Interview: Arnold J. Goldman
A pioneer in solar energy, Arnold J. Goldman, 65, is chairman and founder of BrightSource Energy in the United States and Luz II in Israel. His first solar venture, Luz International, operated nine solar plants, generating 90 percent of the world’s solar electricity in the late 1980s. In June 2008, BrightSource and its wholly owned subsidiary Luz II will inaugurate a new, large-scale pilot plant in Dimona in the Negev Desert that will showcase advanced solar-energy technology.
Born in Los Angeles, Goldman has been living in Israel for more than 25 years.
Q. Why is solar energy more viable now than 20 years ago?
A. The economic and political climate is more favorable. Twenty years ago…institutional financing was scarce. In the U.S., the California market pretty much defined the industry. The rest of the world was largely indifferent. Today, the world has the Kyoto Agreement, which Europe is really pushing, and there is also interest in several developing countries. California once again is playing a leading role in America, backing the principle that 20 percent of their utilities should rely on renewable [sources], going up eventually to 33 percent. All this has created a massive demand. Institutional financing is available where it just didn’t exist two decades ago.
Q. What’s the milestone your team will reach in the Negev in the coming weeks?
A. We will launch a demonstration of a high temperature power tower, a method of producing steam for generating solar electricity. In our Dimona plant, we have up to 1,700 heliostat mirrors, which reflect sunlight onto a boiler on top of the tower. The resulting heat brings steam to temperature and pressure levels that haven’t been attained before in solar plants, temperatures necessary to run steam turbines at much higher efficiencies as compared to what preceded this development.
Q. For laypeople, is it the tower that represents the critical new breakthrough?
A. The tower per se isn’t new. Towers have operated since the ’70s. They operated in France in the ’80s, and were tested in the U.S. But those towers operated at modest to poor performance and were very expensive to construct and operate. Modern electronics today and some of our own creative innovations enable us to maintain towers at a fraction of the cost of previous towers.
Q. Can you define the technology a little more precisely?
A. Aligning a large number of small mirrors is one of the keys. Greatly enhanced computer software plays a major role in the coordination of each reflector’s continuously updated position. The idea of using a distributed-power tower system instead of trying to deal with one large tower to power a 100- to 200-megawatt plant has led to better economics. A smaller solar field can [now] produce the same amount as the lower-efficiency, lower-temperature plants [of the past], reducing capital costs
Q. Are we on the verge of a true energy revolution?
A. This is the first in a series of steps that our group is taking to help drive down the cost of [solar] energy to be competitive with gas-fired turbines. In a truly receptive world, we should be able to build solar power stations that are initially solar-driven only, and over time solar with storage-allowing energy to be stored during “dark” periods. This should drive a large amount of power out of the deserts from the southwest region across the U.S., not to mention later on from North Africa into Europe. Areas such as India also hold large potential…. With solar, if there is the political will to do it, we can provide the economic means and technical systems for providing the energy.
Q. What is the breakdown of energy resources today?
A. Nuclear provides about 20 percent of U.S. energy. Coal might be 30 percent. With political will, we think we could readily reach the 10- to 15-percent level for solar. Scientific American studies recently pointed toward a 60-percent level for solar energy in the U.S.
Q. So solar energy is no longer just a dream?
A. If the decision-makers ever concluded that for security reasons America must be largely energy independent—and that means keeping production of energy inside the U.S.—then what we’re discussing is possible. There would be some initial increases in prices, but nothing astronomical. There would also be massive creation of domestic jobs and a tremendous favorable impact in the balance of trade once less was spent on acquiring overseas crude oil. It would require a massive government intervention to make something like this happen. Coal would largely be gotten rid of. One plan being put forward today calls for 100,000 megawatts to feed into Europe from North Africa, which would constitute about one-eighth of Europe’s energy needs.
Q. How would switching to solar power improve the security situation if, at the end of the day, it was still Arab countries in North Africa providing the energy flow?
A. Today, most of the oil comes from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf area. The solar play would switch the focus to North Africa: Morocco, Algeria and the like. Different players spread out the risk, and that would improve the security situation. Oil suppliers don’t lose anything when they do not deliver their oil; they just keep it for another day, perhaps at higher prices. Should solar providers halt delivery, they simply lose their resource, making no profit from it. There would likely be built-in incentives and interests that would make for a more secure system than we have today.
Q. Israel was early to embrace solar energy. Solar heaters can be seen on roofs throughout the country, and there are efforts to enlarge the country’s solar capabilities. Is Israel at the forefront of what you’re trying to do globally?
A. Regulations requiring houses to use dudei shemesh—solar heaters—have been important for developing the technology. We once played more of a leadership role…. Spain’s government incentivizes projects and is creating a serious infrastructure in that market. The U.S. is also encouraging significant contracts and supplies. Germany is quite active. Israel has not been a dynamic leader in encouraging indigenous power development. True, Israel’s market is small, but we could be playing a larger worldwide role if public policies were so oriented
Q. Is Wall Street’s interest in green energy analogous to the dot-com investment boom of the 1990s?
A. Solar energy clearly is a big thing of the moment. The challenge is to see if we can sustain this. Many people saw the dot-com period as a boom followed by a sudden bust. I don’t share that view. So much money went into it that it transformed—very dramatically in a short period—the development of the Internet, and this resulted in huge differences in how the world operates. It wouldn’t have happened in that way without the massive funding. Alternative energy is clearly different. Projects need five years to gestate…and become sustaining only around 10 years following start-up. We do need enough time to reach the point of mass implementation, or they will not be sustained. This requires heavy financing.
Q. As a longtime active observer of the solar and alternative energy field, how do you view the near future?
A. We can have solar, wind and other clean energies providing 25 to 35 percent of the world’s energy needs later this century. This vision would include the production of many more rechargeable hybrid cars, which would dramatically reduce the overall amount of fossil fuel required…. Massive redistribution of jobs would likely follow suit and world stability would increase. This picture would make Israel a much more secure place, with a world far less dependent on oil products. I also believe that political stability and democracy could be enhanced in those North African nations that would be among the new partners, and this could help transform the relationship between Israel and Islam.