Rolling northward on Highway 90 through the Arava Desert from the Eilat Airport, a sea of blue suddenly became visible in the distance – an oasis in a parched landscape.
“I can’t believe it,” Yosef Abramowitz, co-founder and president of Arava Power Company, told The Jerusalem Post this week, grinning from ear to ear as the taxi approached Kibbutz Ketura. “Everybody tried stopping this – everybody. It’s amazing.”
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Arava Power Company will inaugurate the country’s first solar field at a groundbreaking ceremony on Sunday evening – a medium-sized, 4.95- megawatt field at Ketura that this summer will begin providing electricity to three kibbutzim – Ketura, Lotan and Grofit, a power supply equivalent to 7 percent of Eilat’s energy needs, according to Abramowitz, who made aliya from Massachusetts five years ago.
The visionaries and cofounders behind the project along with Abramowitz were Ketura resident Ed Hofland and American businessman David Rosenblatt. For the three partners, Ketura – located in the middle of the blazing Arava Desert and established 38 years ago by Young Judaea movement immigrants to Israel – was the perfect spot to launch the first field.
“This is the Young Judaea story where year-course students sat around [David] Ben- Gurion and he said, ‘Settle the Negev,’” Abramowitz told the Post, during a flight down to Eilat for an exclusive look at the field. “They fulfilled one of Ben-Gurion’s visions and now 30 years later it’s natural they are fulfilling another of his visions.”
The kibbutz is a major shareholder in the project, which also has received investments from the German Siemens AG engineering conglomerate.
“Ketura is right in the bullseye,” Abramowitz said, referring to the sun’s intense rays in the Arava, which he said is the third most extreme desert in the world and lies along the national grid.
The gleaming field, called Ketura Sun, is made up of 18,500 photovoltaic panels – approximately 200 in each of the rows of side-by-side columns – manufactured by Chinese company Suntech, Abramowitz said.
“We’re also creating one of the largest works of art in the world,” he said, explaining an 80-dunam (8 hectare) image of Ben-Gurion will in the coming months sit atop the solar panels, and will be viewable on Google Earth and to passing aircraft. “We’re patenting it – it will be called the world’s first solar canvas.”
A mezuza in the form of a sundial will be attached to the entrance gate to the field at Sunday’s ceremony, and will be blessed by Rabbi Michael Cohen of the Ketura-based Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, with an additional blessing from Beduin spiritual leader Abu Krinat.
A 1,000-kilogram “statue of Ruth with her bushel of wheat” is slated to arrive before the ceremony, Abramowitz said.
The company has decided to make the field a beacon for social action.
“We’ve designated the four corners for 20 years of donations to four charities,” Abramowitz said. “We want to create a new standard of social responsibility in the solar industry.”
Those four charities are Jewish Heart for Africa; Bustan, which helps Beduin in unrecognized villages in the Negev; the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity; and the Red Mountain Therapeutic Riding Center at Kibbutz Grofit.
“It’s very human because it’s a natural thing,” said Nasser Muhammad, the project foreman, during the tour of the field, which is his first – but presumably not last – solar construction project. “We don’t make pollution, we make good things.”
Following Sunday’s launch, the public will be able to visit the solar field by calling Kibbutz Ketura to schedule tours, Abramowitz said.
High profile attendees at the event are to include National Infrastructures Minister Uzi Landau, Agriculture Minister Orit Noked, MK Einat Wilf (Independence), MK Shlomo Molla (Kadima), MK Eitan Cabel (Labor) and international hip-hop artist Shyne.
All of those who have been connected to the field’s development and seen it grow are excited about Sunday’s launch.
“It’s the fruit of several years of work,” said Tareq Abu Hamed, director for renewable energy and energy conservation at the Arava Institute. “It’s very important for Israel and for the region.
It’s not because of the amount of electricity it will produce – it’s just the first and it will be I think a successful story for the whole Middle East, that we can do it. This is the way, this is the direction we have to go.”
Mike Solowey, a founding member of Kibbutz Ketura, said, “Because of the experience [Abramowitz] had here after his experience on a year course and his experience on Ketura, he wanted to give back, and his way of giving back is starting the initiative for solar energy and for the last five years he’s been fighting the establishment to get all of the permits that you need.
“We call Yossi ‘Captain Sunshine’ because he is devoted to this whole business of solar energy. He is a shareholder in this company, but he isn’t really doing this for profit. He’s really doing this for all of us, for the environment,” Solowey said For the three company founders, getting this field off the ground was an uphill battle with bureaucracy.
“There are 24 government offices that touched this field here at Ketura,” Abramowitz said. “They are uncoordinated, they do not speak with one voice.”
Before this project, there were no regulations for establishing solar infrastructure in Israel, and while all the government offices said they were in favor of the project from its beginnings five years ago, there were always “buts” along the way, Abramowitz said.
“The entire regulatory, statutory and political framework for the solar industry in the State of Israel is based on this field over here,” Abramowitz said, gesturing toward the 18,500 panels. “This is the field that broke through all the bureaucracy and all the politics.”
Because the back-and-forth arguments with government officials dragged on and on, there were many skeptics along the way, according to Hofland.
“There’s only so many times you can say we are doing it, we’re building it, it’s going to happen,” he said. “But in the end if you keep pushing it succeeds.”
And despite any initial doubts, it made perfect sense for the kibbutz to invest in the project, according to Holfand.
“The kibbutz has a lot of enterprises started by the membership,” he said. “It came natural to us to invest in this company as well.”
While Ketura Sun may have broken through, Abramowitz said that he is still in a battle with the government regarding the company’s newest project, a 40-megawatt “large” field to be built across Highway 90.
Permission for large fields in Israel was granted by the Interior Ministry in early May, but solar entrepreneurs are still facing blocks from the Finance Ministry, according to Abramowitz.
“It’s the first time someone has put their cards on the table and said we want to stop the solar industry in Israel,” he said, explaining that the Finance Ministry is focusing on the fact that natural gas prices are cheaper today, even though solar prices will be cheaper tomorrow.
Currently, he explained, when the city of Eilat has an power supply overload and needs to run backup generators with diesel or jet fuel, it pays NIS 2 per kilowatt-hour, even though solar energy from the medium-sized field would cost only NIS 1.52 and from the large would cost NIS 1.08. If the Treasury blocks are lifted, Abramowitz said that Arava Power is ready to start construction of the large field on January 1.
“There will be blackouts this summer – that should say it all,” he said.
Coinciding with Sunday’s ceremony will be the launch of a coin medallion by the Israel Mint in honor of the occasion, which includes an image of Ben-Gurion looking into the sun and the inscription: “A renewable light unto the nations.”
The etching of the sun is a replica of a similar sun that appeared on coins issued by King of Judea Hyrcanus II during the 1st century BCE, Abramowitz said.
Also on Sunday, the Israel Postal Company will issue a stamp honoring Ketura that comes with a complimentary 16-page booklet. Sunday also happens to be World Environment Day.
“There are these legendary obstacles that have prevented the industry from blossoming,” Abramowitz said. “We’re hoping that the gift of Ketura – the first solar field – will be proof positive that the State of Israel can quickly become a solar superpower. The only obstacle is the instability of the market caused by government zigzags.”
“The valley is naturally made for solar power,” he said.