Threats and Opportunities: Israel Knows Both

Brian Hicks

Updated June 6, 2007

KETURA, ISRAEL: In the same way that the State of Israel was not born into a vacuum, it is essential to put Israel’s energy development in a regional context. Today on the Red Sea, I heard European, Jordanian, and of course Israeli perspectives on Israel’s future in the age of Peak Oil.

I woke up today in the desert, on the campus of the Arava Institute of Environmental Studies. Here in the shadow of the Edom Mountains, the surroundings are biblical but the undertakings are strangely modern. I’m talking about mud buildings with solar panels and ethanol experiments funded by General Motors that involve the same types of plants the original Israelites would have used for food and clothing.

Moses and Aaron are nowhere to be found, but I have encountered plenty of willing leaders in this intrepid tribe.

During a break at the first Conference on Sustainable Energy as a Catalyst for Regional Development, I ruminated on lectures I had just taken in and munched on crunchy cucumbers dipped in delicious hummus and tahina (Middle Eastern chickpea and sesame favorites).

“We have the power to build as well as destroy, and to turn a challenge into an opportunity,” the opening speaker said in Hebrew, translating a sentiment I have heard throughout my travels.

As I enjoyed snacking with something other than my normal ranch dressing, I spoke with Asher Vaturi, a local energy expert who coordinates Israeli involvement in the European Organization for Promotion of Energy Technology and maintains an office at nearby Ben Gurion University.

Asher works closely with European counterparts, and he is able to directly compare and contrast developed country attitudes with those of his fellow Israelis. The desire to step away from a carbon-heavy lifestyle may seem obvious, as the bulk of the world’s oil originates in countries that do not officially recognize Israel’s existence. But, as Asher told me, “Israelis aren’t as afraid of global warming as they are of other catastrophes.”

Nevertheless, they’re coming around. Israel’s major science institutes, the Technion in the northern city of Haifa and the Weizmann Institute of Science in central Rehovot, have pumped out tens of thousands of engineers and scientists, feeding geniuses to 75 Israeli companies on the NASDAQ and multinational corporations like Intel that have major Israeli operations.

Now, many Israelis are turning their attention to hatching novel methods of generating energy. Asher tells me that up from just a few conferences on sustainable energy a few years ago, his schedule is now full.

Another lunchtime conversation involved David Waimann, CEO of Myriad Partners. With offices in the UK, Israel, Switzerland and the U.S., British-born Waimann also has a global perspective, and a global frustration with some who have been in the Israeli renewable energy sector for decades.

Companies like Jerusalem’s Luz Energy and Solel Thermal designed the technology for some of the world’s largest solar power installations, only to ship them off to Spain and Germany.

While Israel is big on brains, this sliver of the Middle East is a small market. This leads to a sort of industrial itch for entrepreneurs who are eager to hawk their wares elsewhere, and the same trend is exemplified in the jaw-dropping Israeli presence on the NASDAQ.

The local market, meanwhile, is trading at a P/E ratio of just 10, depressed by the flight abroad.As Asher Vaturi told me, this part of Israel would be well suited to the role of a renewable energy laboratory.

The Arava Valley, right on the rift valley that separates the African and Asian continents, has the highest solar radiation in the world. I can attest to this with sweat.

Only 3,000 people live in the Arava Regional Council (the zones into which Israel is subdivided), but it is the second-largest in the country. Eilat is the biggest city in the area with only 55,000 people.

If you’ve lived in a developed country since 1980 or so, you know what NIMBY is.

Not In My Back Yard is a familiar sentiment if not a familiar term. From landfills to prisons to wind farms, NIMBY is a phenomenon that stands in the way of public projects that everyone needs but no one wants.

So what if no one’s back yard is nearby?

The first piece of paper in my packet today was a flyer for the Southern Arava Renewable Energy Technologies Park. The park is a vision for governmental and industrial development that could transform the region into an international renewable energy pilgrimage site, even while Jerusalem and Mecca are each just a few hours away.

But I’m not waiting for the park to be built to find companies that are making their mark. I’m wiping the sweat from my brow and heading out again tomorrow.


Sam Hopkins

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