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Israel flaunts green tech, but lags behind in alternative energy

CNN ads tell the world of water reclamation and agriculture, but there are some things Israel can’t brag about

By June 26, 2012, 11:35 am

While Israel’s pro-environment accomplishments have long been known to professionals, the country is now sponsoring an ad campaign on CNN in which its green accomplishments will be on display. But, say international experts, there’s one green area where Israel lags. Despite a surfeit of year-round sunshine, Israel has been unwilling, or unable, to make a strong commitment to solar and alternative energy technologies.

The “Green Israel” ads are being broadcast adjacent to weather updates on CNN International this week and next. The campaign premiered last Thursday at the Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development, the largest environmental parley the world, with approximately 50,000 participants. The broadcasts emphasize the facts that Israel is a leader in environmental technology and that Israeli developments are in use all over the world. For example, Israel is a global leader in desalination, with 40 percent of Israel’s drinking water coming from desalination. Israel is also a global leader in the use of recycled water; 70 percent of Israeli wastewater is recycled and used in agriculture after undergoing a special purification process.

Tellingly, though, the ads don’t stress a widespread Israeli alternative energy policy — because the country doesn’t have such a policy. The technology is not lacking, though. For example, Israeli startup ZenithSolar set up a solar farm in the Yavneh area using a system that harvests more than 70 percent of incoming solar energy (as compared to industry norms of 10 to 40 percent), based on work done at Sde Boker by Ben-Gurion University Professor David Faiman, one of the world’s foremost solar energy experts. And Israel’s Brightsource is helping to build the world’s largest solar project in the world, in California, after a successful pilot project in the Negev.

Last week, a delegation of senior decision-makers in the energy sector in the U.S. paid a visit to Israel organized by Project Interchange, an educational institute of the American Jewish Committee.

The visitors came away impressed. Scott N. Paul, executive director of Alliance for American Manufacturing, said he was “very excited to see what is happening in Israel on clean energy and electric vehicles. Israel is a nation that has moved forward very aggressively on a clean energy economy by necessity. Some of those lessons can certainly be applied to the United States.” Tom Wolf, executive director of the Energy Council at the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, said he was interested in seeing “how the best and brightest energy experts in Israel are tackling the goal of meeting people’s thirst for energy along with their demand for a cleaner planet.”

Israelis are no strangers to alternative energy. For example, nearly every home in Israel has a solar water heater system with solar panels on the roof heating water in a tank. And Better Place, the company promoting electric battery-powered cars, has begun installing hundreds of recharging and battery switching stations around the country. CEO Shai Agassi boldly predicts that within a few years half of all the cars in Israel will be electric.

There have also been steps taken toward setting up an infrastructure for commercial energy production. Homeowners can install PV (photovoltaic) panels to generate electricity. The panels are connected to a system that turns solar energy into electricity, which is used to power the home while the excess electricity is “sold” to the Israel Electric Company, which credits the homeowner for the power. A new mall in Beersheba is set to be equipped with an array of PV panels, supplying electricity for the entire structure and all the stores and services inside.

But considering its potential, Israel is lagging badly in implementation of alternative energy, especially solar energy, considered by many experts to be the best substitute for fossil fuels in electricity production. The world’s top producer of energy from the sun is Germany, with an average of just 4.8 hours of sunlight each day. Israel has nearly double that, with 9.5 hours of sunlight per day. Despite that, Germany produces some 12% of the electricity it uses annually from the sun, while Israel produces in the neighborhood of 2%.

The reason for Israel’s missing out on solar technology is clearly not technological, said Ben Lynch of Cleantech Capital Advisors, a UK investment firm that helps investors and companies working in the cleantech sector. “Government policy either promotes or removes barriers,” Lynch told The Times of Israel, so if investment money is not flowing to alternative energy – evidenced by the lack of energy efforts – it’s most likely government policy that is lacking. Lynch was in Israel speaking at a conference organized by solar energy giants Enerpoint and Suntech on the costs of solar energy versus traditional methods of producing electricity.

“When you think of Israel’s status in technology, and the advances it has developed in alternative energy, it’s strange that Israel has implemented very little of this technology,” Lunch said. “There has been some noise around PV and other solar technologies, but it’s been limited. And in other areas, such as wind, especially offshore wind to produce electricity, which many countries have made a strong financial commitment too, Israel has been even less active.”

In fact, Lynch added, it wouldn’t take much to put Israel on the alternative energy map, using the technologies it is developing for everyone else. “Israel is such a small market, so you don’t need much money to make progress. The government has been talking about investing about $60 million to generate 30 megawatts of PV electricity, but that’s really a small amount. But an investment of a few hundred million dollars could have a huge impact.”

Considering the current economy, it’s going to be government that makes the big investments in alternative energy, especially in Israel. “With the recession, banks have become much more conservative in their investments,” said Lynch. In order to attract partners and move forward with projects, the government needs to make the investments that private banks would usually make. But if and when those investments are made, said Lynch, “you will be able to make a lot of progress.”

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