Editor's Note: Yosef Abramowitz is a solar-power pioneer, an entrepreneur, an activist, an environmentalist and co-founder of the Arava Power Company. Abramowitz, a three -time Nobel Peace Prize nominee, has been instrumental in helping Israel become one of the world’s major players in alternative energy. A 30-minute profile of Abramowitz will air on CNN's "The Next List" coming soon!
Bringing solar power to Israel, and the world
As we approach Earth Day we will hear a lot about the threat of global warming and how solar power could be part of a solution to save the environment.
Israeli innovator Yosef Abramowitz is so convinced renewable energy is the answer he’s made it his mission to install solar fields all over the world. The activist, dubbed “Captain Sunshine” because of his superhuman efforts to save the planet, pioneered the concept of “impact investing” to make his solar dream work.
“I went in completely naïve about how hard it was going to be. We have to do something very proactive, very immediate,” says Abramowitz. “The need to replace burning fossil fuels is a clear and imminent danger to survival of our species. We’ve innovated an idea by bringing together technology, finance and regulation to save the world through solar power.”
His idea stemmed from what he calls a serendipitous trip to the desert. In 2006, looking for a more laid-back lifestyle, Yosef and his wife, Rabbi Susan Silverman (sister of the comedian Sarah Silverman), moved with their five kids — including two adopted from Ethiopia — to Kibbutz Ketura in southern Israel. Abramowitz was raised in Boston but had fond memories of volunteering at the kibbutz after high school.
Yosef says their plan for a quiet family sabbatical changed as soon as they arrived.
“The sun, even though it was setting, was just burning our skin. I thought, ‘I’m sure the whole place works on solar power.' ”
But it didn’t, because solar power was non-existent in Israel. Abramowitz began taking classes in renewable energy and talking to people at the kibbutz about forming a company. He found partners with businessmen Ed Hofland, who lived on the kibbutz, and David Rosenblatt, based in New Jersey, and together they started Arava Power, the first company to sign a deal with the Israeli government for production of solar power.
They endured long political battles to secure the deal.
“People told us don’t do it,” says Yosef. ‘You’re an American coming to another country. You don’t have the networks or the full command of the language or really understand the politics.”
Israel’s former Energy and Water Minister Uzi Landau was part of the negotiations.
“We don’t suffer from a lack of red tape," he said. "Like a bulldog he (Abramowitz) just puts his teeth in something and doesn’t give it up until it is done.”
It took five years and significant financing from Siemens, the electronics giant, and private investors, who raised millions of dollars, but Arava installed a solar field in Israel. The company now has a 4.9-megawatt field up and running, nine fields under construction, and plans for forty more energy projects in Israel over the next three years, including the first solar field on Bedouin land. Their goal is to eventually supply one tenth of Israel’s power.
Abramowitz isn’t nearly finished. Last year he and his partners started a new company, Energiya Global Capital, and with funding from the U.S. government and private companies, they are expanding their efforts to build solar fields in Rwanda, Haiti, Romania and a dozen other countries.
“They are rolling out the red carpet for us in Africa,” says Abramowitz. “We looked at 75 markets around the world, which is half the planet that doesn’t yet have commercial solar power. There are 1.6 billion people on the planet today without electricity. 1.6 billion. Look at the hungriest people on the planet. Look at the ones who don’t have clean water. It’s the same people. It’s all preventable.”
In Rwanda, Yosef has developed a new concept: partnering up with a youth village where orphans of the Rwandan genocide are raised and educated (modeled after Israeli youth villages that took in children who survived the Holocaust). In February, with our cameras rolling, Abramowitz installed the first solar panels in the village. If all goes as planned, the solar field will be finished by the end of the year, providing 8% of Rwanda’s energy. And Yosef says the village will partner in the profits.
“We’re not your regular solar developer. We want to empower people and communities. The solar fields can provide revenue and give people life," he says. "I’d like to be the catalyst. I just want to show people it’s possible.”