The Ashelim project, Israel's flagship renewable energy project, is finally beginning to take shape. After years of delays, postponements, and difficulties, the Megalim consortium is close to securing the financing to build the project's first solar power station. Unless unexpected delays crop up, the bulldozers will start work in early 2014, and within three years, Israel will have one of the world's biggest solar power stations, with a capacity of 121 megawatts of electricity, and which will provide travelers on the road to Nizzana an awe-inspiring view of a 280-meter high tower surrounded by 50,000 percolator mirrors (heliostats).
To view Ashelim, you have to visit the memorial to the "French commando", the nickname of the Palmach's Battalion 75 (most of whose members were North African Jews), which fought the Egyptian Army in the area in the summer of 1948. 60 years later, in 2006, the Israeli government chose the site's flat spaces (about 10,000 dunam or 2,500 acres) for two thermosolar power stations, with a total capacity of 250 megawatts.
The tenders, which were considered at the time they were published to be the largest of their kind in the world, attracted strong foreign interest. Seven multinational consortia participated in the prequalification stage, but only two consortia bid in the tender itself, which was published in July 2010, after many delays.
In late 2012, the Ministry of Energy and Water Resources announced that the Megalim consortium, comprising Brightsource Energy Inc. and France's Alstom SA (Euronext: ALO) won the planning and construction tender for the first thermosolar power station, which they will operate for 25 years. The consortium, which proposed using solar tower technology, estimates the investment at $600-700 million.
In June 2012, the Negev Energy consortium, comprising Shikun & Binui Holdings Ltd. (TASE: SKBN) and Spain's Abengoa SA (IBEX: ABG), won a similar tender to build the second thermosolar power station. The consortium, which plans to use parabolic trough technology, estimates the investment at $1.1 billion.
Both consortia agreed to lower the price of electricity they will produce from NIS 1.15-1.20 per kilowatt/hour to just NIS 0.79 per kilowatt/hour.
Megalim is now in the midst of closing the financing for the project from a syndicate led by Bank Hapoalim (TASE: POLI). The consortium is also considering bringing in a strategic partner, which could own up to a 49% stake in it. The deadline for the closing is December 2013, after which Megalim hopes to begin construction, which will take three years.
The name Megalim is an acronym in Hebrew from Genesis Chapter 1:16 (the greater light to rule the day), as Brightsource Energy co-founder and EVP Engineering and Brightsource Israel CEO Israel Kroizer says with pride.
"Globes": It is said that, back in 2008, you predicted that you would be the only company left in the project.
Kroizer: "I expected that we would be the first company to build the power station, because I thought that the other bidders would not have the necessary experience. We've been in the thermosolar business for over 30 years."
The solar tower technology that Brightsource chose for the project, is considered superior to the better-known parabolic trough technology, because its construction costs are lower and a power station can be built on land that is not completely flat. But even so, this is a frighteningly expensive project compared with regular power stations or even photovoltaic power stations. The construction cost of a thermosolar power station like the one that Brightsource is planning is currently estimated at $4,500 per kilowatt, more than quadruple the cost of a natural gas-driven power station.
The plunge in the costs of photovoltaic technology has led to the scrapping of many thermosolar energy projects in the world, and their conversion to photovoltaic. Nonetheless, Kroizer claims that the potential of the thermosolar market has not been affected. "Photovoltaic technology greatly expanded the total market potential of solar energy, so our market share has not shrunk. We have a major advantage over photovoltaic technology because we can supply electricity throughout the day on the basis of the customer's needs, and over many more years," he says.
Megalim's winning of the Ashelim tender closed a circle for the French energy giant Alstom. In October 2009, it lost out to Germany's Siemens AG (NYSE: SI; DAX: SIE) to acquire Solel Solar Systems Ltd., the Beit Shemesh company founded by Avi Brenmiller. Solel Solar's technology was considered the next big thing in the thermosolar industry, and in the heat of battle, Siemens offered $418 million for the company, even though it had valuations that it was worth no more than $250 million.
The disappointed Alstom opted to invest in another Israeli company, Luz II Ltd., founded by Kroizer and Arnold Goldman, based in Jerusalem's Har Hotzvim. Brenmiller, Kroizer, and Goldman were all veterans of the original Luz Ltd., which built the world's first thermosolar power station in the 1980s. The power station generates electricity for communities in California.
Alstom and Siemens met again at the final stage for the Ashelim tender, and this time, the result was different. Siemens withdrew from the consortium that reached the final, after its investment in Solel Solar cost it hundreds of millions of dollars in losses. Meanwhile, Alstom's investment in Brightsource, which has reached $150 million, has grown at an impressive rate.
Luz II changed its name to Brightsource and incorporated in the US in 2006. It has raised more than $600 million to date in six rounds of equity raising. Investors include Google.org, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and oil majors which normally shun Israel, such as Chevron Corporation (NYSE: CVX), Norway's Statoil ASA, and BP Group plc (NYSE; LSE: BP). The company is evasive about its current value, but in its fifth financing round in early 2011, it raised $125 million at a company value of $700-800 million.
Brightsource is a wholly American company, but Ashelim project manager Yehuda Halevi says that 300 of the company's 400 employees, and its engineering and planning staff are still employed in Israel.
Brightsource's two largest shareholders are Vantagepoint Capital Partners and Alstom, which is also its strategic partner in projects outside the US. In addition to Ashelim, the two companies are considering building a second, 60-megawatt thermosolar power station in Israel, and are interested in projects in China and South Africa. In California, Brightsource is involved in three huge projects (of which one is under construction), with an aggregate production capacity of 1,300 megawatts. They include the $2.1 billion Ivanpah project in the Mojave Desert, together with Google.org and NRG Energy Inc. (NYSE: NRG). Ivanpah will have three power stations, identical to ones that will be built at Ashelim, with a total capacity of 377 megawatts, which will provide electricity to 140,000 households by the end of 2013.
The Ivanpah project faced an unforeseen obstacle that almost killed the project before it got started: the site is the home of the rare desert tortoise, and a coalition of environmental organizations teamed up to save it. The solution included moving the tortoises to a new home, at a cost to the project's developers of $1 million per tortoise.
Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on September 2, 2013
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