On the second floor of the Sussman Environmental Science building on the Weizmann Institute’s bucolic campus in Rehovot, Jacob Karni is steadily working to transform the way the world perceives limited energy resources and harmful pollutants.
The director of Weizmann’s Centre for Energy Research and a leader in the field of solar power, Karni is turning carbon dioxide, one of the worst greenhouse gas emissions, into clean energy using the power of the sun. Karni, trim in a blue shirt and jeans, shows me around his laboratory. As ovens mimic the heat from the sun at a variety of different temperatures, he uses concentrated solar energy to separate carbon dioxide into carbon monoxide and oxygen while simultaneously dissociating water into hydrogen and oxygen. The carbon monoxide and hydrogen then combine to form a synthetic gas called Syngas that is used in fuels such as methanol. “We are, in effect, recycling carbon dioxide,” says Karni. “We are ensuring that it does not get emitted into the atmosphere, and then we are using it for our energy needs.” This solar-powered process could be used in power plants and other carbon-emitting industries, ultimately reducing the carbon output of the plant while decreasing its reliance on gas and oil.
Confused? Think photosynthesis, explains Karni. In that process, plants convert light energy captured from the sun into chemical energy that can be used as fuel for the organisms. In this case the sun’s energy is converting wasteful emissions into fuel for the various technologies on which we depend. “People are greedier than trees and so we need a lot more,” he says, sitting in an office lined with scientific tomes with walls covered by posters spouting motivational aphorisms: Dare to dream, Dare to succeed and (my favorite) Vision without funding is hallucination!
The last poster speaks volumes. Israeli universities and research institutes such as Weizmann incubate promising research and projects: The Weizmann Institute for Solar Research Facilities includes a solar tower with a field of 64 large, multi-faceted mirrors that track the sun’s location. Ben-Gurion University houses the National Solar Energy Center, and the Technion and Tel Aviv University have similar advanced solar research facilities.
But as evidenced by the names attached to the buildings and programs, much of the funding for this solar academic research comes from private donors—usually from American Jews overseas. Karni’s work, for example, received a $200,000 grant in 2010 from Israel Strategic Alternative Energy Foundation, a Silicon Valley-based organization that provides funding for early-stage alternative energy technology research in Israel.
A common next step is to find a partner who can provide a new technology with the funds needed to make the leap into the market, says IVN’s Maxwell. Ben-Gurion University, for example, has created a commercial entity called BG Negev Ltd that does this, but outside firms step in as well. Recently an Australian company, Greenearth Energy Ltd, acquired an exclusive worldwide license for Karni’s technology. This technology, which has cost about $6.5 million so far according to the website Israel21c, is of particular interest in Australian regions such as Victoria, where there is an abundance of brown coal, which emits enormous amounts of carbon dioxide.
According to Ben-Gurion University’s David Faiman, despite all of this activity at Israel’s universities, Israel is still not a star in solar research but does occupy “an honorable place on the world scene.” “In my opinion we could be leaders, but that would require a serious decision by the government to fund solar R&D,” says Faiman. “Other countries’ governments have taken such decisions over the years—notably those of the U.S., Japan, Germany, Italy, Spain, and even France—but somehow, no Israeli government has taken solar R&D as seriously as when David Ben-Gurion funded Dr. Tabor’s work from the budget of the Prime Minister’s office.”
The Israeli government has made many promises about solar energy. In December 2009 at the UN Conference on Climate Change in Copenhagen, Israeli President Shimon Peres said that by 2020 Israel—like many European countries—would reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent. As part of this pledge, Israel committed that by 2020, 10 percent of its energy would come from renewable energy. Then in late November 2012, Israel’s Energy and Water Ministry announced a resolution to grant a “‘second wind’ to the production of electricity using solar energy,” saying solar electricity production capacity would be increased by 300 megawatts (a modest but significant improvement) and energy quotas for electricity production would be shifted from wind energy facilities to solar plants.
Although an Energy and Water Ministry spokesperson insists that there is a “high probability” Israel will reach its 2020 goal, it is clear that solar is at an impasse. The Minister of Finance has put the “second wind” resolution on hold until the Knesset can vote on it. And the Energy spokesperson says that due to the recent elections and the shifts in the government, it is hard to say when a vote will occur.
Herzliya professor Uri Marinov dismisses the government pledge as lip service. “The attitude of the government is to have as little solar energy as possible because they consider it as an expensive source of energy—which is incorrect,” he says. “They are arranging their chairs on the Titanic and they don’t see what is ahead of them.”
Renewable Energy lobbyist Parnass, however, is more optimistic. “2013 and 2014 are going to be the solar years of Israel,” he says, citing renewed government commitment, decreasing prices of solar equipment and ongoing solar projects that may be nearing completion. “It will be the years of solar that we have waited for a long time.”
Whoever is correct, the window for Israeli solar may be closing. In January 2009, almost 10 trillion cubic feet of natural gas were discovered in the Mediterranean Sea, 50 miles west of the Haifa coast. The discovery of the Tamar gas field was quickly overshadowed by the discovery of the Leviathan gas field some 20 miles farther east—the largest deep-water gas reservoir found anywhere in the world over the past decade. These fields can meet Israel’s energy needs for the next 100 years, and experts say there is probably more gas to be found.
The windfall of natural gas, which Benjamin Netanyahu has called “manna from heaven,” has changed Israel from an energy-dependent nation into a potential gas exporter. But does it also mean that the need to develop renewable energy has fallen by the wayside? Is solar still necessary? Solar supporters I spoke to offered a number of reasons why it is. One is security: Hezbollah has already declared that it plans to bomb Israeli gas plants; both the Palestinian Authority and Lebanon have made claims to the gas fields; Turkey is claiming rights for Turkish Cyprus further offshore. Other reasons include the need for energy diversity and cleaner energy. “People don’t understand that gas is also a polluting source of energy and a source of carbon dioxide,” says Marinov. “While it is better than coal, it still needs to be replaced with renewable energy.”
Expressing the frustrations of many, Marinov continues: “Israel could have become a real player in solar. Israel was the first country in the world in the 50s to be using water heaters in every building and [later] made it mandatory. We were the first to produce large-scale fields. We exported it to California and instead of capitalizing on this industry we gave it up. It is really a shame the decision makers of this country never realized their fantastic opportunity to lead in the field. We lost it, and we are not doing it today either. We are not capitalizing on the areas that have 340 days of sunshine a year.”