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Near major oil spill, a solar field grows in Israel

Aerial view of the December 2014 oil leak in the Arava area of southern Israel, near where an initiative is under way to reduce the world's reliance on petroleum for energy. (Israel Environmental Protection Ministry)
Aerial view of the December 2014 oil leak in the Arava area of southern Israel, near where an initiative is under way to reduce the world’s reliance on petroleum for energy. (Israel Environmental Protection Ministry)

TEL AVIV (JTA) – In the sun-parched fields near where the largest oil spill in Israeli history poured millions of liters of crude oil into the desert on Dec. 4, an ambitious effort is underway to help reduce global dependency on petroleum for energy.

Known as the Eilot Belt, the area is the site of Israel’s largest solar energy field. It’s the locus of an effort to provide by next year the daytime energy needs for the area’s 55,000 residents and all their energy needs by 2020.

The area’s eight commercial solar fields are part of a wider initiative that aims to reduce the world’s reliance on the black liquid that befouled a 3.5-mile stretch of Israeli desert. The plan also includes a model village subsisting entirely on renewable energy sources and an incubator for clean energy high-tech start-ups.

“We have a lot of sunlight and a lot of open space, so this is the most appropriate for us,” said Dorit Banet, CEO of the Eilat-Eilot Renewable Energy Initiative, a local government body that aims to transform the region into a global hub of renewable energy research and development. The spill, Banet said, “strengthens the fact that we don’t want to stop with oil, that we want to do clean energy.”

Banet’s organization hopes to make renewable energy an economic growth engine for the Eilot Belt, a region around the southern resort town of Eilat that has traditionally supported itself with date and dairy farming. Along with fostering the growth of solar power plants, the Renewable Energy Initiative designed an educational curriculum around renewable energy for local schools, runs international renewable energy conferences and offers tours of the area’s clean energy attractions.

The initiative, which has brought 80 jobs to the area, also hopes to export Israeli expertise abroad. Entrepreneur Yosef Abramowitz, who spearheaded the construction of the area’s first solar field in 2011, is now marketing renewable energy solutions in Africa based on his success in Israel.

“We were supposed to use the success of Eilat-Eilot as a region to say to places in Africa, this region is going 100 percent solar during the day, so can you,” said Abramowitz, the CEO of Energiya Global Capital, which recently built a solar field in Rwanda. “The idea was to show the State of Israel that it’s possible, and then we wanted Israel to be able to demonstrate that for the rest of the world.”

To help develop alternative energy solutions for the developing world, the Renewable Energy Initiative has built a life-size model of an off-the-grid village, where they test new technologies like biodiesel cooking or solar-powered lights. The village doubles as a tourist attraction and destination for school field trips, providing visitors an opportunity to experience alternative energy firsthand.

“We want to raise awareness about renewable energy, to show the activity in the desert plains,” said Avital Nusinow, the initiative’s training and education coordinator. “For tourists, it’s interesting to see how that works. We’re the only place with so many renewable energy facilities in one place.”

Clean energy entrepreneurship is nothing new for the region. Lotan, a kibbutz founded by Reform Jewish immigrants in 1983, hosts a village of geodesic domes made largely of earth and straw bales.

The domes, which house 20 students, need no heating, and all other power needs come from solar panels on the top of the kibbutz recycling center. Lotan resident Alex Cicelsky, who designed the domes, said the goal is “a building that uses very little energy and has a small carbon footprint.”

The initiative is also encouraging the spread of renewable energy through its start-up incubator, which currently houses six early-stage companies working on new energy technologies. One is working to make solar panels more efficient; another is integrating a solar panel with a wind turbine.

The Renewable Energy Initiative hopes such technologies spread across Israel and worldwide. But in the meantime, Nusinow said, solar power is something to get excited about in a previously struggling — and now polluted — region.
“This is the agriculture of the future for us,” she said. “We’re harvesting the sun.”