Israeli solar company helps Bedouin profit from the sun

An Israeli solar company, Arava Power, is working to help the Bedouin Arabs, a mostly nomadic tribal people living in Israel, develop their share of the solar industry.

 Israeli solar company helps Bedouin profit from the sun


Arava power field

By Rivka Borochov

An Israeli solar company, Arava Power, is working to help the Bedouin Arabs, a mostly nomadic tribal people living in Israel, develop their share of the solar industry. Last year, Arava signed a contract with the Tarabin tribe in the Negev desert to build a solar installation. The contract was the company’s first step toward generating solar electricity on Bedouin lands in Israel’s southern desert region, where the majority of Bedouin live.

In September, the Ministry of Interior’s Southern Regional Planning and Building Committee approved a plan for a photovoltaic solar installation adjacent to Tarabin, to be based in the Abu Basma Regional Council. It was a historic move for the Bedouin, who can expect jobs and attractive lease incomes from the deal. The community leader, Haj Mousa Tarabin, said, "I am glad there are people who are concerned and are helping the Bedouin improve their lifestyle – on the economic level as well as with creating various sources of income."

The Israeli government has offered attractive incentives for solar field development. In 2008 it was announced that the Israeli Public Utility Authority would approve a feed-in tariff for solar energy plants. Feed-in tariffs are policies set by governments, so that over a particular period, a guaranteed return on investment can be given to anyone who returns power back to the grid, via solar power installations or other renewable energies like wind. Israel’s feed-in tariffs were set for mid-sized solar installations until 300 megawatts are returned to the grid, meaning there is somewhat of a "race" now on for companies to install mid-sized solar panel farms around the country.

Yossi Abramowitz, president of Arava Power, is fighting to get 30% of Israel’s guaranteed solar power feed-in tariff caps set apart just for the Bedouin people, as an important minority that can’t easily access the incentives.

If the paperwork goes through in time, Arava engineers could install an eight-megawatt facility near the Tarabin tribe. This would be enough to power 3,500 air-conditioned homes or an even greater number of non-air-conditioned homes, like those of many Bedouin families. The ultimate plan is to launch 30 megawatts in five locations, boosting the economies of the Bedouin communities as no initiative has before. The team at Arava is putting heart and soul into getting the Israeli Bedouin to benefit from the Israeli solar "gold rush."

With an immediate $30 million in backing, 80 percent of which comes from the United States government, Arava says it has a total of $3 billion in financing from major companies like Siemens, and is ready to develop the Bedouin solar industry. "This is one of the more meaningful, important and fun things that we get to do," says Abramowitz. "There’s definitely a historical element," he adds, believing that Israel is and should be a "renewable light unto the nations" to paraphrase the ethical biblical imperative for Jews to conduct themselves as an example to others.

Abramowitz meets with the Bedouin every Wednesday. Working over handshakes, cheek kisses and small cups of sweet tea before the lawyers come in, Abramowitz has managed to develop business opportunities for Israeli Bedouin that hold the promise of jobs and attractive leasing fees that beat any kind of agricultural developments they could build on water-poor land.

"About 60% of the land of Israel is desert, and about 30% of the people who live in the desert are Bedouin," says Abramowitz. Helping them access the global green economy is a moral imperative, he says.

The need to enlist an army of Israel’s citizens in the energy challenge dovetails nicely with Jewish values. "The earth is heating up and the [earth’s people] have to do their part to switch to renewable energy," Abramowitz says. Israel, he says, can "set a new standard for ramping up solar energy, and eventually be the first economy to transfer from hydrocarbon-based to solar-based – this is doable and worthwhile."