Postcard From Mark Brownstein In Israel- The Negev Desert

High tech entrepreneurs here repeatedly tell you that Israel is a small market, so if you hope to have your idea become a commercial success, from the start it must be designed and developed with other countries and cultures in mind.  What is true for software is also true for innovative ideas for sustainable living.  The Jacob Blaustein Institute for Desert Research, a program of the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev was established in 1974 to facilitate the sustainable development of the Negev desert – an area comprising 60% of Israel’s total land mass – but quickly established itself as one of the world’s leading research institutions on the challenges of living sustainably on the world’s many dry lands.  Professor Pedro Berliner, the director of the Institute tells the story of how they discovered that planting acacia trees in close proximity to crops like wheat or maize produces better results for both trees and crop than if planted apart.  The idea was piloted in Kenya and is now being brought to Botswana, where the Blaustein Institute hopes to develop a permanent presence in partnership with one of Botswana’s existing universities.  This is a good reminder that simple, low-tech solutions can often make a big difference to both people and the planet.

Credit: Zazzle

Of course, when it comes to energy, things are rarely ever simple.  Professor David Faiman, Chair of the Department of Solar Energy & Environmental Physics at the Blaustein Institute, spent the rest of the morning explaining the challenges of bringing solar energy to scale.  For over 30 years, Dr. Faiman has pioneered research into concentrated solar, and a commercial product based on his research, manufactured and marketed by Zenith Solar, shows tremendous promise for raising efficiency, lowering cost, and greatly reducing the physical footprint of commercially meaningful quantities of solar electricity.  Dr. Faiman would surely be both embarrassed and amused to be called a solar energy rock star, but I’ll call him that all the same. 

Equally exciting is the work Dr. Faiman has been doing to conceptualize what would be required to transition Israel’s electric grid to renewable energy.  Dr. Faiman, like many Israelis I’ve met on this trip, is both a visionary and a realist.  On the one hand, he believes it is possible for Israel to get to 90 percent renewable energy based on solar, energy storage, and natural gas-fired generation, but on the other hand, he believes it could take 60 years to get there.  His primary point is that Israel needs to start the transition now for there to be any hope of making even a 60 year deadline.  This means phasing out coal (which Israel continues to depend on quite a bit) and staying away from nuclear, both of which are too inflexible for a renewable-centric world.  Investments in natural-gas fired generation might be ok, as some of these facilities would likely be required to recharge the energy storage systems that would perform the lion’s share of the work in-filling where solar output is unavailable or varies.  His overarching concern is that Israel will continue to make short-term decisions that lead to the construction of conventional energy infrastructure, such as new coal plants (a proposal for a new plant was only narrowly defeated two years ago)  that all but lock the nation into a long-term future of fossil fuel dependence and high carbon pollution.

After a short visit to the research facility of Brightsource, a concentrating solar energy provider active in the United States, we began our hour and a half journey back to Tel Aviv.  As the bus rumbled along, I reflected on the irony that in a land of all this energy technology innovation, so little of it is actually deployed in Israel.  Indeed, practically the only place you see solar photovoltaic panels deployed in Israel are on the ramshackle homes of the Bedouin, who for a variety of reasons, are not otherwise connected to Israel’s electric grid.  Tel Aviv may be a sophisticated, high tech capital, but it is the agrarian, socially-traditional Bedouin, who is light years ahead when it comes to embracing advanced energy technology.

I’ve now asked several Israelis why this is, and two answers stick out in my mind.  The first is that Israel is a place where everyone focuses on the near term, because the future is so unpredictable.  Random rocket attacks (a rocket slammed into Beersheva this morning about a half hour after we checked out of our hotel there) and sudden outbreaks of serious fighting certainly contribute to a “live for this moment” attitude.   The second answer is tied to the first.  As one Israeli explained to me, after the Yom Kippur War in 1973, Israel, like the rest of the world suffered the consequences of high oil prices and invested in renewable energy, but as oil prices fell, the government came to view renewable deployment as expensive and unnecessary.   The recent experience of the oil embargo notwithstanding, the energy minister at the time concluded that Israel’s energy requirements will always be so small in the general scheme of things that even in times of global shortage there will always be fossil fuels available somewhere, albeit at a price.  In short, Israel did not have an energy supply problem, it had a money problem, and the only challenge was to find the cheapest of available options.

Fast forward to today.  The Egyptian natural gas pipeline that carried 40 percent of Israel’s natural gas supply was blown up this spring.  And, what is the response?  The Israel Electric Company simply switched to purchasing fuel oil and coal while it waits for the nation’s significant new offshore gas reserves to come on line.  A triumph for short term thinking in a nation that sells its visionary clean energy technologies to the rest of the world.

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  • [...] Other clean technology projects of interest for visiting conferees included those dealing with renewable energy, including Shmuel Ovadia's wave energy projects; and projects involving Israel's solar energy in Israel's Negev region that included a visit to the Zenith Solar Energy solar farm. [...]