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Remote Desert Region Spearheading Israel’s Renewable Energy Revolution

Dorit Banet is not one to throw around hackneyed expressions (such as “making the desert bloom”) when describing her work. Tired clichés are apparently not part of her lexicon, but she does have an ambitious vision. Largely under the radar, Banet and her colleagues at the Eilat-Eilot Renewable Energy Administration in southern Israel are busy transforming a distant and sparely populated strip of desert land into the focal point of Israel’s young and dynamic renewable energy sector.

In her previous position as head of the regional environmental unit, Banet found herself at odds with local decision-makers. “I found myself opposing a lot of new development schemes,'” Banet recalled last week at a renewable energy conference in the town of Eilat, which she co-chaired. “I was looking for a way to develop the region sustainably. So I asked myself: If I say no to a new casino, what can I say yes to?”

In Israel’s extreme south, a parched region that relies heavily on desalinated sea water and treated wastewater for irrigation, agriculture was clearly not the answer. Although some of the region’s kibbutzim still earn a living from farming, harsh climatic conditions and a lack of fresh water resources means farmers have limited options. More and more vegetable fields are giving way to date palms, one of the few crops that thrive here, or are simply being abandoned.

So when the idea to re-brand the region as a renewable energy hub began to make the rounds, it seemed a natural fit. With the region’s isolated location, far from Israel’s centralized electricity and water infrastructures, the economics made sense. And with vast expanses of unused land and some of the most intense solar radiation in the world, the sparsely-populated desert locale seemed to fit the bill.

Banet began pitching the idea around, finding eager partners in local kibbutzim, and a solid sponsor in the Jewish community of Toronto, Canada. “We’re their startup,” she says.

Still, it was slow going at first. Government bureaucracies were not easily convinced, and things were held up by what Banet describes as conservative thinking on the part of government officials.

So Banet turned to the private sector. They organized a large conference in 2007, which drew some 300 people. “We understood that the conference needed to focus on finance, innovation and policy,” she says.

The conference went well, and in its wake a strategic plan for developing a renewable energy industry in the region was drawn up. “One of the conclusions was that we should reach out to Eilat,” she says, referring to the mid-sized resort city on the Red Sea that borders on the rural Eilot region. In 2008, the Renewable Energy Administration was launched.

To all accounts, Eilat-Eilot’s strategy has thus far been a success. This year’s conference drew hordes of businessmen, all searching for investment opportunities in the area. Senior government figures also showed up to express their commitment to promoting the field of renewable energy and energy efficiency on the national, as well as local, levels.

And there are huge plans afoot. In order to meet its goal of producing its own renewable energy, a large-scale solar power plant is set to be built, along with numerous small-scale solar energy projects. All ten of the region’s kibbutzim are exploring ways to use their fallow fields for medium-sized photovoltaic arrays.

Not satisfied with simply generating electricity, the Eilat-Eilot region has plans for a range of projects built around the future industry, including educational and academic institutions and a business incubator which is slated to house 25 renewable energy companies within 5 years. All in all, the business activity is expected to provide jobs for one tenth of the region’s population.

Meanwhile, the concept has caught on strong on the kibbutzim, and environmental initiatives are flourishing, including green building projects, constructed wetlands, and even energy efficiency projects in Eilat. In the future, says Benet, the region would like to set up cross-border projects with its neighbors in Egypt and Jordan.

Despite the progress, there were still rumblings at the conference last week to the effect that government regulators have been slow to respond to the burgeoning industry. Banet acknowledges that there are some issues to be worked out, and agrees that the industry needs some initial support from the state. Ever confident, she smiles and assures, “It’s on the way.”