STORY AND PHOTOS BY RON BERNTHAL
Israel has long struggled to get reliable sources for its energy needs. Although surrounded by Middle Eastern countries that have ample supplies of natural gas and oil, these have also been some of the same nations that Israel has fought against, on and off, for the past 65 years.
For a country that gets plenty of sunshine, averaging ten hours per day in Israel’s southern Arava Valley desert, about the same as the Sahara, setting up large commercial solar fields should have been an obvious solution to the country’s ongoing energy concerns, but it was only in June, 2011, that a new Israeli company, Arava Power, opened the country’s first large scale solar field in the Arava desert of southern Israel, on Kibbutz Ketura, located next to the Jordanian border. With more than 18,500 blue, photovoltaic panels sharing the irrigated desert fields with groves of towering date trees, this new “solar farm” marks the beginning of Israel’s integration of energy gleaned from the sun into the country’s national electrical grid.
Many residential homes and small businesses in Israel have had small solar water heaters on their roofs for decades, ever since Levi Yissar built the country’s first prototype in 1953. Even with plenty of natural sunlight, however, only 20% of Israeli’s were using the somewhat primitive solar heaters until a major energy crisis in the late 1970’s caused Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, to pass a law requiring the installation of solar water heaters in all new homes. Today, with 85% of the country’s households using solar thermal systems, Israel is the world leader in the use of solar energy per capita.
Despite the ubiquitous presence of small solar collectors on the roofs of most Israeli homes, and the fact that more than two-million barrels of oil per year are saved by their use, it is still an expensive, and politically challenging, project to maintain adequate oil and natural gas supply lines. To Yosef Abramowitz , an American writer who lives on sun-drenched Kibbutz Ketura, in southern Israel, it seemed like an easy jump from the hot sun that burned above his kibbutz home every day to creating energy from this omnipresent source.
“This solar field at Kibbutz Ketura, known as Ketura Sun, fills up 20 acres, and generates almost 4.95 megawatts (MW). The country as a whole is using 12,000 MW, so this is just a drop in the bucket, but it is the most important solar field in Israel because it is the first, and it is the realization of the historic dream that David Ben-Gurion, the founder of the modern state of Israel, had for a solar nation,” said Abramowitz, now one of three partners of the five year-old Arava Power Company, which operates the solar field in conjunction with the German firm, Siemens AG. It is the first of more than 40 planned solar projects the company is involved in.
“Across the road, past the date trees, but before the Jordanian Mountains, there is another 125 acres which is going to be one of the world’s largest solar fields, about 40 MW, and we’re in the final permission stage to set that up,” Abramowitz said. “That field will eventually supply a third of Eilat’s energy needs.” Eilat, 30 miles south of Kibbutz Ketura, is Israel’s southern port city on the Red Sea, a bustling winter resort that borders the Egyptian-controlled Sinai peninsula.
With Siemens a major investor with funding and technical equipment, maintenance of the project is undertaken by kibbutz members, many of whom have switched from agricultural jobs to learning the new technology. “We have about 150 adult members, not a big place, but what makes this kibbutz special is the high level of education among our members, most of whom have university degrees, many with postgraduate degrees,” said Ed Hofland, a kibbutz member and Arava Power chairman. “We moved away from agriculture 10-15 years ago and started to create small, high-tech businesses, although we still have the dates and the dairy cows.”
This reporter lived and worked on Kibbutz Ketura in the late 1970’s, getting up with other field workers before dawn, to plant or harvest honeydew melons before it became too hot to work outside. If we fell behind with our plowing it would mean night shifts, working beneath a canopy of bright stars, using the tractor lights to guide us along the furrows of irrigated desert sand. A few hundred yards away, on the other side of the barbed wire border fence, a Jordanian police post kept a wary eye on us, as bored, no doubt, as we were, repetitively crisscrossing the desert field in the middle of the night.
The small, agricultural settlement that I remembered has grown considerably in the past 35 years, and now includes a swimming pool, a tourist guest house, a successful micro-algae business, dozens of new residential houses and maintenance structures, and the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, where groups of Israeli and Arab students come to study the desert environment. There is even a chiropractor’s office on site, an amenity (along with the pool) I wish was here years ago.
Although the 40-foot date trees are picturesque and profitable, Ketura’s future, and perhaps most of Israel’s as well, is tied to the field of blue panels that absorb the hot desert sun. “We’re after a new national energy strategy to get rid of burning fossil fuels, and that can only be done with large-scale solar fields,” said Abramowitz who, along with his partners Ed Hofland, and American businessman David Rosenblatt, spent five years struggling with Israel’s bureaucracy, having to obtain permits and approvals from 17 different government authorities, before getting final approval from Israel’s National Planning and Building Council.
Obtaining the necessary funding for the solar field, approximately $28 million, was not easy. With Germany’s Siemens AG as a major investor and builder, Israel’s Bank Hapoalim as the leading lending institution, and the Chinese firm, Suntech, manufacturing the panels, the scenario of three national corporate entities joining a former agricultural kibbutz was, in itself, an unusual “strange bedfellows” type of arrangement. The needed final piece for the project to succeed was having the Israeli Electric Corporation commit to buying $70 million worth of energy from Arava Power over a 20-year period. It was the first time the state-owned utility had signed such an agreement with a private company, a signal that Israel is finally ready to expand from small scale, rooftop solar heaters to large scale, high tech, efficient solar farming. Although the dry and lightly populated Arava Valley may not yet resemble California’s Silicon Valley, the desert sun here, along with a group of dedicated solar investors, will certainly play a large part in Israel’s future energy needs.
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