Solar Power and Entrepreneurship under the Sun of Ketura

 Another day has come to an end; the sun is setting behind the mountains of the western Negev. Again the multiple solar power stations in the Arava Valley have produced green energy for the region. The dry desert climate is ideal for solar power generation; abundant sun, available land, innovation, and the striving for entrepreneurship have created flourishing businesses in the Arava Valley.


Solar field under construction in the Arava. Photo: Shmuel Willner
Solar field under construction in the Arava. Photo: Shmuel Willner
What brings people and businesses to dry desert land?  Statistician Mr. Noach Morris, is the general manager of the business enterprises of Kibbutz Ketura. In his office, I see multiple folders of successful projects from the past decades, even when, at the time of initiation, many people did not believe in their success. As Noach puts it, it is his background in statistics that has helped him to evaluate these projects, many of them which have become great successes, while there were some ventures which did not succeed. Solar power is one of these successes.
“Have you ever seen a map of Israel showing that the area of highest amount of solar radiation is in Ketura in the Arava Valley?” Noah asks.  He explains how there are three particular issues which make the Arava attractive for solar power generation: limited amount of water; almost ''unlimited'' amount of land available without great competition for land use; and a large amount of sunshine.
“Therefore, if you look at the three most successful branches of the kibbutz: the date orchards, which go well with saline water, and require good deal of sunshine and land; Algae Technologies which need a limited amount of water and land, and a lot of sunshine; the photovoltaic panels for solar power which need land and a limited amount of water -they all share the same factors that made our kibbutz a success.”
However, the most significant step toward the first solar power plant in Israel was a result of hard work, ambition and vision of Yosef “Yossi” Abramowitz, who spent the year at Ketura a few years ago.
“He saw lot of sunshine and the great potential in it, and said we should start working towards creating solar power. In the beginning, there was a great chance that nothing would be happening. At the beginning, many said we would have no chance of getting anywhere” recalls Noach.
Because we were the first we had to pioneer: “The easy part was to understand the physics, engineering and how to build a solar field.  The hard part was to get through the regulatory procedures; land use; getting permission from the electricity authority; getting guaranteed tariff for the produced electricity”.
It was called Kafkaesque: “It was like when you go through a door and you all you face is another door. It was called Kafkaesque and that was the feeling we faced. It was our job to be pioneers in solar business, and we succeeded. We overcame everything.  Our field has been two years ahead of all the other fields in Israel”. Now after years of pioneering, Kibbutz Ketura owns 17% holdings in the successful business venture: Arava Power Company.
Green vision for Israel:  “I am amazed how much the price of solar power has already dropped. It is already reaching a point where it is becoming competitive. The problem for Israel is that we are going to get very cheap gas, which will reduce the alternative cost of solar power. It is much better to have few large solar fields in the Negev than having additional coal plants.”
“There are other projects in the pipeline for which we hope to get permission.  Our major project in planning is to build a 40 MW solar power plant in Ketura. The price of the project is around 200 million dollars.  In addition to this, we plan to build several small size solar fields similar to the one we are building in Grofit and Yotvata” says Noach Morris. 
He continues explaining that there are limits for producing electricity; one can produce solar energy only when there is sun. Other limit is that there is no efficient way in storing electricity.  The benefit is that solar energy is supplied in time of peak demand which is a big advantage in comparison to wind energy. 
Diversification of energy sources is also a big issue; it is important to split between geographic areas. “Some experts say that there is considerable waste of electricity when it is transferred a distance of 200 kilometers from a power plant in Ashqelon on the Mediterranean coast to Arava and Eilat. Therefore when our new 40 megawatt power station is operational in few years time the city of Eilat will become almost self-sufficient in electricity.”
Towards the end of our meeting, we talk about the kibbutz community. Noach Morris originally came to the kibbutz because it is a community with an open attitude to Jewish tradition, which according to Noah, is an unusual attitude in the modern world.
“I came to the Kibbutz because I liked the idea of showing our community that one can run on communal rather that competitive values” says Noach. “Yet we are a changing kibbutz, we are always looking into new ideas: new businesses; new opportunities.  We don''t want to stay the same as we were, but still, within the same communal idea that we have always had,” he concludes.
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