06/25/2010 18:33

No new Israeli photovoltaic (PV) technology is ready for deployment yet.

Being an alternative energy technology company is rough going these days. Renewable energy power plants, especially solar ones, are extremely capital intensive. Without government support for extended periods of R&D, some companies are scrambling for funds to launch and run pilot projects.

Experimental technologies do not receive bank loans, because banks are too skittish to invest in something with such high risk, Solaris Synergy CEO Yossi Fisher said. Solaris Synergy has developed a prototype module of solar panels which floats on water. Now, it’s in the process of trying to raise money for a pilot project.

“A 3 MW pilot project will cost $12 million and no one will fund it. New technologies are not ‘bankable.’ We have to pay for the pilot project ourselves. I could raise maybe $2m., but where am I going to get the other $10m.?” asks Fisher.

Pilot projects are critical for Israeli technologies if they hope to expand to worldwide sales. Lacking a pilot project running for three years without mishap, overseas buyers just aren’t interested, one source at an energy technology start-up said.

No new Israeli photovoltaic (PV) technology is ready for deployment yet. While there are some companies working in areas like concentrated PV, they are not yet bankable. Solar thermal companies like Soleil, which was just bought by German giant Siemens, and Brightsource Energy/Luz II have an easier time raising capital since they’ve been around in one form or another since the 1980s.

According to Fisher and other sources, that is where the government should step in. Fisher advocated a government loan guarantee to lower the risk to the banks. However, the Treasury responded by saying that loan guarantees for solar power companies were being considered, but not for technology start-ups. Start-ups receive money for R&D from the office of the chief scientist of various ministries, a spokesman for the Treasury added.

However, AGS Technologies CEO Amnon Samid, who is a frequent consultant to the ministries as well as an entrepreneur, said that funding had dropped significantly in recent years.

“The chief scientist of the National Infrastructures Ministry used to have a budget of NIS 15m.-NIS 20m., now that’s down to around NIS 3m.,” he said. The Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry chief scientist’s office does have a fairly large budget, according to Samid, but it is not so interested in energy technology start-ups.

“They’re willing to give out grants, but want to give where they can get the best royalties, so they are much more likely to give money to Intel or Teva than to start-ups like [solar thermal start-up] Aora Solar,” he claimed.

If the trend continues, there won’t be any more Israeli new alternative energy technologies in 10 years, he predicted.

“Companies like Aora, which started out as Edig as a research project at the Weizmann Institute of Science, have depended on government money for years” to become mature technologies, he pointed out.

Clean tech is not like hi-tech, where NIS 2m. will create five companies of a bunch of young guys working on computers day and night, a source said. Clean tech requires loads of capital and laboratories and many more years to perfect the technology. It requires continued funding at significant levels for several years.

Samid said the government had gotten the right idea by creating another fund to finance companies which were past the initial start-up phase.

“The idea is excellent. The problem is that the budget comes out to about NIS 1m. per company, which is very little. What’s more, companies which have previously received money from the government are not eligible,” he said, which means they cannot go from one fund to the other to continue their project.

“The companies have to form a subsidiary to get the new money,” the 32-year veteran of the industry, who frequently evaluates technologies for the government, noted ironically.

Samid added that he had recently seen some hopeful signs of emerging cooperation between the Industry, Trade and Labor and National Infrastructures ministries on this issue.

The incubator concept for hi-tech companies has also been expanded to clean tech, but again, Samid said, the issue was funding.

“NIS 2m. in funding is a little bit ridiculous. You can’t get to the level where [outside] investors are interested [on NIS2m.],” he charged.

Solaris Synergy’s Fisher also suggested reserving part of the solar cap for Israeli technologies. If they had a reserved place, foreign companies would feel much more confident about investing in them, he said.

“National Infrastructures Minister Uzi Landau announced at the Eilat-Eilot International Renewable Energy Conference in February that 50 MW would be reserved for Israeli technologies,” Fisher said. That’s not nearly enough, he said.

However, Arava Power Company president Yossi Abramowitz protested that if such a reserved place existed, it would put him out of business. He said his solar power company would love to use Israeli technologies, but needed to be free to use imported materials as necessary to meet his goals.

The only sector in which a source said that the delays in implementation were actually beneficial was in the concentrated solar power (CSP) or solar thermal field. The source said Israel had a chance to be a real world leader in CSP with the tenders for solar fields at Ashelim and Timna, but that everyone was still learning how to set it all up.

The Ashelim tender has been delayed several times. Of seven conglomerates that initially passed to the second level of the tender, five have pulled out already, Samid said, having become dissatisfied with the tender process.

However, the source in the solar thermal field said the delay on the tender was not actually a bad thing because it gave the companies more time to prepare properly.