Cleantech is the name given to the range of new technologies being developed to reduce environmental damage and encourage the use of renewable energy. The field has promising economic potential, and according to a new report, Israel is one of its leading powerhouses.

The World Wildlife Fund and the Cleantech Group, an environmental consulting company, recently published “Coming Clean: The Global Cleantech Innovation Index 2012,” which ranks nations based on which ones offer the most favorable conditions for cleantech development. The report examined variables such as potential for innovation, scope of capital investments and success in the commercialization of technological developments.

After weighting the various parameters, Denmark took first place, followed by Israel. Two other Scandinavian countries − Finland and Sweden − rounded out the top four, while the United States was ranked fifth.

The authors of the report note that the Scandinavian countries adopted the vision of sustainable economic development long ago, and have invested a great deal of capital into green technologies. Denmark in particular is noted for fully realizing the commercial potential of new developments. While neither India nor China were ranked high by this new index, they are planning to invest significantly in cleantech in coming years, and are expected to rise to the top of the list.

A clear winner

Israel excels in innovative ideas and patents on new technologies, says the report, which said Israel was the “clear winner” when they searched for evidence of emerging cleantech innovation. Hence, there are a large number of Israeli companies operating on the cleantech global market, relative to the country’s gross domestic product.

Israel is especially powerful in water technology development. The report mentions TaKaDu, which has developed innovative methods to locate leaks in water supply systems. Amongst the factors the authors cite as being responsible for the Israeli cleantech industry’s success is its cooperation with the national water company, Mekorot, which is interested in the application of the new technologies. Another factor is the technological knowledge base that was created by the security industry over the years.

However, Israel is not doing such a great job when it comes to making their products into commercial successes. The local market is too small to make a serious profit, and there is a dearth of local capital for investing in increasing the activity of the companies involved. And most Israeli companies haven’t yet managed to penetrate the global market.

Not much environmental impact yet

A key issue that the index does not discuss is how much the cleantech industry affects the environment in Israel. The answer seems to be that its effect on the environment is growing, but slowly. Still, there is concern that the potential benefit could be lost. One thing that might help is a central government agency to assist the industry. The government says it plans to present a green economic growth plan in the coming weeks, which could improve the situation. The plan is expected to include assistance in exporting cleantech products and professional training.

Cleantech developments are also the focus of more scientists and academics than ever before. Tel Aviv University, for example, operates a center for renewable energy. Groups, such as the one led by Prof. Avi Seifert, which is working on new vertical wind turbine models that are supposed to be quieter and more efficient than older models, can operate at the center.

Technologies are, of course, also being introduced into the private sphere, especially at waste and water treatment facilities and in the energy market. Applied CleanTech has developed a chemical-free technology for the initial filtering of wastewater, which is already in use at the wastewater treatment plant in Omer. The technique removes the cellulose of the waste, dries it and presses it, while controlling gas emissions and odors. The end of the process results in a product that is sold to the paper industry, which uses it for biofuel. Ultimately, this could dramatically reduce energy use at the water treatment plant and the amount of sludge that remains after the water has been treated ‏(currently the sludge is handled separately‏) − which could lead to a decrease in greenhouse gases emissions produced by the biological treatment process.

Consumption continues

While the cleantech industry is flourishing in Israel and elsewhere, it has not had a significant impact on the use of raw materials or the consumption of goods. In fact, so-called green innovations often result in allowing people to use sophisticated, efficient new ways to continue to behave as they did in the past. Therefore, at present, the industry is not easing the pressure humans are exerting on natural resources. “Hybrid cars is a technological development that reduces pollution,” explained Valerie Brechia, director of the Environmental Policy Center at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, “but we’re still talking about [the use of] private vehicles and the need to build roads.”

The Israeli agriculture industry illustrates the complexity of the connection between technological innovation and environmental exploitation. Israeli agriculture has become quite efficient in terms of water usage and the use of treated wastewater, but instead of enjoying the water savings, these developments have only motivated agricultural corporations to plant in arid regions, thus impacting open spaces and delicate ecological systems.

Even in the advanced Scandinavian countries there is evidence that the new, more efficient technologies are not necessarily generating an environmental revolution. Although the use of innovative technologies means that less energy goes into manufacturing processes, the use of raw materials in these nations is growing, thanks to the rapid growth of the GDP. The technology is becoming greener but the resources are still dwindling.