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Israel and energy: Like there’s no tomorrow
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Israel and energy: Like there’s no tomorrow

Remember, when you hear the siren, you have 15 seconds to find cover.” This is not a normal cautionary statement you hear on a tour of industrial facilities on a business trip. But this was no ordinary trip. This was day three of a seven-day tour of Israel for U.S. energy leaders sponsored by Project Interchange, an educational project created by the American Jewish Committee. We were in Sderot after having just visited Israel’s largest desalination plant located in the neighboring town of Ashkelon on Israel’s Mediterranean coast.

Fortunately for us, the rockets that day fell on the outskirts of town and did not affect our visit. But it is clear that such attacks do take a toll on the lives of those Israelis who live directly under the shadow of such random, senseless violence. Children in Sderot play only inside a specially reinforced recreation center, developed by the Jewish National Fund, because it is too risky to be outside on a playground when the warning sirens blare. Fifteen seconds is not a lot of time for anyone, least of all a six-year-old on a swing set, to find shelters.

There are no empty apartments or houses in Sderot. Israelis in the South live with the missile strikes. They make a point of not being cowed by it. Otherwise, the bad guys win. But it is not easy.

Necessity is the mother of invention, which is one of the reasons that Israel is a global center of technological innovation. No doubt Israel’s development and deployment of the Iron Dome — the sophisticated missile defense system that can instantly calibrate the speed and trajectory of an incoming missile, calculate where it will land, determine whether it is necessary to intercept it, and when necessary, launch the Israeli missiles necessary to do so — has led to software innovations that have found their way into countless civilian applications. Just as the Internet began in the 1960s as a military communication technology developed by the U.S. Department of Defense, Israel’s significant investment in the technology necessary to defend the nation is fueling an innovative, high-tech commercial culture perhaps second only to our own Silicon Valley.

Tel Aviv is at the heart of Israel’s high-tech culture, and we spent the better of a day walking down Rothschild Boulevard visiting with the many software start-up companies squirreled away behind the facades of the vintage Bauhaus buildings that have earned this part of Tel Aviv a designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Here, 20-somethings only a few years out of Israel’s army — where technology and project management skills are acquired and honed — are developing innovative software at a furious pace.

Most interesting to me was a visit to the IDC Elevator, where Shmuel Chafets, director of business development for Giza Venture Capital, described a recent investment in a start-up that is applying sophisticated software to improve the efficiency of water delivery systems that — among other things — anticipates leaks before they happen. In arid Israel, where water is scarce and getting scarcer, the importance of such technology is immediately apparent. But one of the things we learned is that Israel is too small for any innovation to be profitable if it is tailored only to the home market. So, from the outset, young Israeli innovators are immediately thinking about designing technologies that serve global needs.

It is no accident, then, that Israel has acquired a reputation as a hub of clean energy innovation. We saw plenty of evidence of serious leading-edge research and development efforts in solar energy and bio-fuels. How puzzling, then, that so little of this clean-energy technology is actually being deployed in Israel.

Until now, the vast majority of Israel’s electricity — the lifeblood of a 21st-century information technology economy — comes from coal, a decidedly dirty, 19th-century industrial fuel. Recent discoveries of significant quantities of cleaner-burning natural gas off Israel’s coast are helping to wean Israel off coal, but at the end of the day, the switch from coal to natural gas is simply swapping one fossil fuel addiction for another. Cutting-edge technologies for efficiently managing energy use were not much in evidence either.

So how can this be? No one I talked to could give me a satisfactory answer, but I think it goes back to Sderot. Immediate threats get far more attention than long-term problems, such as a deteriorating environment. Few Israelis have yet to connect declining rainfall with global warming tied to the fossil fuels that they continue to use. Yet the impact of global warming on Israel is both dramatic and immediate. It is happening now.

The situation in the South proves that, in the finest Jewish tradition, Israel will spare no expense in saving human life. Unfortunately, Israeli society has yet to make the connection between protecting the environment and protecting human life. Such connections exist but Israelis seem to be indifferent to them. The problem is not one of technology or money, but of values, and that can’t be engineered on Rothschild Boulevard. For this, perhaps that will require reference back to Israel’s first and greatest export.

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