Blue-and-white turns green as Israel forges an alternative energy future

‘When it comes to alternative energy, I can easily say Israel is one of the top five countries in the world.’ – Avi Kribus, Professor at Tel Aviv University’s School of Mechanical Engineering.One day a year, Israeli cities are like …

‘When it comes to alternative energy, I can easily say Israel is one of the top five countries in the world.’ – Avi Kribus, Professor at Tel Aviv University’s School of Mechanical Engineering.One day a year, Israeli cities are like no other cities in the world: nitrogen oxide from car fumes plummet to zero. It happens on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, when Israelis leave their cars parked for 24 hours.

Every year the phenomenon occurs, but this past October it wasn’t only the “green groups” who took notice of the clean air. Israeli news spoke of dazzling air quality records and Israeli citizens otherwise preoccupied with politics or the first winter rain pricked up their ears and listened.

With a poorer environmental track record in the last decade than Europeans and Americans (in terms of recycling, air quality, and education), the last five years in Israel has brought a swift turn-around in how Israelis relate to their environment, legislate environmental policy, take affirmative action and create technologies that benefit the world over.

There is no place where the “action” has had more impact, than in the technology sector, where Israel has been swiftly rising as one of the world’s biggest proliferators of “cleantech” or environmental technologies.

Israeli advances are showing the world that alternative energy, renewable water sources and environmentally sound agricultural practices can be a reality here and now.

When it comes to alternative energy, “I can easily say Israel is one of the top five countries in the world,” says Professor Avraham Kribus, from the School of Mechanical Engineering, Tel Aviv University.

While the better part of recent innovations were penned and put into practice already more than 5 years ago, Israel’s solar energy has really proved itself in the last 5 years, Kribus points out – referring to the monumental success of Solel Solar Systems, an Israeli startup, which has built the largest solar energy station in the world in California’s Mojave desert. Construction of a new plant is underway in Israel’s Negev Desert.

“This was the most visible achievement in alternative energy we have seen coming from Israel,” Kribus notes. “There has been great innovation and research in the last 5 years in Israel, but it will be hard to see the impact [on the US and the world] until someone builds the plants to show this research is effective.”

Israeli “hutzpah” is fuel for the entrepreneurial success, says Kribus, and is responsible for helping Israelis implement otherwise far-fetched ideas. “Israelis hate structure,” he says, “and sometimes their results are nonsense, sometimes this attitude brings great breakthroughs.”

Solar energy gets Kribus’ vote of confidence for Israel’s biggest alternative energy successes in the next five years. “Israel doesn’t have wind, not much in terms of biomass, or hydro-electricity.”

Chief scientist of Israel’s Environmental Protection Ministry Dr. Yeshayahu Bar-Or believes Israeli company SDE Wave Energy will be one of the next up-and-coming alternative energy companies coming out of Israel.

“We have got an overwhelming response to our technology by African, Asian and South American nations,” reports Shmuel Ovadia, managing director of the company.

“Yet,” he told ISRAEL21c, “Americans have not shown great interest in the company. I think they are not yet at the critical point where they really need alternative energy,” says Ovadia. “Hopefully, the next five years will change this thinking.”

SDE’s system harvests energy from the power of sea waves. Global warming and pollution due to burning of fuels, the company website says, have made ‘wave energy’ the largest source for energy production today. Rising oil costs and the worldwide shortage of electricity make this system very attractive.

Working in the field of alternative energy for more than 15 years, Ovadia believes that over the last five years, the best cleantech innovations in Israel have come from the Weizmann Institute and the highly successful company Ormat, which creates power plants for geothermal, biomass and solar energy.

Recently in the news, another company generally off the radar but deeply established in the business world of North America and Europe is the Israeli company Elspec Ltd., which has produced systems that stabilize the flow of electricity to wind energy networks such as Bonus Wind Turbines of Denmark. It also supplies energy-saving solutions to companies such as Honda, Pirelli, General Motors and Procter & Gamble.

While wind collectors are not a common sight on the Israeli horizon, one ubiquitous Israeli trademark is the solar-powered “dud shemesh” water heater, which can be spotted on every apartment building across the nation. “Israel is the world pioneer for producing hot water by solar platforms,” says chief scientist Bar-Or. “We produce 3 percent of the total energy needs that way for producing hot water,” he adds. “And we still are world leaders in the last five years, although Cyprus also has about the same performance as we do now.

“Israel has a long record of saving water going back to War of Independence when Jerusalem was under siege,” says Bar-Or. “In the last five years, we have also been able to show that when we use public campaigns we can save 15 percent of the nation’s water use. Using water wisely is the expertise of Israel.

Bar-Or foresees that in the future, a world stressed by climate change will put more attention on Israeli water technology and research. He already points to the strong relationship in this field that exists between Israel and California.

“We have done a lot with the reuse of wastewater and in preventing salinity in effluent over the last 5 years. We have also during this time issued regulations that require industries such as the Coca Cola plant to separate their salt effluents from sewage and discharge them clean to streams. Or we [at the Ministry] get companies to create a technology that will prevent salty effluent from entering streams.”

Bar-Or also notes the upcoming WATEC convention in 2007, the first International Water Technologies and Environmental Control Exhibition and Conference, will solidify Israel’s position on the water technologies front. The chairman of the conference, Booky Oren, says that the event will reinforce the position of Israel as the “Silicon Valley” of the global water and environmental technologies market.

“In water management, Israel is the most innovative,” concurs Alon Tal, an award winning environmental lawyer in Israel who founded the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies. “Israel has made the shift to desalination with the largest plant in the world and has set a general trend of using grey water harvesting. Over the last five years, Israel is starting to really expand its water resources and same time restore its streams,” he told ISRAEL21c.

“Arid regions of the US now need to think about what that means. In Israel there is a futuristic scenario,” says Tal. Drip irrigation technology is also something worth mentioning, he notes, especially the success of the international company Netafim.

Alon Ben-Gal, who works for the Ministry of Agriculture at the Volcani Center says, “Drip irrigation is an Israeli invention from about 30- 40 years ago. And in the last years it continues to be developed by Israelis [i.e. with computers and engineering] for Israelis to stay on top.”

Part of drip irrigation company Netafim’s success he points out is that they and other Israeli companies get to benefit from government-sponsored research that is done in Israel and also in collaboration with American universities such as the University of Arizona and Texas Tech.

On a more domestic note, “When I think of environmental successes in the last 5 years in Israel,” says David Pearlman-Paran from the environmental advocacy group, the Heschel Center, “they’re in policy decisions and campaigns which prevented negative policy decisions. This is Israeli policy which has led to the Coastal Protection Bill passed in 2004; the Environmental Committee Law (2004) was passed requiring every municipality to form an environmental committee including council members, and NGO representatives.

“And because Israel is at the forefront of developing environmental technologies,” Pearlman-Paran concludes, “we have the next five years to look forward to implementing them.”

About Karin Kloosterman

Karin Kloosterman is an award-winning environment news publisher who founded Green Prophet (www.greenprophet.com) to connect North Americans to issues that matter in the Middle East. She is the CEO of the Internet of Things startup flux, a company that is making social grow tools for urban farmers everywhere (www.fluxiot.com). Karin can be reached at karin (at) fluxiot.com.