At 130MW, the first phase of the 250MW Ashalim Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) complex will be Israel’s biggest solar plant and one of the world’s largest CSP complexes.

In the sun-scorched Negev Desert, not far from the spot where Jacob is said to have dreamt of a ladder to heaven, a gigantic concentrated solar power (CSP) project is under construction that could boost the technology’s flagging fortunes and catapult Israel towards its 2020 renewables goals.

At 130MW, the first phase of the 250MW Ashalim Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) complex — being built by French industrial giant Alstom and US manufacturer BrightSource — will be Israel’s biggest solar plant and one of the world’s largest CSP complexes. It is a rare bright spot for a technology that has been struggling to compete against cut-price PV in recent years.

“Ashalim is hugely important for many reasons, not least that it is another project in the Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) landscape, which is significant because it will help to drive the market for concentrating solar power forward. It is another demonstration to utilities, banks and investors of its viability,” says Steven Moss, vice-president of renewables power plants at Alstom, one of the few major players still standing in the sector after the withdrawal of Areva, Siemens and ABB over the past two years.

“[The Israeli government] can see that in the long term, this scale of Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) project — if you have the solar resource — will give you a route to a highly competitive LCoE [levelised cost of energy] within the context of current electricity prices in Israel.”

Moss believes that the two companies — which have opted for BrightSource power-tower technology very similar to that used at the landmark 400MW Ivanpah project in California — can slash the LCoE from around $0.17/kWh today to $0.05-0.07 by 2020.

His prediction matches a recent study by Germany’s Institute of Solar Research, which expects cost reductions of at least 50% “in the next 10-15 years”, putting Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) on par with fossil-fuel power generation between 2020 and 2030.

Indeed, the International Energy Agency remains of the opinion that Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) will play a massive role in the future global generation mix — churning out over 11.3% of the world’s electricity by 2050.

“With Ivanpah and now Ashalim, we are demonstrating how reliable and effective the power-tower solution can be — and how that can bring down the LCoE, particularly as high-capacity storage is added to the equation,” says Moss. “Then there is also the cost reduction that will come on future projects that can use Ashalim as a template. The Israeli government understands this.”

To many observers, this optimism is little more than wishful thinking. Silvia Macri, senior research analyst at international energy consultancy IHS, says that other high-profile Concentrated Solar Power developments such as Shams 1 — a $600m, 100MW parabolic-trough plant in Abu Dhabi — and Morocco’s Noor 1, the 160MW first phase of a 500 MW installation, have worked against a more rapid take-up of CSP.

“Shams 1 was completed but was too expensive, and we haven’t seen any other Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) announcement in the country,” she says. “Noor 1 is up and running, but the importance of relatively cheap multilateral financing there is crucial. Elsewhere, CSP projects have been cancelled and opportunities will probably continue to be scattered for the time being.

“Despite the huge potential in terms of resources,” she continues, “we don’t feel CSP technology is yet competitive enough in terms of costs compared to solar PV to foresee a sustained build-out in the near term.

ashalim_panel.jpg“In our base-case scenario, we see a total CSP capacity addition of around 400MW by 2030 in Israel, which is probably much less than many calculations would lead to.”

Storage solutions, as Moss notes, can take a large slice out of CSP’s LCoE. Plants using a conducting fluid of molten salt, for instance, which stays hot for hours after the sun has gone down, can continue to generate steam-driven electricity 24 hours a day — a significant advantage over PV and other renewables.

But Ashalim — like Ivanpah — does not have any built-in storage. The plant will be able to generate electricity only during the hours of daylight, extended by an on-site natural-gas power station that will allow the developer “more flexibility in operation”.

This decision would appear to hinge on Israel’s recent windfall discovery of vast reserves of gas under its swathe of the Mediterranean Sea — enough to fuel the country for 25 years and make it a net energy exporter for the first time.

But Moss says construction of the Ashalim complex’s gas plant, which could be called on to make up 15% of the CSP tower’s annual 300GWh-plus output, is more “coincidental” than fundamental to the solar project.

“The fact that Israel has these new-found gas reserves wasn’t really a driver, and we don’t see the gas as being an equivalent of storage,” he states. “The CSP plants we are developing elsewhere now do have storage but at Ashalim, like Ivanpah, it is storage-free. When we approached the state of Israel, they were keen to get industrial-scale CSP up and running first and then think about storage as a second step.

“What the gas really means to Ashalim is that we can maximise the amount of time you are generating under the sun because it can be used to speed up starting up the plant in the morning or running it down more slowly at night.”

Yet the bulk power production of Ashalim and future CSP mega-projects could be central to Israel hitting its renewable-energy targets — 10% of its electricity from renewables by 2020 and 50% or more by 2050.

A feed-in tariff (FIT) for industrial-scale CSP and PV was introduced by the Knesset in 2011 to help meet these objectives, but it was undermined by a parliamentary tug of war that led to the FIT not being renewed after the first tranche of money ran out.

The government is instead putting its money into tenders for some 300MW of new PV — including the high-profile 50MW Timna development in southern Israel near Eilat. Behind this lurks another troublesome omen for CSP, as the government has shifted power production quotas away from CSP and wind in favour of utility-scale photovoltaics, planning to double the country’s installed PV capacity by 2016.

“We still don’t have any new specific legislation [to support new renewable-energy build-out] in Israel — what we have are ‘goals’,” says Dorit Davidowski-Banet, chief executive of industry body the Eilat-Eilot Renewable Energy Initiative, which is shepherding the Timna tender. “The 10% goal will be hard to reach. My speculation is that we might get to around 7-8%. The offshore gas found [over 30 trillion cubic feet in three giant fields in the Israeli Mediterranean] is part of the reason why this will be. Another aspect is that we have no FIT supporting solar power generation.”

She continues: “The regulator is offering around $0.08/kWh for the 300MW being tendered… which would mean PV in Israel — like worldwide — will be the first choice for these projects.

“Even though CSP would give you despatchable power each hour of the day, the Treasury has been scared off by the $0.15-0.20/kWh cost.”

Davidowski-Banet sees gas providing back-up for Israel’s power production “for the next 20-25 years”. But she reckons that during this period, CSP plants backed by molten salt, pumped hydro and “other game-changing” technology will have worked their way into the mainstream

“I believe once the 300MW is awarded, the government will see that there is a competitive market for solar power — PV for now, but CSP ahead. I am hopeful. I think we have passed the low point and we will climb to great heights.”

Alstom remains similarly optimistic.

“With Ashalim under way and Abengoa’s to follow [a 110MW parabolic-trough CSP plant that will soon begin construction nearby], the wheels are turning well and it is about keeping momentum up. We are at the point where each project takes the industry a step closer to achieving that goal [of $0.05-0.7/kWh LCoE by 2020],” says Moss.

“On the ground we are seeing CSP building up a new head of steam as a source of large-scale despatchable bulk energy generation that can beat PV’s economics in high-DNI [direct normal irradiance] regions.

“We hope that putting the Alstom weight behind CSP, linking up with our industrial experience and geographic reach, will help bring it into the mainstream — in the US, Israel, the Middle East, South Africa — to make CSP a real force in worldwide power generation. That is our driver now.”

Darius Snieckus,