500 MW of solar energy in the Arava Desert over the next five years, meeting 10% of Israel’s energy needs at a stroke.
Last week, Climate of Change met Yossi Abramowitz, President of the APC and explored with him the Jewish vision underlying his drive to bring solar to energy. Yossi was previously a Jewish social entrepreneur in Boston who raised $30 million for a host of new Jewish educational and cultural initiatives including shma, kol dor and Jewish Social Action Week. In August 2006, he and his family moved to Kibbutz Ketura in the Arava Desert.
Climate of Change: One of the things we’re interested in at Jewish Climate Initiative is the spiritual vision underlying renewable energy. The way we see it, going renewable isn’t just about attaining energy independence, or even about avoiding climate change – as vital as those goals are. There are also ethical and spiritual reasons to choose wind, solar and all the rest. It looks as if that’s also part of your outlook, right?
Yossi Abramowitz: Absolutely. I can tell you, there’s a certain amount of frustration involved in working with Israeli utility regulators, and you definitely need your own supply of renewable moral and spiritual energy. For me it’s all about Jewish Peoplehood, which has been my big passion for the last decade.
Let’s ask from the business point of view, what’s the “brand equity” of Israel today, in the eyes of the Jewish people and the world. Is it an old, tarnished brand, or a new and attractive one? The answer today is complex at best. Israel had its great pioneering period, the six day war, Entebbe and all those amazing moments, but now… there’s a new generation that doesn’t remember any of that.
If we can supply 40% of Israel’s energy from renewables by 2020, and we can, leapfrogging over every other target in the world, think what that would do to Jewish pride worldwide. Young people would start to feel completely differently about this country. We’d be leading the way to saving the world.
COC:It sounds as if for you, the significance of Israel making this move is greater than that of just any country of seven million people doing this.
YA:Yes, people, whether Jewish or not, do look at us differently. We have this idea of being a light to the nations. It’s not a very fashionable or PC idea today. I developed a twenty first century mission statement for the Jewish people that goes like this: “To be an ongoing, distinct catalyst for the advancement and evolution of morality in civilization.” We’re a catalyst because we’re small. We’re distinct because we have a unique message and purpose. And the goal is the evolution of morality and civilization. Ramping up solar energy use to world leading levels would be a real step towards fulfilling that mission.
You know, we’re in negotiations with a potential supplier in Thailand. He says to me, very excited, “I come and see you in Jerusalem.” So I tried to explain to him that we’re not in Jerusalem but a small place four hours away, but he wasn’t interested: “No no, I see you in Jerusalem,” he repeated. That means something to people worldwide.
COC:You’ve spoken about solar as “the energy of peace.” What does that mean?
YA:The Arava Power Company is already in discussion with the Jordanian government about a project to bring solar power across the border. Energy integration was part of the Israel-Jordan peace agreement but it’s never been implemented. It could be a powerful impetus to regional peace-making. To realize that the same sun shines equally on all of us, is owned by none of us, and can supply our energy needs in abundance, inherently promotes peace. The sun doesn’t recognize borders.”
COC:How did you get involved in all of this?
YA:I didn’t come to Israel to do this. I thought that I was coming to Israel to take a Sabbatical from my business career and write a book on Jewish Peoplehood. When we decided to adopt an Ethiopian child, making five in our family in all, we decided they needed a break. We’d thought about taking a year in Israel and it seemed to be the right time. I’d volunteered at Kibbutz Ketura 25 years ago so we decided to go back there.
We got off the air-conditioned van that took us from the airport to the Kibbutz and it was like walking into the airflow of some super-charged hair dryer. I figured, “at least with all this sunlight, the whole place must be powered by solar.” Well, it took me 24 hours to figure out that there was no solar power on the kibbutz. In another 24 hours I’d worked out that there almost no domestic solar power in Israel. The great Israeli solar companies were producing technology for export, but not for the home market. I thought, “you’ve got to be kidding.” So together with a couple of guys from the Kibbutz we put together a plan to set up solar panels in a field opposite and power Ketura with sunlight. We quickly ran into a whole bureaucratic battle with the Energy Regulator. After six months, I realized that if we could win this fight for the Kibbutz, we would win it for the whole country.”
But I realized this was the fulfillment of what I wanted to say on peoplehood. What matters is not how many glossy proposals you write, or how many conferences, or how many major donors you have on board. At the end of the day, you’ve just got to do it. You just have to do it.