A lumber yard in the middle of Tel Aviv is an unlikely place to discover innovative new technology to transform ocean waves into energy, but there I was watching a demonstration of wave-to-energy technology in a makeshift wave tank constructed by Shmuel Ovadia. Ovadia is a talented engineer passionate about harnessing the power of the ocean when he is not otherwise engaged in running his successful high-end lumber business. See for yourself at: http://www.sde.co.il/.
I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. I am on the first day of a seven trip for U.S. energy leaders sponsored by Project Interchange, an educational institute of the American Jewish Committee, and by the time I arrived at Ovadia’s lumber yard in the late afternoon, I had already seen tremendous creativity in the unlikeliest places. Our morning was spent walking down Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard, Israel’s equivalent of Silicon Valley, dropping by several of the technology incubators that are a large part of the reason why Israel is known as the “start-up nation.”
Here, 20-somethings only a few years out of Israel’s army – where technology and project management skills are acquired and honed – are developing innovative software at a furious pace. The aging, somewhat decrepit buildings dating back to Israel’s socialist early years, are brimming with entrepreneurial drive and youthful spirit. Most interesting to me was a visit to the IDC Elevator, where Shmuel Chafets, Director of Business Development for Giza Venture Capital, described a recent investment in a start-up that is applying sophisticated software and smart grid technology to improve the efficiency of water delivery systems, which – among other things – anticipates leaks before they happen.
In Israel, a nation increasingly reliant on energy-intensive desalination, saving water is also saving energy, a lesson at the heart of our report two years ago on the Energy-Water Nexus in Texas. This visit got me wondering whether this same technology might be helpful in EDF’s efforts to partner with gas utilities to reduce methane leaks along their distribution systems. Surely such smart grid ingenuity can be used to help fight the causes of global warming and not just the fresh water scarcity that is one of its many symptoms?
While software companies in Israel do well in attracting venture capital from the United States, Europe and, more recently, Southeast Asia, guys like Shmuel Ovadia struggle to attract capital to their bright ideas. Even venture capitalists like to see commercial scale prototypes before investing major dollars, and good-old fashioned mechanical technologies are a whole lot more physically difficult and expensive to get to commercial scale than software solutions. So it takes a special type of investor to risk the serious capital it takes to bring a hardware solution to market.
It is a challenge, but not impossible, as our visit to Better Place’s Tel Aviv showroom demonstrated. Here, we were treated to a test drive of the Renault Fluence ZE, an all-electric four passenger sedan, that has a range of approximately 100 miles and a battery that can either be recharged at home or our work or swapped out in a 5-minute visit to a Better Place ‘refueling’ station. When you buy the car (and had we been Israelis, sales people were there ready to take our order), you buy a contract for miles to go with it. Included in that contract are up to two charging stations, the electricity they supply, and access to any of Better Place’s battery swapping stations now being constructed throughout Israel.
In short, the Better Place’s Renault Fluence is like the cell phone I have carried with me to Israel. It is my phone, but I purchase the international sym card and the corresponding minutes of voice and data from Orange, a local carrier, which is easily slipped into the phone and recharged with new minutes as needed.
Tomorrow we head down south to the Negev to see what is brewing in the world of solar energy. I can only imagine what surprises await us. I'll keep you posted.