Monday, February 27, 2012

Solar Tulip Targets Facebook Generation With Designer Power

Aora Solar Ltd. is aiming to win clients from the “Facebook generation” with community-scale generators that double as giant sculptures, according to the designer of its tulip-shaped solar towers.

The facilities, which use a combination of mirrors and fuels such as natural gas or biomass to generate 100 kilowatts of power, combine style and function to persuade design- conscious consumers to erect generators close to their homes, Haim Dotan said at the inauguration of the company’s second plant.

“This project should be put on Facebook so all the children of the world can see it, not only in professional magazines,” said Dotan, who also designed Israel’s pavilion at the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai. “Beauty doesn’t mean that it’s more expensive. It’s down to fun and hard work.”

Aora this month began feeding power to the grid from its second prototype plant in Almeria, southern Spain, and aims to install about 50 of generators this year, Chief Executive Officer Zev Rosenzweig said. He’s seeking to raise $35 million to $40 million of new capital so that he can build several hundred generators in 2013.

The micro solar-thermal plants generate about 100 kilowatts of power and cost about $550,000 each. They’re designed to allow developers to build up capacity slowly without the project loans needed by the biggest solar plants.

‘Many Orders’

“I need the working capital to grow explosively,” he said in an interview at the site of the Almeria plant. “If you’re putting up 200 megawatts of concentrating solar power, you need to find someone who’s going to trust you with a billion dollars and that’s a declining demographic. I believe I will receive many, many orders in next nine months.”

The solar tulip’s combination of solar and combustion- fueled generation means it can guarantee to supply power 24 hours a day with its computer software blending the two energy sources as the weather conditions fluctuate. The cost of power from a solar tulip “compares very favorably” with any other solar-thermal project that has been announced, Rosenzweig said.

The plants use an array of 50 computer-controlled mirrors to focus the sun’s rays on a receptor atop a 35-meter tower, which heats compressed air to 1,000 degrees centigrade and powers a turbine. By using air rather than the steam turbines most other solar-thermal plants have, Aora reduces the plant’s water consumption to less than 230 liters a megawatt-hour compared with 3,000 liters for a steam plant, Rosenzweig said.

Sun and Water

“This was developed for use in desert environments where you have the most sun and the least water,” Rosenzweig said.

The plant in Almeria, the only desert in continental Europe, uses water for washing the mirrors and for cooling the air sucked into the compressor when the atmospheric temperature breaches 35 degrees centigrade.

Aora’s strategy contrasts with the approach of rival solar- thermal developers such as BrightSource Energy Inc. and Seville- based Abengoa SA that have been building ever larger plants in southern Spain and the southwestern U.S. in a bid to drive down the cost of equipment. BrightSource is building the world’s largest solar power plant, a 392-megawatt generating complex at Ivanpah in California.

“I gain efficiencies by building a small, simple plant over and over again,” Rosenzeweig said.

The solar tulip can match the power of a utility-scale plant like BrightSource’s by building 100 or more units together. Dotan, a former construction worker with offices in Tel Aviv and Shanghai, imagines the towers painted in different colors stretching out across the desert floor.

Deserts as Gardens

“Deserts are beautiful, but we want to turn them into gardens,” he said. “The sun is going to make the desert bloom.”

Aora, based in Rehovot, Israel, was spun off by EDIG Industries last year and is majority owned by the CPC investment fund. EDIG retains a 17.5 percent stake.

Rosenzweig said the technology can supply power to small communities or business or directly to power companies. Aora is in talks with an architect in California who wants to build one $555,000 plant as the power source for a 60-home development that will be independent of the power grid.

A dairy cooperative in Spain is considering building a tulip and using its excess heat for pasteurizing milk and, through a technique called absorption chilling, to cool the processed milk while producing biogas for the burner from its cow dung.

“It’s a closed loop,” Rosenzweig said. “Anything that comes out of the cow goes back” into the cycle.

Still, Rosenzweig, who previously worked in the nuclear power and defense industries, isn’t relying on the generation that has grown up with Facebook, the largest social network, to deliver his business plan.

“It’ll take about 10 years to catch on with them,” he said.


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