Obama-backed Israeli solar project flounders in California

Israeli-conceived solar plant at Ivanpah, California is based on obsolete technology and has raised alarm about environmental harm. (Craig Dietrich)  

Last week, The New York Times reported on the opening of a massive solar power plant on public land at Ivanpah, in California’s Mojave Desert.

What the Times did not say is that the company that established the solar plant, BrightSource Energy (with co-investors NRG Energy and Google), has been touted as one of Israel’s supposed high-tech exports.

The Times story is nevertheless rather somber. The power plant has opened under a shadow: despite the huge cost – subsidized by the US government – the project could be the last of its kind as “the price of rival technologies has plummeted, incentives have begun to disappear and the appetite among investors for mammoth solar farms has waned.”

Obama backing

As I reported in 2010, President Barack Obama used his weekly address to promote BrightSource, while misleadingly describing it as an example of American “ingenuity and can-do spirit”:

With projects like this one, and others across this country, we are staking our claim to continued leadership in the new global economy. And we’re putting Americans to work producing clean, home-grown American energy that will help lower our reliance on foreign oil and protect our planet for future generations.

Israeli company with a US address

In fact, as I also reported, BrightSource is an Israeli-based company, although it moved its official headquarters to Oakland, California.

BrightSource founder Arnold Goldman was born in the United States and settled in present-day Israel decades ago where he received a “Builder of Jerusalem Award” from the extreme Zionist and pro-settlement organization Aish HaTorah.

He is a member of the international board of governors of the Jerusalem College of Technology (JCT) which bills itself as “Vital to the State of Israel & the IDF.”

Despite being an “American” firm, as recently as last year, 300 of BrightSource’s 400 employees were “engineers and development staff working mainly in Jerusalem, where its international R&D happens.

The US jobs Obama announced, were, by contrast, temporary construction work.

Yet with an American address, BrightSource became eligible for more than one billion dollars in loan guarantees from the Obama administration.

“With over $1 b. in US government loans, Israel’s BrightSource will build the world’s largest solar energy project in California,” the website Israel21c reported in 2010.

Obama also promoted the Israeli firm at a time when BrightSource was about to float itself on the stock exchange. But the IPO was canceled just hours before the stock was supposed to start trading.

Antiquated

In a 2012 commentary for KCET public radio, environmental author Chris Clarke explained why investors balked: BrightSource’s “core technology is antiquated – hundreds of mirrors focusing light and heat on a boiler, the chief concession to modernity being computers helping the mirrors track the sun.”

Systems like the one at Ivanpah – called “concentrating solar power” – require huge areas of land and large sources of water to keep the mirrors clean and operate the turbines, an unsustainable concept in parched desert areas.

Lawsuits

The plant was also opposed for damage to the local ecology and wildlife and its disregard for the rights of Native Americans on whose ancestral lands it is built.

BrightSource’s Ivanpah plant is one of a number that has been challenged in lawsuits by a number of environmental, labor and American Indian groups alleging that the Obama administration disregarded environmental regulations in order to speed through the projects located “in fragile landscapes and … home to desert tortoises, bighorn sheep and other protected flora and fauna.”

Another BrightSource project, at Rio Mesa, California, collapsed last year after the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) rejected an application for the plant to supply power to the utility Southern California Edison.

CPUC ruled that the terms offered by BrightSource “compare poorly on price and value relative to other solar thermal projects offered to” Edison.

Also, as Clarke points out, Rio Mesa would have occupied 4,000 acres of pristine desert and obstacles “arose almost from its inception, including the discovery of a world-class Ice Age fossil deposit, concerns over the effect of the project’s concentrated ‘solar flux’ on birds and other wildlife, and conflict with local Native people.”

Better technology

The obsolete Israeli technology used at Ivanpah and planned for the failed Rio Mesa project has been outpaced in efficiency by photovoltaic cells which convert the sun’s rays directly into electricity without the need for water, steam and turbines. China, Germany and the United States – not Israel – are world leaders in that field.

As energy analyst Matthew Feinstein tells the Times, companies supplying the mirror-and-steam systems “have questionable futures.”

“There’s other prospects for renewables and for solar that look a lot better than this particular solution,” Feinstein says, “including rooftop solar systems that are being installed one by one on businesses and homes.”

Greenwashing

In my new book The Battle for Justice in Palestine, I focus on BrightSource as an example of “greenwashing” – the exaggerated or outright false presentation of Israel as an environmental pioneer in order to win “progressive” support and distract from the apartheid regime under which it forces Palestinians to live.

Another firm I discuss in the book is the Israeli electric car company Better Place, also heavily promoted around the world as a green pioneer. Better Place, a settlement profiteer with a war criminal as the CEO of its Israeli operation, collapsed last year after it sold only a few hundred cars.

The New York Times story suggests that Israel’s BrightSource, without Obama administration subsidies and boosterism, could be heading the same way.

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Comments

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Why would you want to set up new sites with such obsolete technology? Tax-payers should not be supporting this.

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When the project was commissioned, it was a competitive technology that was worth exploring. During construction, photo-voltaic solar became much cheaper, which made CSP solar (like Ivanpah) obsolete. It has nothing to do with Israel and Brightsource. The US government supports a large number of solar projects that are built by US companies. And... there's plenty of innovation in this field that came out of the US (SunPower, First Solar, Enphase and many many more). Bashing Israel and Obama on such an issue only undermines your credibility.

Ali Abunimah

Ali Abunimah's picture

Co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of The Battle for Justice in Palestine, now out from Haymarket Books.

Also wrote One Country: A Bold-Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. Opinions are mine alone.