly transform the economics of renewable energy. Intermittancy would no longer be that important. Even at a small scale, it would be worth it: no more worries about passing clouds. And on a large scale, of course, cheap storage would no longer matter that the sun doesn’t shine at night.
So what happened in California? It wasn’t a technical breakthrough; those are always being announced. Nope, it was that storage won bids put out by Southern California Edison for new capacity in the wake of the decision to close the San Onofre nuclear plants.
That is big news! If storage really has become competitive with peaker plants, then the door is open to an entirely new energy landscape ... as long as storage continues to fall in price. Keep an eye out.