Arnold Goldman - A living, breathing "Black Swan"

Most of us have heard the term “to have the courage of your convictions”.  According to usingenglish.com this idiom means that “you are brave enough to do what you feel is right, despite any pressure for you to do something different”.

As far as I am concerned Arnold Goldman is the epitome of that statement.

Born in Rhode Island in 1943 Arnold moved with his family to California in the late 1950’s.  At the age of sixteen, working as a mop salesman, he came to the conclusion that if he had to work he wanted that work to be personally and socially valuable.

He attended UCLA and the University of Southern California, earning degrees in engineering and computer science.  He had success with Lexitron, a startup company that developed the first American made word processor.  In the late 1970’s he relocated to Israel and turned his attention to the vexing problem of developing solar power into a practical source of energy for the generation of electricity. 

Shortly after its foundation Israel had become home to a sustained research effort into the use of solar energy through organizations such as the Research Council of Israel and the Technion institute of technology.  Amongst the background materials that had been gathered was information about a project developed in Egypt in 1912 by an American named Frank Shuman (described in detail in a NY Times article in 1916).  That project used parabolic mirrors to heat tubes containing water which was converted into steam used to drive irrigation pumps.  Goldman concluded that a variation of this approach could be used to power steam turbines in order to generate electricity.  In 1979 Goldman established Luz International and built a scientific team in Israel in order to commercialize the technology.

After the oil crisis of 1979 that resulted from the Iranian Revolution the United States government was eager to support the development of renewable energy sources.  Goldman seized this opportunity and by 1984 Luz International was building the world’s largest Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) generation station in the Mojave Desert in California – the Solar Electric Generating Systems (SEGS).

Goldman was determined to position his company first and foremost as a power generation company, able to consistently and reliably supply electricity when it was needed.  As a result, the SEGS plants incorporated natural gas as a secondary fuel to be used on cloudy days and at night.

Even more innovative for that time was a commitment to continuous improvement.  Each of the SEGS plants incorporated information gathered from the preceding plants in order to increase reliability and efficiency.

Supported in part by tax credits and a guaranteed price for electricity (what would now be termed a Feed-In-Tariff) the facility was expanded year after year to the point where it had a capacity of 354 MW by 1991. That’s when this incredibly innovative project came to a standstill.

Having overcome seemingly endless litigation and government jurisdictional disputes regarding environmental protection issues, Luz International was forced to declare bankruptcy when the property tax exemption that had been granted to the company expired.

Although that was end of Luz International it was not the end for SEGS.  Through various ownership changes the facility has been a dependable source of electricity for Southern California for more than two decades.  It is amazing that almost 30 years after the first SEGS plant became operational the complex is still the largest CSP facility in the world (although that is about to change).

Goldman took the bankruptcy of Luz International in stride and went on to achieve success in a number of different fields.  But in 2004, the allure of solar energy captured his attention once more.  He founded a new company, now called Brightsource Energy, and after 6 years of developing new proposals, navigating regulatory mazes, and planning a future home for desert tortoises and Mojave ground squirrels, construction began on a new solar tower style facility near Ivanpah, California.

The facility will use some 173,500 mirrors mounted on posts with dual axis motors to track the sun and focus the rays on a single point.  The intense heat that will be generated will produce high temperature, high pressure steam to drive steam turbines.

Goldman wasn’t content to simply replicate the technology that had been used at SEGS.  Rather than using massive and heavy trough mirrors with a single axis of rotation he switched to smaller, lighter units with flat mirrors that are less expensive to manufacture and install.

Although the heating of a fluid in a tube suspended above the parabolic trough had worked at SEGS, the building and maintenance of the extensive network of tubing added both capital and operating costs.  Using the solar tower approach at Ivanpah avoids those costs.

Goldman has always put a great emphasis on building a team of talented individuals to successfully execute the projects he has been involved with.  There are many new faces on the Brightsource executive but it is a testament to the loyalty that Goldman garners that long time associates Israel Kroizier and Gabriel Kaufman continue to be part of that team.

With the Solana CSP plant nearing completion at Gila Bend, Arizona, and the opening of the small eSolar Sierra power plant in August, 2009, a new era in Concentrated Solar Power has arrived in North America.  Offering the promise of extended power generation through the use of Thermal Energy Storage, these plants will undoubtedly play a large part in getting us to a sustainable energy future.

And from everything I have observed I think Arnold Goldman will have a major role in this resurgent industry. He had the courage to follow his conviction that solar power could be a very important source of renewable energy and the wisdom to engage a large team of experts to make it happen.  Although Mr. Goldman has now passed the baton to a new management team at Brightsource his vision will influence CSP developments for decades to come.


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