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Israeli engineers are on the cutting edge of solar energy technology, and one Israeli company runs several solar plants in California. Israeli scientists say new technology will cut costs and make building solar plants easier.

NPR's Linda Gradstein traveled to the sunny Negev Desert to learn more.

LINDA GRADSTEIN: Wearing a cowboy hat to shield himself from the strong sun, David Faiman stands in front of what looks like a giant satellite dish. The huge dish, made of aluminum and glass, collects sunlight and funnels it to a photovoltaic cell which converts it directly into electricity. The technology is called concentrator photovoltaics, or CPV. And Faiman, a physicist at Ben Gurion University, says it's the key to solving one of the fundamental problems of solar energy.

Dr. DAVID FAIMAN (Ben Gurion University): Solar energy is a very dilute form of energy compared to fossil energy. If you take one square meter of the sun-rich Negev desert here, it would take nearly a year to absorb from the sun the equivalent of one barrel of oil. And mankind is currently consuming energy at the rate of 200 million barrels a day.

GRADSTEIN: CPV speeds up the process in a way that Faiman says will make solar power competitive with fossil fuel.

Dr. FAIMAN: We were able to produce from this four-inch-by-four-inch module not one watt, not 10 watts, not a hundred watts, not a thousand watts, but 1,500 watts of electric power.

GRADSTEIN: Another Israeli technology is already in use to run turbines at nine power plants in California. Developed by the Israeli company Solel, it concentrates the sunlight that falls on curved mirrors to heat liquid which creates steam that powers a turbine.

In Israel itself, most homeowners already have aluminum and glass panels on their roofs that use solar energy for hot water during the summer. But there's not a single commercial solar facility in the country, despite an average 330 days of sun a year in Israel's Negev desert - the most likely site for a solar plant.

President Shimon Peres says Israel must take better advantage of that sunlight.

President SHIMON PERES (Israel): The sun is more reliable than the Saudis. The sun apparently is more permanent, more democratic, and more friendly and more objective. And we have a lot of sun, and we don't have anything in the way of oil.

GRADSTEIN: But switching to solar power won't be easy. In 2002, the government decided that five percent of Israel's electricity should be generated by solar power by 2016. It took a year for an inter-ministerial committee to decide that a solar power plant should be built. But ground hasn't even been broken yet.

The government must do more, says Dov Raviv, an engineer who's been involved in Israel's rocket industry as well as solar energy projects.

Mr. DOV RAVIV (Chairman, Abryl, Ltd.): This requires a very aggressive approach and a very - and long-range planning and investment. But they are doing nothing. They wait for other people to do the job. So they say, yes, we need solar energy. Let the investor come and build plants. Nothing like that will happen.

GRADSTEIN: Raviv says Israeli officials focus only on security threats such as Iran. But he asserts that global energy shortages will soon be an even more serious threat to Israel.

Hezi Kugler, the director general of the Ministry of National Infrastructure, agrees that not enough has been done to move forward with solar energy.

Mr. HEZI KUGLER (Ministry of National Infrastructure): I totally understand people's frustration. I'm also a bit frustrated. The government does indeed work rather slowly. However, I must say that there's been a much higher appreciation on the part of all the relevant government officials.

GRADSTEIN: For example, he says, Israel has passed new taxes to help build solar plants and is working on tax breaks for anyone who installs home solar energy systems.

But local companies say they're not waiting for the government. Dov Raviv says he's already partnered with investment companies abroad and hopes to start building solar energy plants soon.

Linda Gradstein, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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