A light unto the nations

Jerusalem-based global solar firm Energiya Global aims to transform developing countries into photovoltaic oases.

global energy 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
global energy 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
An abandoned landfill in the heart of the Galapagos Islands will soon see its garbage-strewn terrain replaced by a modest solar field – a welcome change for a biologically diverse archipelago that runs almost exclusively on diesel fuel.
Known for their uniquely endemic species since the explorations of Charles Darwin on the Beagle ship, the volcanic Galapagos are situated about 970 kilometers west of their mother country, Ecuador, in the Pacific Ocean.
With a utility infrastructure independent of Ecuador proper, however, the Galapagos Islands are still burning almost nothing but diesel fuel to generate the electricity necessary for their people, explains Dona Levy, vice president for business development at the new Jerusalem-based firm Energiya Global.
The historical importance of the archipelago’s flora and fauna has therefore driven Energiya to make the islands one of its first ventures in developing photovoltaic solar fields around the globe.
“It’s sad to say that the Galapagos Islands are still using fossil fuels to produce electricity,” Levy says. “Of all places in the world.”
“It’s a World Heritage nature site,” adds Yosef Abramowitz, the company’s president and co-founder.
Abramowitz is also the president and founder of the Arava Power Company, the firm responsible for the June 2011 launch of Israel’s first medium-sized solar field, Ketura Sun, at Kibbutz Ketura in the Arava.
To date, the new company has deals under way for a total of 59 megawatts of solar power across the world, which are nearing financial close, as well as another 250 MW under intermediate development, according to Abramowitz. In addition to the $4 million the company has already invested, DS Apex Mergers & Acquisitions announced on October 28 that it would be leading a $10m. fund-raising effort for Energiya – the same day Abramowitz was named “Person of the Year” at an Israeli energy convention.
While he will remain president of Arava Power, he says he has stepped down from day-to-day management of the team there, which CEO Jon Cohen leads.
“When we started in Israel with Arava Power, there was no law that allowed solar fields and no great interest in it,” says David Rosenblatt, a co-founder of Energiya Global and a businessman in New Jersey. “As we look at the other countries of the world, whatever their other challenges, we start further ahead, as there is great interest and primarily just a need to take the initiative.”
Rosenblatt and Kibbutz Ketura resident Ed Hofland were co-founders of Arava Power before joining Arava strategic initiatives director Ira Green, Abramowitz and company chairman Howie Rodenstein in founding Energiya Global.
While it is crucial to Abramowitz that the company be based in Jerusalem – to represent Israel as a “renewable light unto the nations” – he says he feels the government itself is “continually undermining the solar industry from having any certainty on the horizon.”
With its thick levels of bureaucracy slowing solar expansion, as well as its hesitancy to increase solar quotas further, he says, not only is the government undermining the country’s own energy independence, it is also preventing Israel from serving as a platform for other countries stuck burning fossil fuels.
“The game plan should have been: Spend five to six years to get Israel to be a shining example, and then of course it would have a multiplier effect globally,” he says. “The problem is that there has only been one commercial solar field built in the six years we have been working, and we’re privileged to have done it.
But the fact is that one is such a condemnation.”
The world is facing the ongoing threat of climate change, according to Abramowitz, who says that soon the effects of this change will become irreversible.
“The truth is that the world can’t wait another five or six years for Israel to get its act together,” he argues. “Arava Power is fighting on one front, with some progress, but we decided to open up the global front even before Israel has gotten its act together.”
Roughly 9 percent of the planet’s electricity is being produced by burning expensive, dirty diesel, the tariff rates of which are double what Energiya Global is charging per kilowatt-hour through solar facilities, the company president says. The company is striving to have deployed 10,000 MW worth $20 billion and serving 50 million people around the world by the year 2020.
About 1.6 billion people still live without any electricity whatsoever, he points out.
“If we do that all in markets that don’t currently exist but make it safe for other companies to come in, then we are playing a historic Jewish role – a catalyst,” he says.
The solar plants will enable people to pump desalinated and filtered water for modern agriculture and drinking purposes in places they could not before, he adds.
A visit to Rwanda this summer with his family, where they volunteered in the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village, was a turning point for his wife, Susan, who led him to decide that his family would only be keeping 10% of personal profits made in the company’s ventures. The other 90% will go to orphanages and adoption-promoting ventures around the world.
“Our investors will do just fine,” he adds. “It’s up to them if they want to donate.”
Back in the Galapagos Islands, the entire population is 21,067. On the island where Energiya Global will be building a 0.5-MW solar field – the company prefers not to specify which island as yet – the installed capacity of electricity is approximately 5.9 MW total, according to Levy. While the solar field will therefore be a modest size, it will still significantly reduce the inhabitants’ dependence on diesel fuel, which accounts for nearly all of their electricity production – the exception being a less-than-2.4- MW wind turbine.
“It’s a small project, but a very important project,” Levy says, stressing the ongoing need for rehabilitation on the islands after a disastrous oil spill in 2001.
Meanwhile, she also sees the field’s construction as “a gateway to all [the Latin American] countries” – a catalyst toward proving to the region that this is a cheaper and more efficient mode of electricity production for them.
The Energiya team has already conducted an environmental field assessment on and near its site, studying the specific needs of the Galapagos National Park and tailoring the project to these needs, she explains. Involving the local population in every step has been crucial, as they are all hungry for “more electricity, period,” but wish to be aware of the details as well, according to Levy.
“For many of them, they don’t really care what [the electricity] comes from, but when they realize and you present it to them, they say they want more clean energy,” she says.
For this project, Energiya will be receiving the highest tariff out of all its planned projects – $0.44 per kilowatt-hour for 15 years – which is still low compared to diesel prices in the Galapagos Islands.
This is not to say that building a 0.5-MW field would be beneficial in the eyes of a pure business developer, however, Levy explains.
“We are investing a lot of money for something that’s so tiny [and therefore won’t make an immediate profit] because we know that it’s worth it,” she says.
From this field, the Ecuador focus staff at Energiya hopes to spread to other islands of the Galapagos, and then to nations in the Caribbean Sea, she adds.
Levy, who was born in Paris and came to Israel in 1994, has a strong background in international relations and diplomacy, and sees bringing solar energy to developing countries like Ecuador as a chance to demonstrate “the added value” of Israel to the world.
“My personal motivation is to really make sure that we have more developing countries, like Israel, less dependent on fossil fuels,” she says.
In addition to the Israeli portion of the Ecuador team – led by Levy and Brig.-Gen. Shelly Gutman, who visits the Galapagos site every two months and serves as deputy CEO of Arava Power – Energiya has local partners operating on the ground, according to Abramowitz.
The hope is to break ground in the Galapagos in December and to interconnect the field to the grid before Passover, Levy says.
“One of the reasons we are in Ecuador is to confirm that Ecuador has a special place in the community of nations,” Abramowitz adds. “It has the only constitution in the world that affirms not only the rights of individuals, but also the rights of nature.”
On the opposite side of the world, a formerly warravaged country desperate for power is also slated to be home to an Energiya solar field.
At the site of the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village, about 60 km. east of Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, Energiya teams are hoping to break ground during the first half of 2013 on a field between 5 MW and 10 MW installed capacity, and eventually increase the amount to 20 MW. The entire country of Rwanda has only about 100 MW of electricity for its 11 million people – compared to Israel’s nearly 12,000 MW for approximately eight million people – and that is derived from approximately 55% hydroelectric sources, 40% diesel and 5% methane gas, according to Chaim Motzen, vice president for the Africa region at Energiya Global.
“As their grid capacity grows, we will hopefully grow their photovoltaic solar [fields] with them,” he says.
The Rwandan government has high hopes for its electricity expansion, seeking to grow to about 1,000 MW total by 2017, and Energiya teams are on the ground expediting grid flow analyses and environmental impact assessments for their own project.
The site would be the first utility-scale solar field connected to the electricity grid in Rwanda, Motzen explains.
“The need for energy is clear and immediate,” he says. “We are right there to move with them.”
Despite having been torn apart by genocide in 1994, Rwanda has made “a remarkable turnaround” and shows “remarkable stability,” with one of the safest capital cities in all of Africa, he continues.
“Obviously, there was a tremendous amount of damage and a tremendous amount to rebuild,” he says, stressing, however, that he feels very comfortable walking around at night in Kigali.
Rwanda is still a very poor country, with its largely rural population surviving on subsistence farming.
But the central African country is also one of the easiest places to start a business, he explains.
“We have a country that’s a great stable business environment, a country that really needs the energy, and a country that is willing to move fast,” he says. “We also have great local partners.”
As Rwanda grows and becomes an ideal place for business expansion, however, it will increasingly be in need of more and more energy, he says.
“One of the advantages of solar is we can do it very quickly,” he notes. “It’s clean, it allows the land to be reused in the future, and it’s certainly cheaper than diesel.”
Particularly significant is the location of the Energiya solar field site – Agahozo- Shalom, a boarding school for genocide orphans that Jewish South African-American attorney and philanthropist Anne Heyman founded in December 2008. The youth village will be graduating its first class of around 125 students this January, around which time Abramowitz says he is hoping to have a groundbreaking on the solar field.
“It’s a village that has done a lot for the surrounding community,” Motzen adds.
On site, Energiya local teams will be continuing to teach the children about the values of renewable energy, and a lot of locals will be able to gain employment due to the project, he says.
Heyman and her husband, Seth Merrin, met as volunteers at Kibbutz Ketura.
“Our project with [Abramowitz] in Rwanda is the perfect example of what happens when you do the right things for the right reasons – everyone benefits,” Heyman tells the Post. “Our youth village, based on the Israeli model, is now home to 500 orphans. As in the case of Israel after the Holocaust, a youth village in the developing world not only provides a healing home and education for orphaned youth, but it is also able to instill in these youth a commitment to building their country, and it’s able to give them the tools to do so.”
Education at Agahozo-Shalom focuses heavily on subjects such as modern agriculture, computer technology and practical science, and the partnership with Energiya Global will teach the youth about the importance of using renewable energy, according to Heyman.
“It will provide the country with greatly needed additional electricity – as we will input into the electric grid – and it will provide an income stream for the village where it is located, which is critical to the village’s sustainability,” she continues. “Win-win for all.”
Energiya hopes this project will become a model for further solar expansions throughout both Rwanda and other countries in the region, agree Motzen and Abramowitz.
“Solar offers many countries the opportunity to fundamentally improve the quality of life of their citizens by bringing affordable electricity at scale and in a short period of time,” adds Rosenblatt.
“From a business standpoint, the global opportunity is unlimited. There is already an electricity shortage in many countries, with demand only growing.
We are at the start of the adoption curve, and that is exciting, challenging and hopefully rewarding.”
A bit closer to home, Energiya is already well on its way to developing a project in the lush greenery of Ialomita, Romania.
Similarly to Israel, Romania, as an economically emerging state, had little regulatory framework for the solar industry when the company first entered, which meant that the field was wide open, explains Green, the project director for the country. Energiya finds Romania to be a particularly strategic fit both because it is part of the European Union and because consumers can decide from which utility they want to purchase in a privatized electricity market, he says, adding that the system is highly regulated and there is no risk of haphazard glitches.
Thus far, Energiya has acquired full permits for an initial 8-MW facility and is finalizing one of the last steps in the process – the grid connection. By the end of the year, the project should reach financial close, and the site should be commissioned about six months later, according to Green. The company expects a financial return of about 12% on the 8- MW site alone.
The 100-MW project should be commissioned by April 2014, he says.
The company is in the process of negotiating with an investor who will be providing the $9m. necessary for near-term deployment of the fields. A strong local team has been crucial in allowing Energiya to move forward in Romania, and has helped it mitigate any risks there, Green adds.
In addition to the ongoing work in Romania, Rwanda, the Galapagos Islands and several other locations, Abramowitz and his team have announced their partnership in a solar program for Haiti. In this Caribbean island nation that was ravaged by an earthquake in 2010, they are working on a forum with former US president Bill Clinton to help develop the country’s solar industry.
Meanwhile, Energiya is also pursuing a program in Haiti’s next-door neighbor, the Dominican Republic, and the company has applied for a 10-MW license in Cyprus – which is still running 97% on diesel fuel, according to Abramowitz.
Expanding the solar industry around the globe is not a simple task, and the Energiya president says he has already faced several cases of failure, as not every developing country will be open to his company’s efforts.
“We’ve closed operations in several countries after spending time and money and investing in personnel, because the country, like Israel, reneged on its promises and regulations,” he tells the Post, stressing that his team members always keep in mind that “not everything works.”
However, he says he remains optimistic about moving forward.
“We have looked at 75 markets, and with the exception of Kinshasa, Congo, the riskiest market in my opinion is the State of Israel,” he says. “Israel didn’t keep pace at what it should have been if we’re going to have a multiplier effect in the world.”
Although in several countries Energiya has decided not to go forward with plans due to corrupt business morality, he stresses that in Israel, the team is “going to fight until we win, because we are here for Zionist reasons as well.”
According to Abramowitz, “if the only way to do business is immorally, then we walk, and we have walked. We are clean energy, and we like to do our best to represent our values – and also, there are laws.”
Energiya voluntarily accepts the most extreme of anti-corruption laws – those of the United Kingdom – and the company also “answers to a higher authority,” its president says with a chuckle, referencing the famous Hebrew National hot-dog slogan.
“We’re about clean energy,” he reiterates, “and we’re going to do it.”