The Israel Connection: Solar Power and Energy Independence
This week, a look at the oldest energy source around -- the Sun -- and how companies are harnessing its power, providing clean, renewable electricity and creating jobs. Before we explain what's happening here at home, let's look at a country facing very similar energy challenges to the U.S. -- Israel. It is completely dependent on foreign oil, and its biggest supplier of natural gas, Egypt, is hardly reliable right now, after recent attacks on the Egyptian stretch of gas pipeline that feeds Israel. And Israel is eager to draw more heavily on renewable energy, so the country is turning to a natural resource it has in abundance -- sunshine.
This is a NASA map from space, tracking the sunniest spots on the Earth. The darker the red, the better for collecting and using solar energy. The United States has a deep red band across the southwest. And the whole of Israel is on the northern tier of the Earth's sunniest stretch. As the CEO of an Israeli solar company said, "The Sun cannot be sabotaged." And while Israel still needs help from the rest of the world to claim its energy independence, solar technology that's developing right now could soon be generating power here in the U.S. More now in our continuing look at the Israel Connection.
Israel's Negev Desert, once home to Abraham, the Ottomans, and a stretch of the Spice Road. Arid, unforgiving, and brutally bright. But that's not to say there's nothing new under the Sun. Alongside a highway in the southern Negev sits the Arava Institute. Housed on a working kibbutz, it's a hothouse for solar energy innovation -- innovation that could make its way to the United States. Among the technologies in the testing phase here, a solar panel field that sits on the water, designed to power coastal areas that don't have a lot of empty land. And this, a small solar array, designed to better collect the Sun's energy.
[EYAL RICHTER] Each row of flat mirrors concentrates a primary concentration on one of those up there.
[SUITERS] Eyal Richter is the brains behind Verilite, a solar energy system that he says is especially efficient. One of Richter's brighter ideas was coming to the Arava Institute to put his product through its paces.
Why test this on a kibbutz? Why here?
[RICHTER] Well, here, they have a very comfortable setting for new technologies. This is a validation center, run by Capital Nature.
[SUITERS] It's a bit of a lab, high-tech lab.
[RICHTER] Yeah, right, it's a high-tech lab for new renewable technology.
[SUITERS] A lab that focuses on the most ancient form of energy, the Sun, a natural resource Israel has in abundance.
[RICHTER] Everybody has been using the energy of the Sun since Neanderthals. So I think it's a very natural connection. There are palm trees. They need the Sun to grow. We grow energy.
[DAVID ROSENBLATT, CO-FOUNDER, ARAVA POWER COMPANY] It's funny, when you're in Israel and you start talking about solar energy, it's amazing how many people can quote the Bible and give you references to the ability of the Sun and the respect of any people -- the Moslems, the Jews, the Christians, about the Sun and the power of the Sun.
[SUITERS] American David Rosenblatt is helping Israel realize its clean energy potential. His company, Arava Power, built a solar panel field in the Negev.
[ROSENBLATT] Israel has the best sun, has people living where that is, has transmission lines, and has available land.
[SUITERS] You make it sound like a simple equation.
[ROSENBLATT] Yeah. What could be hard?
[SUITERS] Israel does have a long history of solar power. Almost 90% of its homes have rooftop solar water heaters. But solar energy generates only about 1% of Israel's electricity, so it has to rely on imported fossil fuels for power.
[ROSENBLATT] If you look at the Arab states, they actually have a grid that they share among each other. So, if a country doesn't produce enough power, they can get power from another country.
[SUITERS] Israel has no backup.
[ROSENBLATT] Right, so, like the United States, if New Jersey doesn't create enough power, then it goes with some of its neighbors, and more power is provided to New Jersey, so it doesn't have to produce all of its power. In Israel, if it doesn't produce power, it goes black.
[SUITERS] With that in mind, Israel's government just approved a plan to get 10% of the country's electricity from renewable sources by 2020. That's about the same total the U.S. gets today from renewables like solar and wind and hydropower and biomass.
But in some ways, the U.S. is following Israel's lead in solar energy. A trip to the northern reaches of the Negev is a little like looking in the mirror, a preview of what's to come in the U.S. But the view is much better way up there, almost 200 feet off the ground.
The desert has a certain beauty to it, but I bet you've never seen anything quite like this. A little surprise for you -- an entire field of concentrated solar panels, all pointing pretty much right at us.
This solar thermal demonstration facility and all the 1,600 mirrors you see laid out before us, they belong to BrightSource Energy, an American company with deep ties to Israel, a company now building a much bigger version of this power plant in California's Mojave Desert, the biggest solar project under construction in the entire world, with the financial backing of Google, among others. Arnold Goldman is the founder of BrightSource.
[GOLDMAN] We can only effectively work with good direct sunlight, excellent, I'd say, direct sunlight. So we have limited areas, but we work very, very effectively from those areas.
[SUITERS] The Mojave isn't as sun-drenched as the Negev, but California does have more of another critical resource -- land. Israel is only a little bit bigger than the state of New Jersey. And that lack of space could mean a conflict between energy security and national security. Yossi Inbar led Israel's Environmental Ministry for two years.
[INBAR] And some of this land, unfortunately, because we are in a war zone, I would say, we need to keep it for practicing. The Air Force needs to practice. And that's -- solar panels and bombs don't come together.
[SUITERS] But solar panels could be valuable weapons in a different battle -- the fight against climate change.
Do you think of climate change as a security threat?
[INBAR] The climate change is a security threat if -- for example, the delta of the Nile is now bigger in culture and feeding ground for the Egyptians, to give an example. And if sea water will rise and there will be no -- no, no land, no agriculture, no food, stuff will be our problem at the end of the day.
[SUITERS] A geopolitical problem that David Rosenblatt says could mean an opportunity for clean energy cooperation.
[ROSENBLATT] So if you look over there at those trees --
[SUITERS] All the date trees off in the distance, yeah.
[ROSENBLATT] So right beyond that, and I'm talking, we could walk for five minutes and be there, is Jordan.
[TEXT ON SCREEN] To see more of the interviews in this story go to energynow.com.
[ROSENBLATT] We could literally hop across the border if we were allowed -- that's Jordan. Why not -- why couldn't you just put panels there and run a wire?
[SUITERS] And share the electricity.
[ROSENBLATT] Share the electricity.
[SUITERS] And share an ancient reverence for the power of the Sun.
Arava Power's solar project in the Negev Desert is scheduled to go online later this month, and when it does, the Ketura power plant will become the first ever large-scale solar field to generate power and deliver that power to Israel's electric grid.
Energy independence and climate change are two of the biggest challenges facing the U.S. But perhaps no other nation understands the link between clean energy and security more than Israel. It relies on imported fossil fuel from hostile neighbors to power its economy, despite having a vast and mostly untapped clean energy source – the sun.
As part of energyNOW!’s “The Israel Connection” series, chief correspondent Tyler Suiters discovers how emerging solar technology in this sun-drenched land could lead to greater energy security and a cleaner environment. Suiters also explores the link between Israel’s innovative solar technology and the future of clean energy in the U.S.
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