Surely it couldn’t fail: Crowd-funding a relatively small-scale project to convert the Galapagos Islands to solar energy, using crowd-pulling American Jewish comedienne Sarah Silverman as bait.
Jerusalem-based Energiya Global launched the project in January to great fanfare.
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Company president Yosef Abramowitz, the US-born Israeli entrepreneur, environmentalist and human rights activist named by CNN as one of the world’s top six Green Pioneers, inaugurated the campaign by starring as “Kaptain Sunshine” in a madcap fundraising YouTube video that he hoped would go viral.
And as an additional incentive, every donor of more than $75 would receive a signed photograph of Silverman, who happens to be Abramowitz’s sister-in-law.
The media loved the idea, with major outlets like CNN running glowing features about this feel-good project to protect the unique, delicate environment of this famous biodiverse crucible of Darwinism.
“The island nations are burning diesel, and we want to get them off fossil fuels,” Abramowitz tells ISRAEL21c. “We chose this as the place to begin – after all, what is more precious than the Galapagos? There has already been one oil spill there, and the next one could have a devastating effect on the island’s environment.”
Well, it wasn’t a complete failure, but the video failed to emerge from under a proverbial mountain of quirky clips, and the campaign fell far short of its fundraising target.
“Crowd sourcing was an experiment,” says Abramowitz. “I’d never done crowd sourcing before. The most viral videos are all wacky. We learned that between my wife’s sister and the Huffington Post [write-up], we probably got six million tweets, but about 70 percent of those who donated were people we already know.”
Not that he’s thinking of giving up. “We’ve already invested two and a half years of work, signed a contract with the government, got the land and all the permissions. Now we’re at the next phase – financing and building. We’ll just have to do more traditional fundraising.”
Irony of scale
Abramowitz also heads Israel’s leading solar developer, Arava Power, which was behind Israel’s first grid-connected 4.95-megawatt installation at Kibbutz Ketura and is building eight more mid- and large-size solar fields in Israel, with further projects in the pipeline.
“It’s hard to secure the traditional funding sources such as banks and investors for this project because its scale is small – which is the opposite of what you’d expect,” says Abramowitz, who received the “Person of the Year” award at the 2012 Israel Energy and Business Convention.
“The issue for the banks is that they make their profit from their bank fees, so it’s not worth their while to give a relatively small loan. We’re finding other sources, and are talking now to impact investors.”
Only two things are holding the project back right now, he says: funding and red tape, with February’s general elections in Ecuador further delaying the process.
“The local government originally approved a 500-kilowatt installation, but later retracted and the process began again to receive building permission for a 250-kilowatt plant after we had already spent the predevelopment money,” he explains.
“Our business model was based on 500 kilowatts, and this means lower investor returns. The scale has actually made it harder to raise money.”
The local populace has to guarantee they will buy the electricity for 15 years, he adds, noting that the Galapagos already has a wind farm that provides a good supply for about five months a year.
Beyond conventional wisdom
Boston-raised Abramowitz, who has lived in Israel with his wife and five children since 2006, explains the philosophy behind Energiya Global:
“The conventional wisdom of solar developers is to go where there’s an established market and no risk. Our philosophy is the opposite: We see bringing solar power to weaker populations as a fundamental human right – after all, 1.6 billion people live without electricity. Many others survive with intermittent power and energy insecurity, including 85 percent of Africa.”
He describes the advantages of solar energy in social, not only economic, terms. “You need energy for other human rights. Burning fossil fuels such as diesel makes the poorer populations part of the problem, not part of the solution,” he observes.
“I believe that what we do could be the tipping point of global warming. Nine percent of world’s electricity is currently generated by burning diesel. Solar energy is a cheaper, cleaner alternative. If the others copy this, it would effectively knock 10 percent off worldwide greenhouse gasses emissions.”
His long-term outlook for the industry is extremely upbeat: “We’re going to serve 50 million people by 2020. It’ll be a $10 billion industry in Israel,” he says.
“We’re applying the exact same strategy in countries like Rwanda. Who else would take such a risk? We expect first-mover advantage. We know that we’ll eventually be crushed by the big boys – but that’s fine, because more people in Rwanda will have power. I don’t care if people copycat us. All we want is a return for our investors.”