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Fueling Innovation, Enabling a Brighter Future: The Negev Funding Coalition's Renewable Energy Program

Down in Israel's south, an area associated with the paralyzing thickness of desert heat, a region which receives nine inches of rain a year at best, a marvelous enterprise is being launched. Israel's Negev, the desert which covers over half the country, is the area of upcoming technological innovation and the site of an innovative new project for Jewish Federation of North America's Negev Funding Coalition.

The Negev Funding Coalition, an initiative of JFNA's Negev Work Group, currently includes nine federations (Federation CJA of Montreal, Greater Miami Jewish Federation, Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey, Jewish Federation of Delaware, Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, Jewish Federation of San Diego County, UJA Federation of NY, UJA Federation of Toronto, and UJC of MetroWest), each of which has contributed $25k to fund two projects. One project is the 'Young Communities, Sustainable Future' program, focusing on establishing a network of sustainable young communities in the Negev, the other, 'Enabling a Brighter Future', builds up renewable energy facilities in the Negev, creating a hub of expert, cutting-edge Israeli technology to vie with any worldwide.

Both projects identify the periphery of Israel, an area often neglected when it comes to development, as the hotbed of scientific expertise. Marilyn and Gerry Flanzbaum, Central New Jersey Federation lay leaders, visited the Renewable Energy site with Rena Genn, Director of the Israel Office, Greater Miami Jewish Federation. Meeting with Dorit Davidovich Banet, the Strategic and Regional Development Manager of the Eilat-Eilot Renewable Energy Initiative, they experienced her vision of Eilat-Eilot as the 'new Silicon Valley of Renewable Energy'.

The Renewable Energy project breaks the mold identifying the Negev as lagging behind the rest of the country, and reframes it as the leader in energy development, not just throughout the country, but worldwide.

Members of the Coalition see the Renewable Energy program, which has taken root in the Eilat-Eilot region, as a key to opening up the Negev, commercially, industrially, residentially.  Eilat, has always been traditionally a tourist city, with sun, space and sand as its key assets. That is not changing; now the sun and sand is being used to generate renewable energy which will be able to fuel the whole region.

Ellen Yarrow, Associate Director, Israel and Overseas, Federation CJA of Montreal, visited the program together with Richard Summers, UIA Canada/ UJA Federation of Greater Toronto Eilat-Eilot representative, to witness first-hand the site projects. 'At the beginning, the Renewable Energy project appealed to me strongly as a sound business plan; very forward thinking, innovative and exciting, but a business plan. After visiting the site and seeing the work in front of me, I can't tell you how much of a big deal this is.' For many, the scientific ideas behind producing enough kilowattage to run a neighborhood can seem quite abstract, yet the concepts are really quite tangible. 'I spent over six hours visiting the Renewable Energy sites and could have spent more,' declared Ellen.

Three of the main sites Ellen Yarrow visited included a solar energy field, a tower of mirrored panels that move to trap the sun's heat; a 400 meter pipeline which uses solar energy to produce 100 watts of energy per unit of recyclable fuel; and the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, a site for researching prototypes. One prototype is designed to get rid of the dust on solar panels, which inhibits performance by up to 30%. Researchers at the Institute have developed a product to coat solar panels with plastic which repels the dust. Another prototype is a solar panel constructed from glass panels with cells on both sides to maximize efficiency, to at least 4% more.

Two hundred dunams have been allocated for future solar energy fields as well as $20,000,000 from the Government of Israel. The Government of Israel has recognized Eilat-Eilot as a business incubator; 'We're joining into something momentous and of vital importance for Israel', stresses Genn. The amount of energy being saved by the energy systems already in place is considerable. Yarrow put it into proportion, 'It's like taking a suburb of Toronto and fuelling it wholly through environmentally-friendly means. It would reduce costs for everyone by at least 10%.'

William Weisinger, Project Manager of Capital Nature Company, notes that these funds acting as seed money can bring five or ten times that amount through private and government grants within a brief amount of time. The Federation funding provides the ability for fledgling experiments to get off the ground. Later, when these successful experiments receive income as businesses, they pay back the money into the fund for startups, with an additional 16-20% more, renewing the capability for progression.

In any highly successful enterprise, you can see benefits being reaped on the micro level as well the macro. So too, here. The impressive scientific results of the Renewable Energy endeavor are only the tip of the iceberg. The whole community's mentality has shifted towards the aim of advancing renewable energy; schools in the neighborhood are integrating modules on the environment into their curricula, agricultural businesses are collaborating on environmentally constructive projects, enthusing residents of all ages in the collective aim of building up the community's profile. At the nearby Kibbutz Ketura, methane gas is harvested from dairy cows, at a level which powers the entire Kibbutz.

However, the ripple effect of positivity doesn't stop there. The additional industry in the area of course increases employment opportunity, but it also potentially lowers living costs (due to the savings from renewable energy), making the Eilat-Eilot municipality suddenly a very attractive place to live. This project is not just about self-sustaining energy sources but about creating self-sustaining communities. Gaining independence both increases self-confidence as a community and also garners respect and acknowledgement from the rest of the country, bringing brain power to the region and establishing a new hi-tech industry. The area has the ability to house visiting scholars thereby developing into a hub of academic activity worldwide and attracting international interest.

There is recognition of this worldwide impact: those studying courses at Ben Gurion University in Eilat, a popular fledgling campus, are obligated to complete modules on International Relations. These are studied on the premise that being savvy about International Relations will positively affect the work's exposure since any international collaboration will demand leaving behind political considerations for the sake of advancing knowledge in the area. When an Israeli, Jordanian and a Russian are working together on a joint project, as both Genn and Yarrow witnessed, sensitivity is needed.

Investing in the Renewable Energy project is considered by many as a gift to the next generation, giving them the facilities to shape their future in an environmentally considerate and strategic manner. The Coalition leadership is motivated to connect young adults to broader Federation activity, giving them a hands-on experience of a site visit to Eilat-Eilot. Gerry Flanzbaum enthused, 'This endeavor is exciting and should help us garner the interest of the upcoming generation who are deeply concerned and will be the stewards of tomorrow's world.'

When visiting the area, one is able to visit all the project sites with little travel time in-between, a bonus which counts in the project's favor. 'It's like going to the mall and being able to make all your purchases at once, except each time you come here, you see something new', described Yarrow. The convenience doesn't just help visiting Federation members, but the business potential of the area itself. When policy makers, philanthropists and scientists visit for the annual renewable energy conference, they can see the prototypes of new patents, purchase new models and meet with other experts, all within the same locale.

The Coalition's project is already attracting key experts in the field, establishing Eilat-Eilot and the Negev as leaders in this socially beneficial project; placing Israel in the position of exporting this technology to the rest of the world, as a model of innovation. This project is not just a matter of placing pieces of carbon, metal, glass and plastic in the right position in front of the sun. It's about increasing the amount of tourism to Israel, raising the profile of the region, of the Negev, of what Israel has to offer. Says Yarrow, 'I feel a sense of pride frankly; the Negev Funding Coalition is having a hand in presenting the periphery as a model for the rest of the world.'


Richard Summers (UIA Canada Eilat Eilot representative), Marilyn Flanzbaum (Central New Jersey Federation lay leader), Dorit Davidovich Banet (Eilat-Eilot Renewable Energy Initiative Strategic & Regional Development Manager), Gerry Flanzbaum (Central New Jersey Federation lay leader)
Turning solar energy into thermal energy  between Kibbutz Groffit and Kibbutz Ketura
Experimental station at Kibbutz Ketura