Blowing in the wind

Israel has just marked the festival of Shavuot, a holiday centered around the harvest festival which reminds us of our commitment to the environment.

As the Jewish community in Israel around the world celebrates Shavuot, the Israel Innovation Authority, and its CEO Dror Bin have collated an important series of articles about the role of technology in finding new solutions to the challenges of climate change, sustainable energy and responsible food production.

The second article in the series is devoted to the importance of wind power and renewable energy.

Modern-day life relies on the continuous and high-quality supply of electricity however the energy world is still based on the burning of fossil fuels that pollute the planet. Israeli entrepreneurs have developed revolutionary technologies in the field of renewable energy that increase energy output and enable the storage of clean energy.

In 2010, Dr. Or Yogev was traveling with his wife in the San Gorgonio Mountain range in California. During the trip, that took place in the afternoon, he observed hundreds of wind turbines erected to create electricity for the area’s residents standing motionless, due to the lack of wind. In the late-night hours, he then saw the same turbines rotating rapidly and creating electricity, even though the residents’ electricity consumption at night was negligible and there was no way to store the electricity generated.

This inspired him to design a system that would enable the storage of electricity in the lower part of the turbine during the windy part of the day and to convert that energy into electricity during the hours without wind, all while using sustainable raw materials that do not pollute the environment. He set out with an understanding that storing energy will enable the global electricity economy to make the transition to the widespread use of renewable energy.

That realization became reality when Yogev founded ‘Augwind’ (an abbreviation of Augmented Wind). Over the last decade, the company has developed an energy storage system – revolutionary on a global scale – called ‘AirBattery’. The system, protected by more than 10 patents, can store electricity as compressed air which can then also be reconverted, when needed, back into electricity.

Until now, different methods have been developed for storing energy, with more than 90% of the world’s energy currently stored in pumped-storage facilities – two large water reservoirs separated by an elevation difference of 400-500 meters. To charge the electricity, the system uses electricity to pump water from the lower reservoir to the upper reservoir, while to discharge the electricity, the system releases the water from the upper reservoir to the lower one via a turbine, thereby generating electricity.

Pumped-storage systems of this kind are mega-projects that cost billions, take years to construct, and require special geographical conditions, while having a significant impact on the environment. Furthermore, the new power network, that will be based on renewable water sources, will require energy storage assets at different junctions along the length and breadth of the network, resulting in a need for storage solutions that can be installed at a diverse range of locations and at differing output scales. In contrast, with AirBattery’s unique technology, the huge water reservoirs, dams, and quarries are replaced by an innovative hydro-pneumatic air compressing system that is installed at an underground depth of only 3.5 meters and can be applied in almost any field conditions or climate. AirBattery thereby provide access to the advantages of pumped energy in a downsized, modular, and expandable form for a variety of applications.

AirBattery recently completed the establishment of the first extraction facility of its kind in the world, with the first commercial installation of the AirBattery system at Kibbitz Yahel in the Arava district in Israel. The kibbutz sought a storage solution suitable from an energy efficiency perspective that also integrates electricity generated from solar energy into its power network but was unenthusiastic about the option of placing tanks of lithium-ion batteries around the kibbutz. Yahel therefore became the first location in the world to store electricity underground using sustainable raw materials, without relying on lithium-ion batteries or damaging the landscape. The energy is stored in underground concrete tanks that enable the kibbutz to utilize the empty space above the system. The system at Kibbutz Yahel is relatively small in comparison to the company’s expected future installations, and stores 1 megawatt of power an hour. One of the byproducts of Augwind’s system is cold air (15 degrees) that will be diverted for use in cooling the dairy farm and for refrigeration in the kibbutz dates factory.

How Does it Work?

The air compression process begins in a set of pumps that transfer water from the system’s reservoir (that contains 100 cubic meters in the case of Kibbutz Yahel’s system) to its compression tanks. When filled with water, the air in the tanks is compressed to the desired pressure. Because of the tanks’ enormous size, this process is executed with maximum effectiveness and only minimal heat loss, thereby preserving high energy conversion efficiency. During the next stage, the compressed air is transferred from the compressor cells to the storage tanks that determine the system’s actual storage volume. In practice, this is an underground closed-circuit pumped storage system in which the same water feeds both the charging circuits and the discharge process.

The ability to produce low-cost modular underground spaces that facilitate Augwind’s compression and storage application overcomes an economic-technological obstacle that many companies and research entities have previously attempted to negotiate. Each tank stores approximately 250 kilowatts of energy for an unlimited period of time that then awaits an order to discharge it in order to create electricity.

When the demand for electricity arises – usually during the early evening hours when consumption is at its peak and is most expensive – compressed air is discharged via a controlled process from the storage tanks to a water tank from where the water is pumped at high pressure towards the water turbines. The turbine turns a power generator installed above it, thereby creating electricity which is fed into the internal power network.

“Modern-day life relies on the continuous and high-quality supply of electricity”, explains Ido Ben-Yehuda, Augwind’s Marketing Director. “The biggest challenge today in the field of renewable energy is how to continue providing electricity even after sunset or when there is no wind.

Augwind’s innovation is evident in its technical, economic, and environmental advantages. The system is modular and can be installed at almost any area and in any kind of climate, with one of the best cost-benefit ratios in the industry, and while using only water and air as raw materials. Furthermore, the system is installed underground, thereby enabling the user to utilize the area above the system for other purposes and allowing for longer periods of energy storage”.

The transition to renewable energy relies not only on environmental principles but also economics. It is cheaper to produce electricity from solar panels than it is to do so from oil or coal, but unlike the process of burning fossil fuels, that can be controlled, electricity from renewable energy is based on energy from the sun or the wind – sources that cannot be controlled. The greatest challenge is to enhance the ability to store electricity once it is produced and then supply it when needed. Extreme weather events are yet another level of challenge and make the ability to store energy safely and reliably even more significant.

AirBattery is Augwind’s flagship product, but the company has another product – AirSmart – that was developed along the way. This system is also based on storing compressed air, but for economizing the use of compressed air energy and for streamlining industrial manufacturing processes rather than for storing energy. The use of compressed air is part of the infrastructure in many manufacturing sectors such as the cement, iron, plastic, glass, and food and beverage industries, as well as in many other industrial sectors that use compressed air as part of the production process. Compressed air in industry is notorious as an unstable process that can damage the factory’s production output and, primarily, as a very inefficient process from an energy perspective, consuming high levels of electricity for a relatively low quantity of air, and emitting much more greenhouse gas than an efficient system would.

The company’s AirSmart system stabilizes the compressed air process in the factory and improves it according to production needs, in a way that guarantees continuous production, increasing output, and enabling 30% savings or more in power consumption of the compressed air systems. AirSmart is already being used industrially in several of Israel’s leading companies, was installed last year in Italy, and further installations are expected, both in Israel and overseas.

Augwind has already signed AirBattery collaboration agreements for dozens of megawatts per hour in Israel.

The company is growing rapidly. In 2019, it had 10 employees and today this number stands at 70. “There is a buzz around the system”, says Ben-Yehuda, “The company recently appointed Allon Raveh as its new CEO. Allon has substantial international commercial experience in energy and infrastructure”.

“It was important for us to develop this knowledge in Israel. From several aspects, the Israeli market is an excellent environment for this purpose – the field of renewable energy in Israel is interesting and developing as far as regulation and projects are concerned. The conditions in Israel enable the development of a solution with characteristics that are appropriate for the needs of many global markets. The Innovation Authority was, and is still, part of what we are doing, together with the Ministry of Energy. The company was created as part of the Capital Nature Technological Incubator in the Arava so, in practice, we received support from the Authority from a very early stage”.

Understanding the Solar Field

“Solar energy is a rapidly developing field today”, says Haggai Hofland, CEO of Raycatch and one of the company’s founders. “For years, the world was dependent on fossil fuels that caused serious pollution when converted to electricity. Fortunately, Einstein discovered the photo-electric effect, the effect that solar panels use, for which he received the Nobel Prize”.
For years, solar panels were considered a very interesting, although expensive, technology. Governments and countries were forced to significantly subsidize it, and this is the reason for its relatively limited implementation. It costs taxpayers and electricity consumers a lot of money. Israel also subsidized production during its early years to support the field of renewable energy, out of an understanding of the technology’s potential, and of the fact that the technology would mature alongside investment and would be economical and obviate the need for state subsidizing.

This situation has changed. Solar technology today is developed and profitable and is used by the world’s largest entities. Solar fields have become more active with the addition of energy storage capabilities that enable to double production during the day and save half of it for the night. Then, when the field is no longer producing electricity, the stored energy can be used and released, thereby providing us with cheap green electricity 24/7. The upshot is that the national electricity network can rely more on renewable sources of energy and, primarily, on solar energy.

Hofland points out that Raycatch’s experience in the solar world reveals a significant disparity between the capability and understanding of the solar assets’ operators, and reality on the ground. The challenge is that the data gathered from the solar fields is too ‘noisy’, delaying real-time reaction, and resulting in a lot of untapped money. Furthermore, operation is significantly more expensive than what it should be because it is not dictated by data.

This insight led, five years ago, to the establishment of Raycatch. The company has developed a technology that can connect to and analyze all the solar field’s data. The system is based on sensors scattered across the solar field area which gather production and environmental data, analyze it, and generate insights that are transferred to the field’s operators.

The system enables solar field operators to know what they can do to increase profits and guarantee that operation is backed up with data – for example, which panels need replacing to attain optimal production and what parts need maintenance or repair. Furthermore, the system provides ongoing insights such as the best time to clean the solar field in order to maximize output and when to send for a technician for repairs. The system helps raise energy output by 2%-7% and saves 5%-20% in operational costs.

“Our clients are solar field owners – from small fields to the largest in the world”, says Hofland. “The main market is Israel, but we also work in Europe and the Far East. It’s amazing to see Israeli entrepreneurs expanding now to Europe, the US, and the rest of the world. We are helping them, among others, to produce better return for their investors and provide them with an analytical layer that ‘runs’ above their existing fields.

“The product has a marked climatic impact. We help clients become more efficient and derive more from the same asset. This also advances the technology because more efficient technology facilitates more funding and allows to settle for less money for each unit of energy produced. Green energy is naturally even better for us so actually, the fact that we are helping our clients be more financially efficient and grow faster is good news for the world”.

Israel Can Lead the Way

Five years ago, Israel implemented a revolution that makes using solar energy cheaper than burning fossil fuels”, says Hofland. “As a result, there is less need for state subsidies, incentives, and funding. Today, most of the world knows that renewable energy is both good and low cost. As a result, solar energy has therefore been the preferred source of energy in recent years and this trend is only intensifying”.

Today, only a small percentage of the world’s electricity is produced from solar energy, but this will steadily increase. In the future, the world of renewable energies will occupy the lion’s share of energy production and that’s a good thing for all of us as residents of planet earth – it pollutes less, advances us technologically, and saves us money.

“Because this is a fledgling and a revolutionary market in the energy world, it allows us, as the State of Israel, to assume a leading role and be a pioneer in the field of climate-tech”, says Hofland. “Fantastic companies have been founded here and there are amazing solar entrepreneurs who are expanding beyond Israel’s borders and are active in the global market, doing great work, and growing. We are all showing the world that Israel knows both how to create technology and how to use it to develop solar fields.

“In the field of energy, it takes companies time to build trust and build themselves, therefore government support is very important. We were part of a technology incubator from our early stages, so the Innovation Authority was really our first partner”, adds Hofland with a smile. The company’s goals are very aggressive, and its teams are developing increasingly more layers of data and analytics based on the clients’ needs. “Our vision is to be the only company that meets all the clients’ data needs in the solar energy world – and in the other alternative assets of renewable energy. Realizing this vision will also undoubtedly benefit the global climate crisis.”

About the Author
Dror Bin is CEO of the Israel Innovation Authority, an independent public entity that operates for the benefit of the Israeli innovation ecosystem and Israeli economy as a whole.
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