Israeli Desert Yields a Harvest of Energy
By ISABEL KERSHNER, NY Times, April 20, 2012
KETURA, Israel — Arriving at this bone-dry kibbutz in the Arava Desert late one afternoon in August 2006, Yosef Abramowitz, a social activist, Jewish educator and multimedia entrepreneur from Boston, opened the door of his van and was hit by a wall of heat.
“The sun was setting, but it was still burning,” he said. “I remember the sensation.”
Later, unable to sleep, he rose about 5 a.m. and stepped outside as the sun was coming up over the mountains of Jordan. “It was so hot already,” he recalled. “I said to myself, ‘This whole place must work on solar power.’ ”
Then he found out that was not true.
So Mr. Abramowitz, who had spent six months at Ketura in the early 1980s as part of a Young Judaea program, quickly abandoned his plans to spend a quiet family sabbatical with his wife and children in southern Israel. Instead, he went into partnership with Ed Hofland, a businessman from the kibbutz, and David Rosenblatt, an investor and strategist from New Jersey, to found the Arava Power Company, now the leading commercial developer of solar power in Israel.
After more than five years of political and regulatory battles with the Israeli authorities, the company has transformed 20 acres of a sand-colored field on the edge of the communal farm. It now glistens with neat rows of photovoltaic panels from China — 18,600 in all — that harness the sun. There is no smoke, only a slight buzz in the spotless rooms where the panels’ current is turned into electricity that can be fed into the electrical grid. Small openings in the perimeter fence allow animals to cross the field.
Depending on the time of year and rate of energy consumption, this field provides power for as many as five communities.
Siemens, the German conglomerate, was brought in as a partner and invested $15 million, and its Israeli branch built the field. The Jewish National Fund, a century-old Zionist group most associated with planting trees in Israel, made an unusual strategic investment of $3 million in a twist on the early national ideal of trying to make the desert bloom.
In forging a path for commercial solar energy, Mr. Abramowitz said he endured regulatory battles involving two dozen agencies as big as the Israeli Agriculture Ministry and as small as the local planning agency on issues like zoning changes and renewable energy quotas.
Along the way, Mr. Abramowitz — who left the kibbutz for Jerusalem in 2009 but still visits often — became known in Ketura as Captain Sunshine. “He got his nickname, first, because of his sunny personality,” said Elaine Solowey, a member of the kibbutz, “and, second, because anyone who beats the government bureaucracy is a superhero.”
Arava Power’s pioneering work has not gone unnoticed. Other communal farms and communities in the arid reaches of southern Israel are rapidly turning to renewable energy: solar energy is a harvest that does not require irrigation.
Last month, Israel’s Public Utility Authority issued licenses for nine larger solar fields, including a 150-acre site at Ketura that will eventually meet one-third of the peak daytime energy needs in the nearby city of Eilat.
Ketura’s new solar field will be built across the road from the kibbutz in a rift valley between two mountain ranges. The near-constant breeze from the north will naturally cool the backs of the panels, which will face south. With up to 14 hours of sunlight in the summer, an average of only 15 cloudy days a year and access to the national electricity grid nearby, the area has conditions that are perfect for producing solar energy, Mr. Abramowitz said.
“God could not have invented a better place to do solar power,” he said during a recent tour.
Arava Power has entered deals to lease land from numerous farms and communities in southern Israel. It has also teamed up with Bedouins in the Negev Desert: the tribes will lease their lands to Arava Power for solar installations, and the company will provide jobs for the clans. In February, the regulatory authorities granted the first license for an installation on Bedouin-owned land belonging to the Tarabin tribe. Financing for the Bedouin fields is coming from the United States government’s Overseas Private Investment Corporation.
Arava Power expects to grow into a $2 billion enterprise. That is quite a change for a small kibbutz that has mainly lived off its date palms, dairy shed and the salaries of members who work outside the farm.
Ketura was founded in 1973 by 25 idealists, graduates of the Young Judaea Zionist movement, and is known for its socialist values and simple, communal lifestyle. Though the kibbutz has a stake in Arava Power, Mr. Hofland, the company chairman, will not make any personal profit.
The kibbutz is also known for environmental innovation. It operates a high-tech algae farm and is home to the Arava Institute, where Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians, Americans and others study the environment. The kibbutz’s appreciation for education has resulted in what its secretary general, Sara Cohen, calls “knowledge-based ventures.”
In one such effort, Dr. Solowey domesticates rare plants, including species with medicinal properties, and works on finding new crops for arid and saline lands.
As yet, the prospect of solar power riches has not gone to the heads of the practical farmers who live in Ketura.
“It means having our future accounted for, when we cannot work in the date fields anymore,” Ms. Cohen said. “And our children’s education will be secured.”
Still, she added, “We are not eating filet mignon in the kibbutz dining room yet.”