Looking for a few green men

Alternative energy maverick hopes to establish institute to position Israel as leader in green tech.

Isaac Berzin 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy )
Isaac Berzin 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy )
Israel can lead the world in alternative energy technologies and policies because it has the right mix of experience with desert farming, water desalination, and high technology, and a looming energy shortage, says Isaac Berzin, a maverick scientist and entrepreneur hoping to establish an institute for alternative energy policy in Israel that will guide the local industry onto the world stage and ultimately position Israel at the forefront of the alternative energy revolution. Returning just a few months ago to Israel after becoming somewhat of a star in the US following his success in farming algae for energy, Berzin brings his breakthrough into a country already teeming with alternative energy bright sparks. In an interview with The Jerusalem Post, Berzin says his greatest breakthrough, he hopes, will be to position Israel as the testing ground, what he likes to call "the sanity test," for local and foreign alternative energy technologies, with the aim of projecting Israel's expertise in this field as a green light unto the nations. On paper the idea is a good one: creating an Institute for Alternative Energy Policy to advise scientists, entrepreneurs and politicians on how to focus their research on finding solutions to the world's energy crisis, while at the same time making them profitable and reduce dependency on oil. But an institute costs money to establish and run. According to both Berzin and Prof. Alex Mintz, head of the IDC Lauder School of Government, there is good process in securing funding for the project. Mintz says he has received an endorsement from the White House, on official letterhead, over a cooperation agreement with the Department of Energy. The Israeli National Infrastructures Ministry is also technically on board. "It's happening, there is interest amongst donors and it's going well," Mintz says. Berzin has been trying to convert his overseas stardom and his solid scientific and entrepreneurial credentials into hard local cash to start his institute at the IDC Herzliya, which has already committed to hosting him. Higher fuel costs (crude oil hovering at the $120-per-barrel mark) are driving the growth of alternative energy companies and the expansion of the renewable energy marketplace. Investors are beginning to pay close attention to these new companies. Like Shai Agassi, who has been trying to secure funding for cars that run on electricity, Berzin, 40, is optimistic that attitudes are slowly changing in this country. Due to its climate, geography and brainpower, Israel is a proven center of excellence and ability that can lead the world in alternative energy production, borne out of years of accumulated wisdom and practices needed to survive here, Berzin says. But industry observers told the JTA last week that more aggressive government policies, such as underwriting renewable energy initiatives and granting more land for power plants, are needed to bolster the development of alternative energy. Berzin's institute, once up and running, will try to provide portfolio solutions to the energy industry and the government. One of the solutions is the cultivation of crops in arid land using marginal, non-potable water. Since not only Israel has serious water shortages, this is of vital importance and the technologies and policies can be exported. Berzin extols the value of energy-producing crops such as castor beans, and more radically, algae and seaweed, which can produce bio-diesel and ethanol and don't lead to rising food costs. The timing is not coincidental, as the biofuel issue is rising to the top of the world agenda. On Wednesday, UN Chief Ban Ki Moon called for policy guidelines on biofuel impact on the world food crisis. "The world is moving towards energy farming using non-fertile land and non-potable water," Berzin says, adding that when it comes to those two variants, Israel has vast expertise that it could share with countries desperately seeking new energy sources, such as China and India. Fertile farming land and drinking water are too valuable a resource to use for energy, Berzin argues. In an interview last month with Ha'aretz, Berzin said he was hoping to export the idea of energy farms [based on algae, solar power or other alternative energy solutions] worldwide, a move that could help wean the world off oil and change the geopolitical nature of international affairs. "A world in which China will not be dependent on Iran will be a different world. Some countries will lose part of their power. The message is one of energy freedom. If you have land, sun and CO2, you can grow your own energy. A revolution like this will make the world free," Berzin told Ha'aretz. "China has vast deserts, its economy is booming, it is desperate for energy, and it's buying a lot of oil from Iran. Israel recycles about 75 percent of its water, which is by far more than any other country does. The secondary usage of water is the key, and Israel holds the key in this regard. Israel also has much experience and technology in desalination," Berzin tells the Post, adding that he wants to see Israel demonstrate and develop energy technologies to be used worldwide. "In the past, humans were hunter-gatherers. Then many became farmers. These days, we are still hunter-gatherers in terms of energy, in the sense that we seek out oil reserves and other forms of energy and gather them. What we are starting to see is the evolution into energy farming with the production of energy from corn and soybeans, for example. We are beginning to grow our own fuel," Berzin says. But biofuels have opened up deep divisions at a UN food summit in Rome this week, with some promoting them as a green way to wean the world off oil, and others demanding a halt to the transfer of food away from hungry mouths and into fuel tanks, Reuters reported. Once viewed as a way to divert surplus food production into "clean" non-fossil fuel energy, biofuels' contribution to record high food prices have clouded their image. Hunger campaigners have called for policies promoting them to be reversed, but Berzin says that the current percentage of food products used for biofuels is very low and not adding to the world food price problem. The former UN special investigator on the right to food, Olivier De Schutter, called for a halt to such policies, according to Reuters. His predecessor, Jean Ziegler, once branded the use of farmland to make fuel a "crime against humanity." "It is not moral to take food away from people in order to create energy, or abet the price in global food prices," Berzin concurs. Berzin obtained his PhD in chemical engineering at Ben-Gurion University in 1999 and then embarked on postdoctoral studies at MIT, after which he worked on a NASA project to plan a facility for growing cells in the international space station. In 2001, Berzin founded GreenFuel Technologies in Cambridge, Massachusetts to grow algae for energy production. His solution, algae farming using waste water, circumvents the tricky subject of the use of food to create energy. This year, TIME magazine named him as one of the 100 most influential people in the world today, under the scientists and thinkers category. Berzin is considered a pioneer in the use of algae to produce energy. In choosing him, TIME said he was one of the people "reinventing the $6 trillion energy business." "When God first appeared to Moses [it was] as a bush that was burned but not consumed. What can you burn without consuming it? Renewable fuels," Berzin told TIME. Now back in Israel to live, Berzin will remain consulting GreenFuel, and told ISRAEL21c that he plans on building a GreenFuel-type project in Israel, but 10 times larger. Berzin, in a lecture he will deliver in the coming weeks called "Biofuel: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," uses an example of a cup of coffee beans and a cup of petroleum to illustrate the point of how using food products to create energy is not always feasible or profitable. "The value of energy is low. An acre of farmland used to grow bananas is more profitable than an acre of land used to grow energy with other food products. One cup of coffee beans has more worth than the same cup size of petroleum," he says. Apart from having expertise in desalination, desert agriculture, the genetic engineering of plants, and drip irrigation, Israelis also have vast experience in photovoltaic technology. There are several Israeli solar energy companies that have global operations, and great strides have been made by scientists at the National Solar Energy Center, Jacob Blaustein Institute for Desert Research, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Berzin, through his planned institute for alternative energy policy, hopes to harness the brain power and experience emanating from Israeli labs and farms, and "guide" the industry into profitable waters. "There is not one place in Israel that looks at everything objectively and sets policy," Berzin says, adding that scientists working on alternative energy products and technologies may not be interested in return on investment and marketing, and rightly so, but more keen on developing their technologies. "People are working in the dark," he says. Berzin hopes his institute can guide these scientists into the right direction and the right markets, while not becoming an incubator for specific companies and ventures. Berzin states that his institute will be run transparently, and that donors' names will be published so that the public can see that the institute is not serving the economic interests of its benefactors. "I have no agenda other than to see Israel lead the world in green tech and alternative energy. We will focus on solving the energy issue and provide a compass to guide the industry to success through feedback and analysis," Berzin says. Adding to his scientific credentials, Berzin has signed a cooperation agreement with the US Department of Energy's National Energy Technology Laboratory that will underpin all technology testing for his proposed institute. Apart from guiding scientists and start-ups toward the right technologies, Berzin wants his institute to encourage the perception of alternative energy as a profitable industry. "Forcing environmental protection laws and regulations on industrialists is perhaps the right thing to do, but it makes them think they will lose money. The perception of the alternative energy industry is that it is profitable. That is very important," he says. But this leads to questions of fair play and objectivity. For instance, how will the proposed institute for alternative energy policy remain objective and transparent, and not become an incubator for the technologies and companies connected to those who donate money to it? For Berzin, this is a crucial point. "It's not going to be the Isaac Berzin Institute. The IDC has no institute for technology development. We have signed an agreement with the NETL for us to be the sanity check on new technologies and policies. The aim of the institute is not to make the rich richer, the aim is to highlight directions that make sense and provide solid analysis and policy to decision-makers and the industry. Our integrity is crucial," Berzin states. "Policy should be based on in-depth analysis. So if there is a perception amongst the population that alternative energy makes sense and is a good thing, politicians will want good policy analysis so that they can say smart things and set smart policy," Berzin says. Berzin will head a council of Harvard and MIT experts in the energy field, and will collaborate with scientists at the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology and Ben-Gurion University experts in desert ecology as well as other scientists working on alternative energy solutions in the Negev. The institute will endeavor to produce an annual IDC index for alternative energy production measuring how many new jobs have been created in the field, how much money has been invested, how many green tech companies have listed publicly and which projects have been sold. "The index will measure the activity of the alternative energy industry in Israel as well as measure the impact Israeli companies and technologies are having abroad," Berzin says. Berzin says he has some seed money, "from people who know me," and is now looking for heavy donors. For more of Amir Mizroch's articles see his blog