David Ben-Gurion dreamed of a country powered by the sun. Today, Israel’s solar power visionaries are struggling to make his dream come true.
In 1949, David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, established a new scientific research council and invited English physicist Harry Tabor to come to Israel and join. Upon his arrival, Tabor was inundated with visits, letters and phone calls from Israelis with ideas for new inventions. There “were always a few with solar energy devices; they were very enthusiastic and made a lot of very foolish proposals,” Tabor, now 96, said in a 2000 interview. Partially in an attempt to ward off the onslaught of “helpful” advice from “nudnikim [annoying people],” the physicist began searching for ways to harness the power of the sun.
Israel’s most vocal supporter of solar energy at the time was Ben-Gurion himself, who believed that Israel’s greatness would stem from the utilization of its natural resources—the sun in particular. He once called the sun “the largest and most impressive source of energy in our world … yet a source so little used by mankind today.” And no one was more delighted than the prime minister when Tabor, using nickel and chrome to blacken metals, devised a surface that effectively trapped heat and minimized its loss. Even today what is referred to as “Tabor’s selective black surface” is used in most solar thermal technology around the world.
In Israel, rooftops are dotted with solar water heaters providing hot water for showers and sinks that are based on Tabor’s work. The ubiquitous dud shemesh so perfectly embodies Israel’s self-reliant bravado that it is easy to think it came into being alongside the State. But it wasn’t until 1953 that engineer Levi Yissar popularized the dud shemesh. Frustrated by energy shortages (people were forbidden to heat water between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.), Yissar founded Israel’s first commercial solar water heater company, NerYah. His rooftop unit—a simple system in which cold water flows from a tank into a tilted panel beneath a glass sheet and then heats in the sun—became the standard model in Israel.
The dud shemesh did not really catch on until the international oil embargo following the 1973 Yom Kippur war spurred Israelis to purchase solar water heaters en masse. The embargo was also a jolt to Western countries, accustomed to uninterrupted sources of cheap imported oil; it led them to begin investing in alternative energies. U.S. President Jimmy Carter, for example, created the Department of Energy in 1977, with the purpose of establishing an energy policy promoting clean and alternative fuels. For Israel, however, surrounded by hostile oil-rich neighbors, energy concerns were nothing new. As Golda Meir famously joked, “Let me tell you something that we Israelis have against Moses. He took us 40 years through the desert in order to bring us to the one spot in the Middle East that has no oil!”
The embargo led to a boom in solar research in Israel in the mid-1970s. Both Haifa’s Technion and Rehovot’s Weizmann Institute established solar laboratories, and the government threw its support behind solar production. It was this environment that attracted Arnold Goldman, a Pittsburgh native who made his fortune selling Lexitron, one of the first word-processing companies. A student of kabbalah, he immigrated to Israel in 1977, dreaming of building a utopian city based on Jewish values and clean energy. While his city never materialized, in 1979 he founded the solar-energy company Luz International, named after the biblical city “Luz” where Jacob dreamed of a ladder rising to heaven.
For more than a decade the company was a global leader in solar power, at one point producing 90 percent of all the solar-generated electricity in the world. Goldman tells me that Israel is “a wonderful place, possibly the leading in the world, to be able to put together small multidisciplinary teams to develop new innovations and practically implement, at low cost, first-of-a-kind solutions.” But when it came time for Luz to make its first major investments, he chose not Israel but California because of American financial incentives and solar tax breaks. “I found, as have many others, that the U.S. is a wonderful place, possibly the leading in the world, for financing and implementing first-of-its-kind innovations,” says Goldman.
Drawing on Tabor’s technology, the Luz team built nine solar thermal plants in the Mojave Desert in California in the mid-80s. Although Luz would go bankrupt in 1991 (when the world seemed flush with oil and incentives to develop alternative energy sources dried up), alumni of the company founded the Beit Shemesh-based Solel, which purchased most of the assets of Luz Industries including three of the Mojave plants. In 1997, Goldman launched yet another enterprise, Luz II, that morphed into BrightSource in 2006. BrightSource—an Israeli-Californian hybrid like its progenitor—is developing technology in Israel for use in a new solar-power plant in the Mojave that aims to be the largest solar thermal power plant in the world.
With its major solar players investing in the U.S., most of Israel’s solar energy is still generated by the dud shemesh. More than 95 percent of Israeli households own solar water heaters, says Eitan Parnass, the founder and CEO of the lobbying group Renewable Energy Association of Israel (REAI). This is partly due to a government law passed in the mid-1980s requiring their installation on all new construction.
But that is where Israel’s solar prowess ends. Only about one percent of Israel’s energy come from solar energy. Israel’s solar usage lags far behind other countries; Germany, for example, a country with significantly less sun than Israel, has managed to become the world leader in solar energy implementation.
After graduating from high school in Brookline, Massachusetts in the early 1980s, Yossi Abramowitz spent six months on Kibbutz Ketura, a community 45 minutes north of Eilat in the Arava Valley that was founded by the Young Judaea movement in 1973. The kibbutz has always had a strong idealistic bent—it is one of the few religiously pluralistic kibbutzim and is the home of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, which promotes regional peace building through the study of environmental issues. When the American social activist and journalist decided to immigrate to Israel in 2006 with his wife and children, Ketura seemed like the natural destination.
Abramowitz immediately saw the energy potential of the nearly-always-sunny Negev Desert. In a dramatic career change, he founded a solar power company, Arava Power, with Ed Hofland, who lived on the kibbutz, and David Rosenblatt, based in Tenafly, New Jersey. The three partners set themselves the ambitious goal to generate enough power to supply Israel with 10 percent of its energy through solar, planning to construct 40 different solar sites across Israel including nine solar fields in the Negev.
To build these fields, Arava Power secured over $200 million in funding from sources including Bank Hapoalim, Migdal Insurance and the Jewish National Fund; received provisional licenses; and signed an agreement with Israel Electric Corporation to distribute the energy generated. But so far, Arava Power has only been able to get one field located on kibbutz property, Ketura Sun, up and running. Israel’s only commercial solar field at present, it consists of 18,500 solar panels spread over 20 acres of land.
Why has the process been so slow? Arava Power’s Rosenblatt explains that it took five years of negotiating to open Ketura Sun. He and his partners had to contend with a vexing bureaucratic process that required approval from a host of different ministries including National Infrastructures, Energy and Water, Finance, and Housing and Construction as well as municipal and local councils, none of them coordinating with the other. “When David and I started we thought it would take us five years to whip Israel into shape and have a significant amount of solar power,” says Abramowitz. “And here we are six years later,” he adds with palpable frustration.
Besides bureaucracy, another major obstacle to implementing solar infrastructure in Israel is the lack of a clear government plan. “There is no national policy backed by funds to encourage solar or wind energy in the country,” says Uri Marinov, an environmental management professor at the Inter-Disciplinary Center in Herzliya and a former director of the Israeli Environment Ministry. Instead, policy is created piecemeal. For example, in 2008, the Israel Public Utility Authority approved a feed-in tariff subsidy—a mechanism that lets the government pay a subsidy to homeowners, businesses and organizations to feed solar-generated electricity back into the grid. But fluctuating prices and disagreements on how much energy should cost have made the rates uncertain. Incentive plans such as the tariff have been repeatedly instituted, then canceled. The confusion scares away international investment and “creates a very bad taste in a lot of people’s mouths,” says Rosenblatt.
In November, discouraged by the slow pace, Arava Power followed the well-worn path of other Israeli companies and took a step out of Israel, founding a spin-off, Energiya, which focuses on bringing renewable energy to countries in the developing world such as Rwanda and Romania. Energiya will offer—with funding from multilateral companies, commercial banks and the U.S. government—financing as well as technology, and help to set up production sites and assist governments in paying for them. “We are not waiting for Israel to be that shining example,” says Abramowitz. “In the case of Rwanda it is not like we are fighting government offices. They are saying ‘please help us.’”