Israeli solar outfit seeks to be superpower of goodness

After moving to Israel’s blazing Arava Desert, Yosef Abramowitz felt the heat and wondered why Israel did not lead the world in solar energy.

He didn’t wait for an answer and launched Energiya, a solar power company that has built moneymaking solar fields in Israel and Africa. Today Abramowitz, who formerly enjoyed a career in the nonprofit sector, has a message for others aspiring to green up the planet: Profit is not a dirty word.

Yosef Abramowitz in Berkeley photo/dan pine

He said so at a March 8 lecture at U.C. Berkeley’s Blum Center for Developing Economies. Sponsored by the Berkeley Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies, the lecture drew about 50 students and faculty, including many from Cal’s Haas School of Business.

They were curious to learn how to make money while making the world a better place, which is the business model of Energiya and its international arm, Gigawatt Global.

A former journalist and social activist, Abramowitz began his lecture recounting his life in Israel. After moving with his family in 2006 to Kibbutz Ketura in the Arava, he couldn’t understand why solar power was not a bigger part of Israel’s clean energy policy.

“This is the home of the Arava Institute,” he said, referring to the prestigious environmental studies school that draws Jewish and Arab students from across the region. “I said it was crazy that there was no solar power, and I was told, ‘No one is crazy enough to take on the Israeli government.’ ”

With his NGO mindset, he first pondered a nonprofit approach to solar power, but the $20 billion price tag to reach 20 percent of the Israeli electrical grid persuaded him he’d have to take the for-profit route. After five years and 100 regulatory battles with the state, Energiya lit up.

The company currently has six solar fields up, including a 40-megawatt facility near the Jordanian border and a smaller 8.5-megawatt field in rural Rwanda. The company has been paying dividends to its investors, proving that clean energy is good for business. They are also developing projects in North Carolina and other areas in the Southeast.

Energiya’s solar plant in Rwanda photo/energiyaglobal.com

“In two years we put up six solar fields. This has global implications,” he said. “Since then 58 countries have come to us and said, ‘Hey, startup nation, can you help us?’ ”

Abramowitz noted that solar power is quickly reaching affordability through economies of scale, with the price dropping 80 percent over the last five years. That’s why even very poor countries, such as South Sudan, have been in talks with the company to develop fields.

While profitability is key, Abramowitz said his company also incorporates Jewish values in its model. For example, before signing the $23.7 million deal with Rwanda, he insisted that the government fund orphan care and schools.

“Israel can be a superpower of goodness in the world,” he said. “There are 600 million Africans without power, and 200 million who get their power from dirty fuels. The opportunities are infinite.”

Beyond obstacles such as corruption in Africa and overregulation in Israel, the main challenge in the emerging field is that solar technology still has no storage capacity. That means the power flows only when the sun shines. On the other hand, Abramowitz noted that solar power was no longer just for deserts.

“The Paris climate accords targeted 17 percent alternatives by 2030,” he said. “We will blow that out of the water. We are now cheaper than natural gas.”

During audience questions, a student wondered how an Israeli company would fare with its Palestinian and other Arab neighbors, given the momentum to boycott all things Israeli.

Abramowitz conceded the politics are problematic, but that Arabs who study at the Arava Institute have not been deterred from bringing clean-tech solutions to their people.

“They came, they saw, they learned and they went home,” he said. “There was no fingerprint of Israel.”

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Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.