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Israel launches long-awaited solar field

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Wednesday, July 20th, 2011

On a dusty path on Kibbutz Ketura, one of the sunniest spots in Israel, there was cause for celebration this past World Environment Day, June 5. On that day, the Israeli company Arava Power marked an historic event for Israel, the solar energy industry and the environment. It took five years to get the permits needed, but Arava Power finally inaugurated its 4.95-megawatt solar power field in Israel in the presence of VIPs from the press, government and business worlds, along with investors including Siemens and even the rapper Shyne.

There was a tangible excitement in the air, heralding hope as Israel quite literally heads toward an energy drought – since tapping into its offshore natural gas reserves is still far off.

Developing its green tech brand

Though Israel is known worldwide for developing clean technologies, it has yet to prove itself locally in generating its own form of renewable energy, enough to reach its 10 percent renewable energy goal by 2020. Arava Power executives hope that their company, now with a foothold in the sand and sun, can play a major role in that production by providing an eventual 400 megawatts of power to fulfill its vision of being a “renewable light unto the nations.”

Their recent launch at Ketura can provide enough power to serve the energy needs of about three kibbutzim, or communal-style villages, in the hot sunny region of Eilat. Though the energy produced at Kibbutz Ketura is only a drop in the bucket, Arava Power is concurrently establishing its second solar field nearby, which will be eight times larger than the field launched on June 5.

In total, Arava expects to launch 40 solar energy fields in the Negev desert region, with the help of attractive feed-in tariffs for investors supplied by and guaranteed by the state.

Jonathan Cohen, the CEO of Arava Power, believes that Israel’s Negev could provide about 2,000 to 2,500 megawatts of solar power to the grid, and his company’s role in achieving this might require about $2 billion in financing. Obviously, there will be investment opportunities for individuals and companies looking to reap the profits of Israel’s evolving solar industry.

A red carpet in the sand

Meanwhile, the recent launch at Kibbutz Ketura, a half hour drive north of Eilat, will show the embryonic industry in Israel how it’s done, growing pains and all. Those present at the gala event, which included a red carpet running through the sand, may reasonably hope to be invited to similar celebrations in coming years.

The tentative date for flipping the switch on the power plant is June 15. “The government of Israel is intent on ensuring that Israeli technology, research and development is aggressively developed. It plays an important role in the ongoing development of solar entities within Israel, as something that is going to be budgeted and addressed,” says Cohen. “At this very moment, Israel is in need of electricity. We are going through an electric drought, with hundreds of megawatts needed.”

He explains that Arava Power chose to work with the Chinese-produced Suntech solar panels because Israel’s nascent solar energy technologies have not yet stood the test of time. “The technology needs to be time-proven to prove its bankability,” says Cohen, acknowledging the chicken-and-egg conundrum. “When the means are made available to ensure Israeli novel technologies are included in Israel’s solar drive, we and others will be looking to employ them as much as possible.”