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Missteps on the Road to Renewables

    Renewables surpassed fossil fuels as the cheapest energy source in 2020, according to the International Energy Agency. But the development path for solar and wind technology hasn’t always followed a straight line, judging by an Oct. 9 article in The New York Times. “‘Eye of Sauron’: The Dazzling Solar Tower in the Israeli Desert” tells the story of an $800 million experiment in energy generation in Ashalim, Israel: 50,000 mirrors on the desert floor reflect sunlight onto a boiler atop an 800 foot spire, generating steam that turns turbines at the towers’ base.

    Sometimes it feels like a dystopian skyscraper, looming ominously over the cows and roosters of a dairy farm across the road. The tower’s height prompts comparisons with the Tower of Babel, its blinding light with the burning bush. Its base looks like the hangar of a spaceship, its turret the pinnacle of a fantasy fortress.

    There are dozens of such towers across the globe. At Ashalim, which was completed in 2019, the broiler shines so brightly that it annoys locals—and incinerates passing birds. Just as annoyingly, for authorities and consumers, the cost of energy from the tower was contractually set in 2014, and energy from photovoltaics is now cheaper. “The higher cost is spread across the millions of consumers on the national grid,” the Times reports. Still, the tower produced about 70 local jobs, and enough electricity to power tens of thousands of homes. The engineer who supervised the mirrors’ installation moved to a company focused on solar panels.