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Solar power by: Stephanie Freid

Solar power
Solar power

Millions of households in the UK are reeling this week from news that British Gas plans another rise in energy bills in September, just six months after the last price hike. This is the fourth price rise in less than two years and householders are today paying almost 80 percent more for gas, and 50 percent more for electricity than they did three years ago.

This steady climb in prices is only likely to continue as fossil fuel resources for petroleum, used in fuel processing, dwindle. Industry experts predict oil production's peak out in 2007 and the race to find affordable alternative energy solutions sprints forward for scientists, environmentalists and politicians worldwide. Everyone is searching for the proverbial golden ticket: affordable, alternative and clean energy sources to take us into the next century.

Israel will play an integral part in building that future, particularly in light of a recently proposed US bill granting Israel $120 million over five years for energy research and development. Frontrunners in the alternative arena, Israel's scientists are at the vanguard of finding innovative yet affordable fuel and energy options.

The sun is a practically unlimited source of energy, providing millions of kilowatts of power per hour. Dousing the earth daily with several thousand times more energy than could ever be used, researchers have been exploring ways to harness the sun's potential since the late 1800's when French scientist Henri Becquerel discovered the first photovoltaic - or directly harnessed sun energy effect.

Israeli researchers have been working with solar power for decades, from developing solar panels for rooftop installation to heating residential units, and creating a giant solar collector for Israel's Technion Research Institute.

More recently, scientists have entered the realm of photovoltaics, more aggressively seeking to develop widespread affordable and non-polluting uses of solar power.

Specifically looking to compete with grid power giants is Distributed Solar Power (DiSP) based in northern Israel. Using semiconductor materials, DiSP converts sunlight into energy for public, residential, commercial and industrial customers who need clean, high-grade heat and renewable electricity.

"Our system generates both electricity and heat, thus making use of more of the sun's energy than other systems generating either electricity or heat alone," says company CEO and co-founder Daniel Kaftori.

DiSP got its start in 2002 when Kaftori and Tel Aviv University Professor Abraham Kribus began working on the concept of miniature solar concentrating photovoltaics that combine heat and power systems for distributed generation. Upon investigating the technical and economic feasibility of mini systems and concluding their viable potential when used in commercial systems, they formed DiSP in 2004.

An independent company working under the auspices of Yozmot Ha'emek Technological Incubator and utilising technology licensed from TAU, DiSP received public funding from the Israeli government (via the incubator) and private funding from an Italian energy service provider for their upstart.

Unique in its capability of tracking the sun, DiSP's mini-solar unit concentrates solar power collected via the tracking device, converting the captured sunlight into electricity and heat. The product selling point is its 75% efficiency due to the dual heat/electric component.

"The process is similar to what we did as children when we used a magnifying glass to burn paper and etch our name onto wood. Here we use a mirror instead of a magnifying glass" to collect and concentrate solar power, says Kaftori. "At the focal point there is high intensity sunlight and heat which makes it possible to utilise the energy at a very high efficiency - much higher than in other solar technologies."

Unlike stationary system's, DiSP's device gets maximum sun benefits because it tracks the sun throughout the day. Ultimately, this translates into efficiency and cost effectiveness. In a detailed analysis of large scale manufacturing costs, DiSP reported a potential 79% decrease in costs when using their system as compared with current average utility energy costs.

"With good solar conditions, DiSP's system can generate energy at prices lower than conventional power even without any government incentives or subsidies," Kaftori reports. "In comparison, without incentives most other solar technologies are two to three times more expensive than conventional energy."

But what happens when solar saturation is not optimal, say in a geographically low level sunlight zone such as the UK? "In essence, we need 'good' sunlight. This typically refers to the 'sunbelt' - the region between latitudes 34 degrees north and south. The average amount of sunlight is very site-specific and we require good direct solar radiation," Kaftori explains.

Translated into laymans language, the northern United States, Canada, Russia and most of Europe cannot derive full benefit from DiSP's system. However, explains Dr. H. Avraham Arbib, the deputy chief scientist and Director of R&D at the Ministry of National Infrastructures, this is an issue which can be circumvented.

"In lower-level radiation regions, one would need to exploit diffuse solar radiation as opposed to direct radiation," Arbib says. "Countries like Japan, Germany and others concentrate their efforts on PV (photovoltaics), while countries in the sunbelt are more involved in CST (concentrating solar thermal)."

"We capture more of the sun's energy and deliver it to the customer," Kaftori summarises. "More advanced technology enables us to convert more of the solar radiation into useful energy and these two factors combine to provide more useful energy to customers over competing systems. Consequently, the price is lower."

Despite development stage status, DiSP management says prospective buyers in the US and Israel will begin implementing their technology within the coming year.

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