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Energy Oasis in the Desert

Arava Power Company, a pioneering solar energy firm, wants to make the Israeli desert bloom — with photovoltaic panels.

By 8 a.m., you're already scrambling for shade. The sun is a force in the Negev, the desert that comprises more than half of Israel's land mass.

David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister and a passionate champion of the desert, said Israel's success as a nation would ride on how its citizens make productive use of the sun. In 1956, he wrote: "The mightiest source of energy in our world ... is the sun, which favors us day by day, with astronomical quantities of energy, which runs to waste." He called on scientists to find ways for "absorbing even a very small part of this tremendous energy and putting it to work for the growing and manifold needs of our variegated economy."

In recent years, Israeli entrepreneurs (and scientists) have started embracing that blazing solar output as an energy source, rather than fight it by trying to turn this arid region into profitable farmland.

Doing the technological and bureaucratic bushwacking is the Arava Power Company, a 4-year-old firm based at Kibbutz Ketura, at the very tip of Israel in the Southern Arava Rift Valley. The firm is thinking big. "We want to make the Arava Valley the Silicon Valley of renewable energy," says co-founder Rabbi Michael Cohen. Specifically, APC is seeking to supply 10 percent of Israel's electricity needs through partnerships with kibbutzim and other landowners and to help bring the country to 20 percent renewable energy by 2020.

Cohen, who splits his time between Kibbutz Ketura and Vermont, recalls a few years back when he and APC President Yosef I. Abramowitz first thought to launch a solar power company in the Negev. Many tried to talk them out of their quixotic venture, noting the labyrinthine regulatory climate — a dozen separate government ministries are involved with solar energy — and the challenges of raising venture capital. (As the website notes, "Call us crazy.")

Then, Cohen says, they looked at solar maps of the world and saw that some of the highest solar radiation on Earth was in Arava — with the hot spot right near the kibbutz and across the border into Jordan. So along with American executive David Rosenblatt, now vice chairman, they forged ahead, and APC became the first company to arrange to sell power directly to the Israeli national grid. It also negotiated a "feed-in tariff," which buys their power at guaranteed, generally above market prices.

Last August, Siemens invested $15 million in the company — the first Israeli company the German industrial giant has put money into. "If someone like Siemens is taking us seriously, the message is that there's something real here," Cohen says.

Last month, in the cool of the evening at Kibbutz Ketura, I sat down with APC Chairman Ed Hofland, a kibbutz member originally from Holland, over a glass of Israeli wine (another burgeoning industry.) With a characteristic Israeli shrug, he explained why he was willing to involve the kibbutz in Cohen and Abramowitz's quixotic plan: "We have a lot of land and sunshine, and technology is not a problem. Money is possible to raise if you need it."

Since no plans for solar fields were in place, those first few years they did a lot of educating the government utilities and ministries, a kind of PowerPoint road show. But being first offered some advantages, as APC was able to sign the best land deals. "We could see which land was the best zoned or closest to the grid, then could cherry pick," Hofland says. The firm now has some 215 megawatts of land capacity locked up and options for three times that.

In a sense, APC's work is a "real estate game," Hofland says. Setting up solar fields is not just capital-intensive (each megawatt costs $5 million to build) but land-intensive, and this in a country where every scrap of land is contended.

"We set up partnerships with private landowners, and are oriented to kibbutzim," he says. This is itself a niche: Israel has 256 kibbutzim, about two-thirds of which are now privatized as opposed to functioning as collectives. An arrangement like that offered by APC looked particularly attractive to kibbutzim in the south, where many kibbutzniks decided that romantic as the idea was, "making the desert bloom" required more water — and effort — than proved economically viable. Granting the use of former agricultural land to APC offers a new revenue stream to kibbutzim, and more than 15 have signed on.

It isn't only the kibbutzim who have land in the Negev. In June, APC signed a deal with two Bedouin clans to lease some of their land for solar fields. That particular deal is seeking a loan from the U.S. government's Overseas Private Investment Corporation.

In Israel, impetus for solar isn't necessarily driven by a commitment to green energy. Despite rapid growth in green technology in the country, in general, I found Israelis not too worked up about environmental issues. ("Here we have one issue," people would say, with that trademark shrug, referring to the Palestinian question.)

But for Hofland, solar energy is a matter of security. "Right now we're dependent on oil, which means some not-friendly countries," he says. (Despite sitting in the oil-rich Mideast, most of Israel's oil comes from Russia and the Caspian region.) "Let's say you've got five power plants and a bomb hits one of them. Solar spreads the risk."

Cohen, however, says that environmental security transcends politics. "Crazy climate doesn't know from political borders," says Cohen, a founding faculty member of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, also housed at Kibbutz Ketura. "We can't wait for the [Palestinian] conflict to have ended to start dealing with ...[the] environment."

Meanwhile, 20,000 photovoltaic panels are arriving for the company to set up in fields. Once the government gets on board, Abramowitz says, Israel should be able to shift to renewables quickly. "In Germany, they have 3.8 GW of installed capacity and only 900 kW hours of sunlight per square meter a year," he says. "Israel now has 25 MW of capacity on small rooftops. At Kibbutz Ketura, we have 2,247 kilowatt hours of sunlight, more than twice Germany."

With increased scale and efficiency, solar will become the energy source of choice, Hofland says. "Fifteen years from now when we know how to produce during the day and store at night, we should be able to produce 100 percent of our energy this way."

With borders pressing on every side, Israel is always mindful of its neighbors. Solar energy presents a chance to build collaborative relationships with the countries surrounding it - the sun by definition is there to be shared. "We now have expertise which is worth something," says Hofland, which, he says, presents the opportunity to share information with "foreign countries at the same stage Israel was three years ago." According to Abramowitz, APC's parent company, Global Sun Partners (based in the British Virgin Islands), is "exploring how to be helpful to other countries in the region."