Solar Power to the people

Israeli start-up wants to bring solar, cellular networks to the 3rd world.

Israeli company SolarPower Ltd. leads a double life. On the one hand, it is a start-up that is still in the process of building an alternative energy prototype. On the other hand, it is an engineering, installation, and service company that supplies solar energy products, and represents Japanese company Kyocera Solar in Israel. In its second role, SolarPower provides alternative energy solutions to regions lacking infrastructure. The company aims use this activity to finance its independent business, with its own proprietary component.

SolarPower envisions a collection of household electricity networks, each producing solar energy, while also being hooked up to the national electricity grid. During the day, when the sun is shining, this network can produce more electricity than it needs, and contribute environmentally friendly power to the national network. On rainy days, and at night, households can consume electricity from their own network. Six projects already exist in Israel, in which households produce some of their electricity by themselves, five of which were planned and implemented by SolarPower.

In order to connect a solar panel to an electricity grid, an inverter is needed, and SolarPowers main innovation is in its inverter. The job of the inverter is to invert direct current produced by photovoltaic panels to alternating current on a different frequency for the electricity grid. Electric companies dont like playing games with their networks, explains SolarPower founder and general manager Alon Tamari. Thats why they set very tough standards for what enters.

Todays inverters lose about 8% of electricity in the conversion process, he continues. We have found a way to apply technology currently used on a communications sector to solar inverters, which saves 4% of electricity production. Efficient electricity conversion is the specialty of my partner, Dr. Avinoam Levy, while my background is in communications. The cooperation between us, together with a team of employees in the field and a group of academic researchers, enabled us to find a solution. This solution is actually an application of technology commonly used in a communications sector to electricity inversion. To the best of my knowledge, this solution is new; none of our competitors have discovered it. Most inverter manufacturers started out as transformer manufacturers, so its no wonder that they didnt think in this direction.

SolarPower is also talking about smart control of its inverter through the Internet: monitoring its performance; changing the level of its activity by remote control; adapting it from a distance to changes in the network, panel, or weather conditions; and so forth. Tamari points out that the inverter must also be synchronized with every panel and every electricity network in the world.

Dr. Avinoam Levy is an electrical engineer who focused on development and support of electric power systems. In recent years, he worked at PowerDsine (Nasdaq: PDSN). As the companys tech rep in the US, he was exposed to alternative energy field. Levy and Tamari became acquainted in a talk through a neighborhood fence of a semidetached house in Tel Mond. Tamari told Levy that he wanted to leave his profession of technical development, management, marketing, and sales in communications companies, including ECI Telecom (Nasdaq: ECIL), Radcom (Nasdaq: RDCM), and Rad-Bynet. Tamari wanted to go back to working on the environment, which he hadnt dealt with since his university undergraduate days studying geophysics. Tamari and Levy founded the company with just their own equity, which has amounted to $200,000 so far.

In the meantime, while the new inverter was still in development, SolarPower began its penetration of the cellular market as an engineering and services company.

We decided to focus on environmentally friendly energy for mobile phones, and on hooking up regions that had no infrastructure, Tamari relates. Actually, it overlaps our field, because there are many places today where cellular networks are deployed first, because there is no wireline telephone network there, and its probably no longer worthwhile deploying such a network there. In many of these places, there is also no continuous supply of electricity, which is needed for cellular antennas.

We work mostly with international wireless operators deploying new networks in developing countries. Actually, we market existing solutions to them. We represent Kyocera, a Japanese electrical appliances corporation that also manufactures solar panels, in the Middle East. Nevertheless, well never sell the shelf solutions to our partners. Well always adapt them to the needs of every country and every operator.

SolarPower is currently a partner in two projects in this area: one in Angola, and one in Ethiopia. The company will receive a total of $1 million from these projects. SolarPowers sales were just under $1 million in 2003 and just over $1 million in 2004. The company expects to reach NIS 7-8 million in 2005, and make a profit.

Incidentally, remote regions lacking infrastructure are not confined to the Third World. We operate in many Bedouin villages that are not recognized, and are therefore not connected to electricity and telephone infrastructure, Tamari says. Israeli citizens living in these villages do reserve duty in the army, and when they return home, they have to carry water from wells, and sleep next to generators. Weve supplied them with a lot of electricity from solar sources, and theyre our best customers everything is paid in cash.

"Globes": Your company actually depends on the development of a solar market based on photovoltaic panels. How does this market stand at the present?

Tamari: Although companies are in the penetration stage, and the technology is young, there is enormous demand a huge hunger for technology. Because of a shortage a raw materials, not all the demand can be supplied, and equipment prices are rising. In order for the market to develop, prices have to come down, of course, and most governments are providing some kind of subsidy for this purpose. With government support, the field of home networks hooked up to the central electricity grid is growing at 35% a year. The solar industry wont develop in Israel without government support. Its true that we can go on selling to Africa and Europe. In order for business activity to develop in Israel, however, a place to test and try out the products is needed. The Israel Electric Corporation is about to issue a tender for hooking up three homes in Kibbutz Grofit to a solar network, which will also be connected to the main network. We hope to participate in this project.

What about the inverter?

Weve reached a level where we know exactly how to make them, but we still havent made an actual prototype. Were waiting for investment to help us develop it, which is expected to take a year.

Published by Globes [online] - www.globes.co.il - on May 19, 2005

 
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