KETURA, Israel — Arriving at this bone-dry kibbutz in the Arava
Desert late one afternoon in August 2006, Yosef Abramowitz, a social
activist, Jewish educator and multimedia entrepreneur from Boston,
opened the door of his van and was hit by a wall of heat.
The sun was setting, but it was still burning,” he said.
“I remember the sensation.”
Later, unable to sleep, he rose about 5 a.m. and stepped outside as
the sun was coming up over the mountains of Jordan. “It was so
hot already,” he recalled. “I said to myself, ‘This
whole place must work on solar
Then he found out that was not true.
So Mr. Abramowitz, who had spent six months at Ketura in the early
1980s as part of a Young Judaea program, quickly abandoned his plans
to spend a quiet family sabbatical with his wife and children in
southern Israel. Instead, he went into partnership with Ed Hofland, a
businessman from the kibbutz, and David Rosenblatt, an investor and
strategist from New Jersey, to found the Arava Power Company, now the
leading commercial developer of solar power in Israel.
After more than five years of political and regulatory battles with
the Israeli authorities, the company has transformed 20 acres of a
sand-colored field on the edge of the communal farm. It now glistens
with neat rows of photovoltaic panels from China — 18,600 in
all — that harness the sun. There is no smoke, only a slight
buzz in the spotless rooms where the panels’ current is turned
into electricity that can be fed into the electrical grid. Small
openings in the perimeter fence allow animals to cross the
Depending on the time of year and rate of energy consumption, this
field provides power for as many as five communities.
Siemens, the German conglomerate, was brought in as a partner and
invested $15 million, and its Israeli branch built the field. The Jewish National
Fund, a century-old Zionist group most associated with planting
trees in Israel, made an unusual strategic investment of $3 million
in a twist on the early national ideal of trying to make the desert
In forging a path for commercial solar energy, Mr. Abramowitz said he
endured regulatory battles involving two dozen agencies as big as the
Israeli Agriculture Ministry and as small as the local planning
agency on issues like zoning changes and renewable energy
Along the way, Mr. Abramowitz — who left the kibbutz for
Jerusalem in 2009 but still visits often — became known in
Ketura as Captain Sunshine. “He got his nickname, first,
because of his sunny personality,” said Elaine Solowey, a
member of the kibbutz, “and, second, because anyone who beats
the government bureaucracy is a superhero.”
Arava Power’s pioneering work has not gone unnoticed. Other
communal farms and communities in the arid reaches of southern Israel
are rapidly turning to renewable energy: solar energy is a harvest
that does not require irrigation.
Last month, Israel’s Public Utility Authority issued licenses
for nine larger solar fields, including a 150-acre site at Ketura
that will eventually meet one-third of the peak daytime energy needs
in the nearby city of Eilat.
Ketura’s new solar field will be built across the road from the
kibbutz in a rift valley between two mountain ranges. The near-
constant breeze from the north will naturally cool the backs of the
panels, which will face south. With up to 14 hours of sunlight in the
summer, an average of only 15 cloudy days a year and access to the
national electricity grid nearby, the area has conditions that are
perfect for producing solar energy, Mr. Abramowitz said.
“God could not have invented a better place to do solar
power,” he said during a recent tour.
Arava Power has entered deals to lease land from numerous farms and
communities in southern Israel. It has also teamed up with Bedouins
in the Negev Desert: the tribes will lease their lands to Arava Power
for solar installations, and the company will provide jobs for the
clans. In February, the regulatory authorities granted the first
license for an installation on Bedouin-owned land belonging to the
Tarabin tribe. Financing for the Bedouin fields is coming from the
United States government’s Overseas Private Investment
Arava Power expects to grow into a $2 billion enterprise. That is
quite a change for a small kibbutz that has mainly lived off its date
palms, dairy shed and the salaries of members who work outside the
Ketura was founded in 1973 by 25 idealists, graduates of the Young Judaea Zionist movement, and is known for its
socialist values and simple, communal lifestyle. Though the kibbutz
has a stake in Arava Power, Mr. Hofland, the company chairman, will
not make any personal profit.
The kibbutz is also known for environmental innovation. It operates a
high-tech algae farm and is home to the Arava Institute, where Israelis, Palestinians,
Jordanians, Americans and others study the environment. The
kibbutz’s appreciation for education has resulted in what its
secretary general, Sara Cohen, calls “knowledge-based
In one such effort, Dr. Solowey domesticates rare plants, including
species with medicinal properties, and works on finding new crops for
arid and saline lands.
As yet, the prospect of solar power riches has not gone to the heads
of the practical farmers who live in Ketura.
“It means having our future accounted for, when we cannot work
in the date fields anymore,” Ms. Cohen said. “And our
children’s education will be secured.”
Still, she added, “We are not eating filet mignon in the
kibbutz dining room yet. (Copyright 2012 The New York Times Company