Let There Be Light: The Inspiring Story of Solar Power in Israel's Arava Desert

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©. Shani Sadicario

When a solar power company has a visionary like Josef Abramowitz at its helm, it will know no boundaries.

It is hard to feel hopeful about the world these days. Environmental degradation continues to worsen; the mindset that drives such degradation persists; and the solutions are complicated for ordinary citizens to implement. It’s no wonder so many of us feel overwhelmed, anxious, and deeply depressed about the way things are going.

Once in a while, though, a true beacon of hope appears.

For me, hope recently took the shape of a man named Josef Abramowitz, whom I met on a trip to the Arava Desert in southern Israel. Abramowitz, an American immigrant to Israel, is a passionate believer in the transformative power of solar energy for our planet, and he spoke about it so enthusiastically, peppering his talk with real-life success stories, that I felt more optimistic about renewable energy’s global viability and the impending death of fossil fuels than I ever have before.

Abramowitz speaks to journalists

© Shani Sadicario

“We are standing in the middle of the Syrian-African rift,” Abramowitz shouts excitedly to our small group of environmental writers. He spreads his arms wide. To the east I can see the mountains of Jordan, to the west the cliffs leading northwest to the Negev desert and the Ramon crater of Israel. A vast valley separates the two sides, stretching north toward Syria and south to the Red Sea. It is hot, dry, and very sunny.

“This is a place for big messages, where ethical revolutions begin,” he sings out, launching into a quick history lesson on the ancient events that have occurred in this inhospitable place, from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah to Moses and the wandering Israelites to countless others.

solar field at Ketura

© Shani Sadicario

Now, thanks to Abramowitz’s unswerving vision, another chapter has begun in this part of the world, one that will, hopefully, play a key role in halting climate change.

Abramowitz is the president of Energiya Global, a company that develops affordable solar projects worldwide, and he has met us in the desert because this is where his first solar field is located, just outside a community called Kibbutz Ketura. The enormous solar field is also the first commercial-scale solar field in the Middle East. It was launched in 2014 and generates 40 megawatts of power – enough to power one-third of the nearby city of Eilat’s daytime power.

It is a beautiful and profoundly silent place. There are famous Medjool date palm groves surrounding the solar field, tended by donkeys who graze on the weeds.

The entire Arava region, which stretches from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea, currently generates 70 percent of its power needs, and will exceed 100 percent by 2020, including the port city of Eilat. But, as Abramowitz points out, "Israel should be 100 percent solar by day. This could be the blueprint for all of Africa, and more."

Ketura solar

© Shani Sadicario

The tour doesn't stop there. Abramowitz takes us across the road to another field, where 18,200 solar panels generate 4.9 megawatts of pure, green energy. A busy little robot, made by an innovative company called Ecoppia, is hard at work, cleaning the dusty panels to improve their efficiency; it is powered by its own tiny solar panel and can clean the entire field in 1.5 hours -- a drastic improvement over the six days it used to take when done by hand.

cleaning robot

© Shani Sadicario

Abramowitz describes himself as someone who enjoys fighting government regulations and tackling the bureaucratic red-tape that gives most people nightmares. “If I can do it in Israel, I can do it in Africa,” he laughs. Sure enough, Energiya pushed through an immense 8.5-megawatt solar project in Rwanda in 2015 at record-breaking speed, the first in East Africa. It now provides 6 percent of the country’s power, and Rwanda’s dependence on diesel power has dropped from 40 to 30 percent. (Video here on Rwanda's solar field.)

This project was significant because, for the first time ever, it decoupled GDP growth from greenhouse gas emissions: Rwanda’s energy increased, but not its carbon emissions. Abramowitz is quoted in a 2015 Guardian article:

“This is the proof test to be able to break that deadlock so that the world can go solar.”

Energiya continues to push boundaries at a rapid rate. It has a 10-country strategy to develop 1,000 megawatts of solar power in Africa by 2022. It launched a 22-megawatt field in Glenn County, Georgia, in summer 2016, and it has been issued the first license by the Palestinian Authority for solar fields in the West Bank.

backs of solar panels

© Shani Sadicario

Solar is the way of future, Abramowitz argues, and will become even more attainable once the storage problem is fixed. (Many innovators are working on that.) Already the cost of panel production has plummeted, relative to what it once was. Solar is now a fraction of the cost of diesel, and entirely green. Energiya shows that a business model can change the world, with a quadruple bottom line that makes everyone happy – decent returns for investors, humanitarian benefits, environmental benefits, and smart geo-strategy.

Solar has even bridged gaps between Palestinians, Israelis, and Jordanians, many of whom work as partners on projects. Abramowitz also advocates for desert-dwelling Bedouin families to have a special quota for solar fields, since they are locked out of Israel’s current solar program.

On the day of our visit in mid-December, Abramowitz insisted that we stay in the solar field until the light was “just right” and the mountaintops over turned purple in the setting sun. Then we all sat under the palm trees, sipping sweet mint tea and eating dates, watching the full moon rise over the silvery solar panels in the distance. From that vantage point, finally, the future looked blessedly golden.

mountains at Ketura

© Shani Sadicario

TreeHugger was a guest of Vibe Israel, a non-profit organization leading a tour called Vibe Eco Impact in December 2016 that explored various sustainability initiatives throughout Israel. There was no requirement to write about this solar project.