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Israel: Solar Light Unto The Nations?

Israel: Solar Light Unto The Nations?

Jason Gewirtz is the senior producer for a CNBC documentary called “Beyond the Barrel: The Race to Fuel the Future,” which began airing last week and focuses on Israeli innovation in the clean-tech industry. While Israel has become a hub for alternative energy research, the Jewish state has yet to put many of its ideas into practice and is still almost completely reliant on oil, Gewirtz says. Gewirtz and his crew also explore Canadian alternative energy usage at the Olympics, German entrepreneurship in solar energy and Chinese environmental research.

A: How did you originally envision this project, and why so much emphasis on Israel?

Q: I pitched this because Israel was hosting an alternative energy conference in Eilat in February. … I wanted to have the reporter stand on the Red Sea, where you can see Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and, of course, Israel. It’s sort of a shot across Saudi Arabia’s bow — here’s the world’s biggest oil producer, and just 15 miles away they’re having this alternative energy conference.

Evaluate Israel’s relationship to China, a country that is involved in alternative energy research but is also becoming a leading trade partner with Iran.

A lot of Israeli companies are also trying to do a lot of business with China because they’re able to mass-produce things. … Of course there are political problems with Israel and China. China is about to become Iran’s biggest trading partner and acquires about 14 percent of its oil from Iran. But that doesn’t mean there can’t be business with China.

What are some of the most impressive Israeli solar energy developments?

One is Yuval Susskind’s Aora Power at Kibbutz Samar in the Negev. We drove down there from Jerusalem, and from about 40 miles away you start to see this huge tower that is able to capture rays and energy beamed back up from thousands of mirrors pointed at it. This type of “community solar” will be useful for places in India and Africa, where there’s no grid connection and residents need hot water and power from within their own villages.

Another solar energy entrepreneur, Yosef Abramowitz, won many legal battles in order to hook up his company, Arava Power, to the national grid.

What about alternatives other than solar?

We did an interview with Seambiotic, headed by Daniel Chin, a British immigrant. They work with converting algae, including making food for Asia, but converting algae to biofuel is probably five to 10 years off. Shai Agassi’s electric car company, A Better Place, has signed up 120 companies in Israel that are going to buy or lease the cars for their employees.

Are other Mideast countries involved in clean-tech?

Jordan especially is partnering with companies in Israel. They’re very quiet about it, though there were Jordanians at the Eilat conference.

Israel has become a hotbed of environmental brainpower, but the prospect of a nuclear Iran could lead to a big out-migration of its academics and could harm research.

A brain drain from Israel’s top universities is severe, but a great percentage of Israelis that leave do return. And many support Israel from abroad by creating new jobs in Israel. … If Iran becomes a fully nuclear-armed nation, the brain drain will surely get worse, and while I think this is unfortunately logical, Jews have something special — and that’s a real love of Israel. [For now] Israel is this giant research and development lab, and they’re plugging along.

“Beyond the Barrel, the Race to Fuel the Future” airs on CNBC on May 6 at 9 p.m., May 12 at 10 p.m. and May 23 at 9 p.m.

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