Experts: Israeli renewable firms welcome in US

Researchers say sunny South Carolina could be an ideal place for Israeli solar entrepreneurs, clean-tech innovators.

By
December 5, 2012 04:32
Nir Barakat, American-Israel Chamber of Commerce

Nir Barakat with American-Israel Chamber of Commerce 370. (photo credit: Tom Glaser)

Sunny South Carolina could be an ideal place for Israeli solar entrepreneurs and other clean-tech innovators to branch out internationally, researchers and businessmen from the state told The Jerusalem Post on Monday afternoon.

“You’d want to be in South Carolina, Florida, somewhere in the sunbelt there,” said Prof. Tom Vogt, associate vice president for research at the University of South Carolina and director of the university’s NanoCenter.

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Vogt, who has been to Israel three times in the past two years, was in the country as part of a 20-member business and research delegation put together by the American-Israel Chamber of Commerce Southeast Region. He and some of his colleagues met with the Post on Monday afternoon at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, where he had been lecturing earlier. Many of the group members, which contained both academics and investors from a variety of scientific fields, were eager to pursue partnerships and financial ventures with Israeli companies and institutions involved in areas like renewable energy and biomedical technology.

Founded in 1992, the American-Israel Chamber of Commerce Southeast Region is the largest regional supporter of Israel in the United States, according to the organization’s president Tom Glaser. Today, the group has 500 members from Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee, and has been instrumental in transactions that amount to more than $1 billion, he said.

Atlanta, Georgia, has the largest Jewish population in the US Southeast; other cities with sizable Jewish communities include Memphis, Tennessee; Birmingham, Alabama; Greensboro, North Carolina; Charlotte, South Carolina; and Charleston, South Carolina, Glaser added.

“There’s a great deal of interest in clean-tech,” he said, noting that Charleston’s Clemsen University now has one of the largest wind turbine testing facilities in the world.

The region also has recently begun demonstrating interest in both solar energy facilities and smart grids – electricity grids with real-time digital interaction among producers and consumers. To expand projects in these fields, Israel is an obvious place for South Carolina and the rest of the southeast to turn as “Israelis have become experts in certain things out of necessity,” Glaser said.

“The Israelis excel because they have to deal with certain issues here that other countries don’t have to deal with,” he said. “It fits into the start-up nation character.”

Vogt, who stressed that he has continually found “pockets of excellence everywhere” in Israel, said he enjoys looking for partnerships in “the country in the world that has the highest per capita PhDs.”

As a nano-scientist and director of the University of South Carolina’s NanoCenter, Vogt said he felt that his team would be able to offer something uniquely beneficial to partnerships with Israeli clean-tech firms or research departments.

Nano-particles are integral components to renewable energy technologies like photovoltaic or concentrated solar panels. While nanotechnology presents innovators with extreme advantages “because size matters,” with the development of these technologies also come nano-sized toxicological by-products whose side effects remain mysterious, Vogt explained.

In the center in South Carolina, however, researchers have a very strong focus on nano-environmental issues and are assessing the waste generated by and toxicological impact of employing nano-technological processes, such as those that go into creating solar panels.

Researchers there are conducting new risk assessments and developing new paradigms to deal with such consequences by performing larger simulations that mimic the interactions of nano-particles in such situations, Vogt continued.

Such expertise is something that the South Carolinians could therefore bring to the table in partnerships with Israeli renewable energy firms and research labs, as such nano-environmental research remains quite limited throughout the world, he said.

Meanwhile, his center also possesses one of the most top-notch microscopes in the world, which actually allows scientists to really get a grasp on “how these materials interact with their environment,” he added.

As researchers in Israel continue to work with nano-materials and dope them with very small amounts of chemical elements that can radically change both optical and electrical behavior, it is crucial to be able to look at samples at an atomic level for assessment, Vogt stressed. And many Israeli clean-tech start-ups are just the right size that working with an American academic institution would still be conducive to their needs, he added.

Working with a research institution like his would also provide Israeli clean-tech start-ups the gateway into the United States through sunny South Carolina, a state that has not yet done enough in the renewable energy field and therefore has ample room to do so, according to Vogt.

“There are huge opportunities there to basically grow into a market,” he said.

Solar technology in South Carolina is shamefully missing, and the fact that water still gets heated with electricity is “a crime,” he explained. But by working with clean-tech companies and researchers like those in Israel, Vogt said he sees an “enormous opportunity” to expand the state’s solar activities.

“Nanotechnology will provide us with better and better materials to do this,” he said.

While Vogt would not specify any details on partnerships he might have made while in Israel, he said that positive interactions were occurring in an official capacity.

Likewise, Robert Johnson, executive vice president and chief strategy office at investment firm The InterTech Group, said that his team was conducting very optimistic discussions representatives from several Israeli firms. While his company has not yet held any meetings with Israeli solar innovators, Johnson said that InterTech is extremely supportive of renewable energy and already has two photovoltaic roofs on its tri-building company headquarters.

“The technological revolution in Israel, the speed at which things get done, the excellent research institutes, all lead to cutting edge developments,” he said.

South Carolina, as a place that overall has thus far lacked “a very aggressive push to get into renewables,” would be an excellent platform for Israeli alternative energy entrepreneurs to enter the American market, Johnson agreed with Vogt.

“South Carolina is a wonderful place to do business,” he said. “South Carolina today is not a hotbed of solar, but I think it is starting to rise and if you were there you might catch the wave.”


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