Creating their own energy
In every neighborhood supermarket and grocery store you can already feel the constant increase in the prices of staple foods, but it is hard to notice that the rising prices of oil are responsible for it: The more the world price of oil increases, the more farmers are forced to turn to producing ethanol to create a substitute for petroleum fuel at the expense of growing the food itself. Today food crops such as corn are being used for ethanol, and this is happening all over the world. The food we might eat is being directed to other uses.
Dr. Elaine Solowey, a researcher at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies near Eilat, may have a solution: producing fuel from agricultural waste instead of from agricultural produce. Solowey has developed a chemical method for breaking down agricultural waste (the plant parts not needed for food) into simple sugars, from which the ethanol is distilled.
"This method enables us to produce ethanol from wood and from palm fronds and to turn them into fuel," she says. Now she hopes to bring about the opening of a local plant for producing ethanol this year. But that is only one step being taken by Arava Institute researchers on the way to the ultimate goal: turning the entire region into an autonomous energy economy, one that is more economical and more environmentally friendly.
The institute is located in Kibbutz Ketura, about half an hour from Eilat. It was established in 1996 by members of the kibbutz under the leadership of Dr. Alon Tal, an environmental attorney and the founder of Adam Teva V'Din, The Israel Union for Environmental Defense.
"It was established to create environmental leadership in the Middle East, and to teach that nature has no limits," says David Lehrer, executive director of the institute. The institute specializes in developing renewable energy to bring about local production of energy and reduce dependence on a centralized system.
Its researchers are also involved in formulating environmental policy on these issues and in promoting environmental cooperation among the countries in the region. That is also one of the reasons why among the 40 students studying there, only about a third are Israelis, another third are Palestinian or Jordanian and the rest are from the United States and other countries. Among other things, the students learn how to administer natural and water resources located on the border between the countries, such as the Dead Sea, and are involved in comparing the air quality of Amman and Hebron, and of Aqaba and Eilat.
"The Arava can be the Silicon Valley of renewable energy," says Lehrer, in an attempt to outline the future of the region as envisioned by the kibbutz and the Arava Institute. At present the institute is promoting a master's degree program called Renewable Energy. This course will promote research on two planes relating to the production of solar energy: the first is providing information to companies that are interested in producing solar energy, and the second is promoting the conversion of private homes into producers of energy, through green construction and the installation of solar panels on roofs.
Electricity from the sun
The building of a solar electricity plant is already being promoted in the Arava. Kibbutz Ketura is a partner in the Arava Power Company, which was founded a year and a half ago. As of now, they have approval for constructing a solar farm on 80 dunams of kibbutz land. Another 20,000 dunams are in the process of having their zoning changed, with the goal of becoming one of the largest solar farms in the world.
How much electricity will it produce? The project is now facing two main obstacles: one is the change in zoning, and more problematic, the company is demanding that the Israel Electric Corporation refunds for solar energy NIS 2.04 kilowatt-hour -be refunded to the company as well. As of now the law is designed only for private consumption and for business consumption up to 50 kilowatt-hours. One of the goals of the project includes a future plan for cooperation with the Jordanians.