This story was written for The Jerusalem Post. It appeared May 12, 2008. 

By Gal Tziperman Lotan

The Ministry of National Infrastructure sought a private tender to build a solar power plant in the southern town of Ashalim Sunday, but no Israeli company has the required experience to offer a bid.

There are currently no solar power plants in Israel, rendering all Israeli companies ineligible to apply, unless they join forces with foreign companies. Oren Gazenfeld, CEO of Israeli energy company General Engineers, said the project can only benefit from Israeli involvement, and bemoaned the ministry's experience requirement which locked local companies out.

"As an Israeli company, we want to take part in this revolutionary project, and foreign companies want Israeli partners, not just people to fund them," Gazenfeld told The Jerusalem Post. Because Israel Electric owns all the power plants in Israel, Gazenfeld said, no other Israeli companies have experience building power plants.

"We have engineers involved in every major power project in Israel, and I think we are poised as a leading contender, but we do not have the ability to participate," Gazenfeld said. "That is not right."

Avi Shekel, founder and CEO of Shekel Technologies, said his company plans on bidding with foreign associates. "If a few Israeli consortiums join a group of companies, maybe there's a chance. But an Israeli company alone? I don't think so. The bid does not allow it," Shekel said. "Known technologies are not very efficient, and we are inexperienced with technologies in development - that's a problem." Shekel said he was "skeptical but optimistic" about the execution of the project. "As an Israeli citizen, I hope this works out," he said.

Foreign companies at the conference declined to interview, explaining that publicizing their dealings in Israel could jeopardize business in other countries. Uzi Levin, a senior advisor to the Director-General of the Ministry of National Infrastructures, said the project is too innovative and risky for inexperienced Israeli companies to handle alone. "We need the involvement of foreign companies with expertise in these fields," Levin said. "It's unlikely that an international company will establish this alone. It will always lean on and be aided by local companies," he said, but the committee has not mandated any amount of Israeli involvement.

The project was handed to the private sector because of the progress commercial firms have made in the renewable energy field, Director-General of the Ministry of National Infrastructure Hezi Kugler said.

"The private sector is advancing in this field, but not as fast as we would like, so we are hoping this will push them," Kugler said. The Israeli Electric Company has not questioned the decision and hopes to join the private sector in producing renewable energy, Kugler said.

Avi Dor, deputy accountant-general and head of the inter-ministerial tender committee, said the project is Build, Operate and Transfer (BOT), which means plant ownership is transferred to the state after 20-25 years of private sector establishment and maintenance. If this project succeeds, the Ministry of National Infrastructure will build more solar plants, Dor said.

Four thousand square kilometers are available for the project near Ashalim, a small Negev village west of Dimona, Dan Weinstock, director of the Electricity Administration said.

Weinstock called Ashalim an excellent site for solar power because it is sunny and is not a military zone. The Ministry of National Infrastructure's goal of having 10 percent of Israel's power come from renewable sources by 2020 is ambitious but possible, Weinstock said.

"Renewable energy does not work around the clock like other energy sources," Weinstock said, "But if Israel builds enough renewable energy power plants, there is no reason it would not work." 

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