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Interview with Yosef Abramowitz, CEO of Arava Power

[Author: | Date: 20 Apr 2010 ]

    Yosef I. Abramowitz specializes in public policy, government relations, press, technology and corporate strategy.

    He has a successful track record in government relations, having led a major effort that won $7 billion in benefits, as well as international campaigns for various issues. With degrees in Public Policy from Boston University and Journalism from Columbia University, Yosef most recently served as CEO of a multimedia company for

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    a decade.

    Winner of numerous awards, Yosef has an extensive global network, having served on the Executive Board of

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    the World Jewish Congress and in other positions. He has been co-nominated three times for the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in the former Soviet Union, which was underwritten by the European Union and U.S. AID.

    Yosef is based in Boston, and has relocated to Kibbutz Ketura with his wife, Rabbi Susan Silverman, and their five children. His interest in solar power began in high school, where he received a regional award for a solar energy project.

    On Arava Power…

    Avner Hi Yossi, it’s a pleasure to meet you and thank you for hosting me at your office for this interview. Tell us a little about Arava Power?
    Yossi Arava Power is the first green utility in the Middle East. We are technologically agnostic and that is a very important piece of our strategy. We will always use the best technology available that is appropriate for each specific location and that works with the specific regulatory environment.
    Avner Arava Power has run a significant round of the Israeli bureaucratic obstacle course over the last couple of years – tell us a little about it:
    Yossi Two and a half years ago we decided we are going to push the Arava Power project ahead – everyone said it can’t be done – you can’t get a license for solar you can’t get a building permit for a solar field
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    you can’t do the zoning etc. Despite everything we just kept pushing along and at each stage every government office and every committee had to create the process to allow the Ketura 80 dunam 4.9MW field to advance forward. There are 25 political and regulatory battles to be fought for anybody who wants to build a commercial solar field in Israel. On January 4th 2010 we won the 25th battle (the Public Utility Authority passed the feed-in tariff of 1.49 for commercial solar fields up to 5MW), of-course this is not the end of the story, there are still more battles to be fought. For example, the National Building and Planning commission is in the process of coming up with regulation for rezoning agricultural land so that it can be used for solar fields, there’s currently no normative process in Israel to do that in a way which will be fast. In contrast to Europe where it takes 4 to 6 months for rezoning, in Israel it takes 3 years if you’re lucky. So we effectively created the political necessity for all 12-14 government offices to essentially do what they need to do to create the environment so that it would be a reasonable thing to plan, build and interconnect commercial solar fields in the state of Israel.

    Avner Once this industry matures and more players join the market what elements will the competition be based upon?
    Yossi Well, technology plays an invaluable and critical role but once you know what your technology is it becomes in fact a real-estate deal. Whoever has the best land, in the sunniest regions, closest to the right transmissions lines will create the most demand for new technologies to be created and will make the most money.

    On solar technology PV and Solar-Thermal…

    Avner Being technologically agnostic – exactly how do you choose your technology?
    Yossi Every panel manufacturer makes all sorts of claims about how much energy their panels produce. The sun conditions in the Arava are quite unique therefore we didn’t rely upon anyone’s assumptions but rather wanted to test out these things for ourselves. For over two years now we’ve been running a small alpha test site together with the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, the Brian Medved Alpha Solar Center. We have off-course limited our testing only to technologies that are bankable.
    Avner Can you explain the term “bankable
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    technologies” in this context?

    Yossi To do commercial solar fields is a very expensive infrastructure cleantech endeavor, you need to put down 20% and borrow 80%. To do this you need a bank that believes that for 20 years the technology is going to work well in a predictable way so that you can repay the loan and also the investors can make money. Because of the necessity for bankability you can’t really get too creative on which technologies you’re going to use at this stage. Banks in general are conservative and Israeli banks are notoriously so therefore we need to go on bankable and certified technologies for now.
    Avner As a solar utility you have obviously analyzed the various available solar technologies from the efficiency, financial and regulatory perspective, tell us more about the considerations regarding use of solar thermal technologies in contrast to PV solar: (14.00)
    Yossi As I said earlier solar-thermal needs larger scale in order to get the efficiencies you get from PV. With that, the issues that solar-thermal utilities are running into are not related to space but rather to the problem of the amount of water needed for the cooling systems. For this reason, in Israel there needs to be regulation that discourages water cooled systems and encourages air cooled. The problem is that air-cooled systems are less efficient so you need a higher feed-in tariff, for now, in order to get a good parity. Right now there is a public hearing proposal in Israel for solar thermal plants up to 60MW and above 60MW – the proposed tariff is 90 Agurot ($0.24) for over 60MW which is not worthwhile and 1.05NIS ($0.28) for under 60MW which is way too low. It’s too low in general if water cooled systems are available, water cooled systems being cheaper than air cooled. We all have till the end of January to give our feedback on this proposal and then eventually they’ll announce feed-in tariffs for large fields. Now what they want to do is to take the large tariff for solar thermal and apply it to PV which is also ludicrous. No country in the world has the same large-field tariff for both PV ad solar thermal. This is basically an indication to the fact that they don’t have a real commitment to large PV fields and frankly they don’t commit to large solar thermal other than the ones which use a ridiculous amount of water and that is just bad public policy and part of the learning process. So, as the people who push the envelope, we are going to everything we can to make sure that there is a higher tariff for large solar thermal fields that will encourage air cooling and profitability. As large and as strong as Solel is today that market could grow by leaps and bounds if we also had a domestic market. Why shouldn’t there be a GW of solar thermal plants if we can figure out the zoning and the environmental stuff. So the tariff will encourage that and then once there is a local demand you’ll find all sorts of innovations and efficiencies that will be created through Solel and other companies.
    Avner Siemens owns 40% of Arava Power and 100% of Solel, the Israeli solar thermal company, are we going to see Solel solar thermal fields implemented in Israel?
    Yossi As I said Arava is technologically agnostic and that means we’ll choose the right technology for the right location at the right time in the market. There is no final permit for any solar-thermal field in Israel. In solar-thermal you need larger scale in order to get the efficiencies, in other words you need 15MW to get to the price point that shows the solar thermal is worthwhile. In order to do that you need 1000 to 2000 dunam – this means getting all the permissions, environmental impacts permits, zoning etc. and there’s not yet a tariff that works with solar thermal in Israel (the 1.49NIS is only for PV up to 5MW, you can’t do 5MW solar thermal today that is bankable). That being said, there is currently a public hearing process in this regard. There’s a great experiment happening today at kibbutz Samar with AORA, a solar-thermal tower at 100KW each tower and we’re very interested to see how that develops because that’s the first modular
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    solar thermal installation. Whether it’s ripe for us and the rest of the market has yet to be seen but the fact that it’s modular may solve some of the land space issues. It’s safe to say that Siemens is very strategic and they know that it’s in their interest to align all of their solar assets worldwide and especially in the Middle East and we look forward to being part of that alignment.

    On the position of Israel’s Cleantech Industry…

    Avner What needs to change in order for Israel to become a leader in the global cleantech market?
    Yossi Israel has to go through two main phases in order to become a leader in the global cleantech industry. The first phase is to develop “domestic use and demand” and the second is the “innovation” phase, the killer app of renewables if you like. Everyone always wants to jump to the second phase and for that reason there are so many startups looking at a wide variety of very interesting ideas in the Israeli market. What is holding the industry back nevertheless (other than solar thermals which was developed 20-30 yrs ago), is that we have not yet gone through the first phase. Once Israel has domestic use and demand, innovation will accelerate because innovators will have an outlet to pilot, experiment and study under some of the harshest environments on the planet in the south of Israel for example.
    Avner Are there markets in which we see this logic being applied?
    Yossi Germany is the world leader in producing renewable energy. Almost 50% of solar power in the world is being produced in Germany which is astounding given that they only have 900KW hrs per sq/m of sunlight in contrast to the Arava where we have 2247KW hrs per sq/m. It’s important to understand that the public policy goal to lower the barriers to entry and invest so much money in a very rich feed-in tariff (what project developers get paid for each KWhr) was not really based so much on an environmental agenda as it was on creating 40,000 new jobs in Germany over the last decade in the space of renewables and particularly in solar. In effect, they created tremendous local demand, consequently thousands of people went into the industry and out of those thousands a portion went into innovation and then manufacturing. So now they are number one in the industry, needless to say, a decade is a pretty short time for such an accomplishment.
    Avner So how exactly would this work in Israel?
    Yossi So, as I said, phase one is to create a domestic market – first build hundreds of MW and then GW’s. When you do that the innovation and manufacturing sector wakes up. Once innovation and manufacturing awakens, we would like to see the Israeli government do two things: Firstly, create tax incentives for the developers to buy Israeli technology. This will encourage the local industry by pumping capital into it. If, for example, a developing company needs a little more capital it can come obtain it through an order for 50M worth of hardware – this is a lot better than a research grant from the government. These incentives will effectively enable Israeli companies to compete with the efficiency and cheapness of the Chinese who are very impressively going to dominate the market. Secondly (and this will bring the real revolution), give a loan guarantee to a bank, which will underwrite the financing of Israeli experimental technologies which are advanced but not yet bankable. This will enable developers to effectively showcase the more recent developments in Israeli solar energy without the banks having to take the
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    full risk on the 80% financing. So part one of the revolution is create demand, have a lot of money coming through the market, build expertise. Part two is the regulatory dimension – tax breaks and other benefits for using Israeli technology and in addition, government guarantees to the banks to share the risk of not-yet-bankable Israeli technologies. I believe that there is going to be a game change in the solar market in the next 5 years and once local demand will be created here, it will most likely come from Israel.

    Avner What does Israel have that makes you so confident that the game-change will come from here and what will change that will make it happen in the next 5 years?
    Yossi Israel has a unique entrepreneurial culture and it has the confidence of the capital markets and VC’s. Furthermore, almost all universities now have environmental and renewable energy center in the framework of which people will be doing their masters and PHd’s on these issues and out of which many startups will be developing. But as I said, in order for all this to happen we really need a local test market in which to develop it.

    On Israel’s role in the global energy shift…

    Avner What role do you think Israel can play in the global paradigm shift in the energy sector?
    Yossi I think that there are two things: The first is connected to the question in a post Copenhagen world of how you transform a modern economy from being carbon based to being renewable based and particularly solar based. This has not yet been done – you can’t name one economy that has gone from the one old model and completely transferred to clean energy (I’m not talking about nuclear power). For this reason, there is a lot of trepidation surrounding the issue and this is one of the reasons behind why things fell apart in Copenhagen. We are a small and innovative country and therefore we are able to do revolutionary things quickly – if and when we want to. We are currently at eleven GW; we’ll go up to twenty GW by 2020 which for us is actually still incredibly manageable. Israel can go from last place to first place in the industrial world of renewables in a potentially short period of time. During such a process will learn about so many issues that we don’t even know that we will have to counter along the way. This will essentially make us the proof positive that it is possible and we will know how it may be done. We will effectively be the global pilot for transforming into a carbon neutral economy. The second thing is a security perspective. We have the highest political incentive to end the world’s dependency on carbon because we are in a hostile neighborhood that is fueled by a carbon based global economy. We must figure out how to break that stranglehold.
    Avner What do you think would be one of the main technological challenges in reaching a clean economy?
    Yossi The issue will be energy storage – that’s going to be a key and I think that energy storage technology breakthroughs are likely to come from Israel if there is a local demand because then the necessity will be there. Once you get to 10-20% of the grid with renewables that are daytime dependant you must solve the storage question on a systemic national grid basis. If we create the market for that, the innovators in the market will come through.
    On the interest of foreign investors…
    Avner How did the international investor market respond to a project that has such a heavy bureaucratic component to it?
    Yossi The international investor community never blinked in the three and a half years of our climb. We were first to market in a market that didn’t exist, which meant that almost every major international company that is interested in this space came to visit us, a good percentage of them courted us – we were in a privileged position. Once we scored the license that’s when almost a bidding war began. Even during the financial crisis we had no issues raising capital. I think this is an incredible statement about the belief of the international investor community in the potential of the Israeli market and I think it speaks very well of our management team.
    Avner And then Siemens came along, what did they offer that made you go specifically with them?
    Yossi We were very fortunate that Siemens came along when it did. There was an important differentiator between them and the other international investors. Not only did they respect the value that we had created as a company up until now by creating the market and having the first mover advantage but they were also willing to partner in the full sense of the word with the management team. They didn’t come in saying we’re buying you – we’re going to control you, hire and fire you and so on but rather they came in with the attitude of “you guys know what you are doing”. All the other companies either wanted to acquire or wanted to provide capital but at rates that just didn’t appreciate the value that we are creating, the value of creating a market.
    Avner How did the regulatory breakthroughs affect international investors’ interest?
    Yossi Now that there’s a feed-in tariff everybody wants to finance projects because once you have a license and a building permit there’s no risk – you’re getting at least a 15% if not higher return as an investor. Israel will be at least a 4GW market that’s $20B. I say to you today that there’s enough interest in the international community to do that if the regulatory environment was up to speed. If we had the zoning right for that much land and if the feed-in tariff on large fields was closer 1.35NIS then 20B will come through this economy between now and 2020, no doubt about it.
    Avner Finally, when will be seeing the first commercial solar field in Israel?
    Yossi The work will begin shortly; we hope to see the first commercial field working in 2010.
    Avner Thanks you so much for you time…
    Yossi It was a pleasure talking to you.

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