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Solar Energy Innovator Profiled

Aired May 11, 2013 - 14:30   ET


ANNOUNCER: They are innovators, game changers, people pushing themselves, moving us all forward. They are the next scientists, musicians, poets. They are the next makers, dreamers, teachers, and geniuses. They are "The Next List."

YOSEF ABRAMOWITZ, CO-FOUNDER, ARAVA POWER COMPANY: It is the manifestation of our dream. Solar evolution starts here. Come on in.

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yosef Abramowitz cannot sit still. The man in the t-shirt and sneakers is the leading force in Israel's first solar panel, creating a unique business model to get the job done.

ABRAMOWITZ: This will be a 40 megawatt solar field. I thought we were going to build a solar field. Today we have to build the entire field of solar energy generation for Israel.

GUPTA: Abramowitz co-founded Arava Power, the first company to sign a deal with the Israel government for the production of solar generated electricity.

ABRAMOWITZ: It was a disruptive idea.

SUSAN SILVERMAN, WIFE OF YOSEF ABRAMOWITZ: He said someone better bring solar energy to this place. And I said please not you.


ABRAMOWITZ: It will not field with the best security in the whole world. We have two armies guarding it.

SILVERMAN: Whatever he can envision, he can figure out how to make it happen. If he can see it, he can do it. It is incredible.

UZI LANDAU, FORMER ISRAEL ENERGY AND WATER MINSTER: He just put his teeth in something and doesn't give it up.

GUPTA: Yosef and Arava Power have plans for 40 more energy products in Israel over the next three years. But the man now dubbed Captain Sunshine is setting his sights even higher.

ABRAMOWITZ: Rwanda, Galapagos, Romania, I hope to build fields in all three of those countries.

Even if Israel were 100 percent renewable we wouldn't have saved the planet, so it has to scale. It has to scale today. We're running out of time.

GUPTA: Welcome to "The Next List." I am Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

ABRAMOWITZ: We're in the industrial area, the small agricultural community about 30 miles north of the port city of Alath. And the first commercial solar field in Israel in the entire Middle East is right over there.

The fate of humanity depends on what we do now when it comes to global warming. Every nation has to really wake up and not just talk about clean energies. They need to replace burning fossil fuels is a clear and imminent danger to the survival of our species and for so many other species. If you care about the future of the world, solar energy is part of that solution.

I am Yosef Abramowitz, co-founder of the Arava Power Company here in Israel.

You can feel the power. It is the most obvious thing in the world. I think there are two kinds of innovation. There is one that is the material innovation, inventions. And there is another kind of innovation, and it is the innovation of ideas. And I think one of the things we have been privileged to do is to innovate an idea and save the world through solar power.

Hopefully this week we'll be hearing news about Romania.

ABRAMOWITZ: We brought together the elements of technology and finance and regulation and with an overarching vision that here in Israel in particular, because 60 percent our country is desert, that we will be the first away from carbon based to being solar based.

The Arava Power Company is in the process of building nine more fields this year. It is a great ramp up. Wait until they see a 40 megawatt field and then we get the acceleration and the scaling worldwide.

We're a little country in a challenging neighborhood, and we're so dependent on importing coal and gas and really bad diesel, which we're probably buying on the spot market from our enemies, where we could really be self-sufficient with the power of the sun. That's an idea that hadn't bubbled up among government leaders. And this field here, it is proof positive of what is actually possible.

GUPTA: Coming up, a trip to the desert leads to a life altering decision.

ABRAMOWITZ: The miracle that I ever came back to it.


ABRAMOWITZ: We're heading now into the first neighborhood of the Kibbutz where I live around here as a volunteer, 1983, and where we moved into with the whole family. This is really communal, democratic living at its best. We all eat together. It is communal pools and laundry. You know everyone only by their first name.

SARAH COHEN, FRIEND: I just remember seeing this guy with a kipa, and his hair kind of flying, and incredibly charismatic and passionate.

ABRAMOWITZ: I was a volunteer and I had worked a little bit in the field with the onions, and then found my place in the kitchen. I didn't think I would ever come back. It is the truth. When Susan said let's go to Israel for a couple years.

SILVERMAN: We were just exhausted from just having to make ends meet in the state and just so hard. And we each got grants to write books. And we were just going to mellow. We had just adopted our fifth child, and we thought let's have a mellow life and just be with the kids and be with each other.

ABRAMOWITZ: My heart opened up.

COHEN: I remember I wrote back I would give my right arm to live on this Kibbutz. I knew if he was here things would happen and things would move.

ABRAMOWITZ: I got here in the late afternoon of August 24th, 2006.

SILVERMAN: We stepped out of the van and Yosef said it is hot here, it is so hot.

ABRAMOWITZ: And the sun-setting over here was burning our skin. I thought to myself I am sure the whole place is working on solar power. They're like, no, nothing. I know Israel is a world leader in innovation and solar technology. They were like, yes, but there is nothing going on in Israel.

SILVERMAN: He said someone has got to bring solar energy to this place. And I was like please not you. Let's just write our books and hang out with the kids. But I knew. He started taking a class on renewable energy and started talking to people in the Kibbutz about partnering and making this company together.

ABRAMOWITZ: Sometimes the best ideas are just accidents, and you have to kind of see it and hold onto it and not let it get away. I thought it was going to be very easy to see the sun, always shining, the grid line, right here, and six months max. I was going to go to the government offices and say we have this idea and we just need permission to build this.

So six months became a year and a year became two years and two years became five years.

SILVERMAN: He just took it one piece at a time and he just kept going. He just kept going.

LANDAU: We don't suffer from a lack of red tape.

ABRAMOWITZ: I went in, completely naive about how hard it was going to be, because maybe we wouldn't have done it, and people told us don't do it. You're coming to another country. You don't have the networks or the full command of the language or really understand the politics.

LANDAU: He just puts his teeth in something and doesn't give it up until it is done.

ABRAMOWITZ: The first pushbacks we got were just because it was new. There is a government owned monopoly electric company and supplies a lot of jobs. So we come along with a little idea that is disruptive.

LANDAU: The cost of developing the solar energy is quite high.

ABRAMOWITZ: We would just have to raise only $10 billion for Israel to have a 20 percent renewable goal.

LANDAU: And it is subsidized by the Israeli taxpayer.

ABRAMOWITZ: You need massive amounts of capital, and only way to do that is a for-profit model. So we have investors who are making money every time the sun shines and the money comes in. We're not your regular solar developer.

The community of the Kibbutz is a beautiful, inspirational place. They need revenues to be able to live in the middle of the desert so to that have solar field provide revenues gives them life.

I am very excited. This is the second field we're building nearby. We're right on the Jordanian border. The first one in every country is always the hardest. You have to be a little crazy to jump in, and we're a little crazy.

GUPTA: When we come back, growing up in a hippy commune fuels young Yosef.

ABRAMOWITZ: Show me an injustice and I go right back to my antiapartheid activism mode.


ABRAMOWITZ: He was the leader of the village, the leader of his people, and he's the first one to agree to have a commercial scale solar field among the Bedouin population. We always believed if there is going to be solar power in the south of Israel, then all the citizens of the south should benefit, and that's the way of saying not only the Jewish citizens.

What we needed to do was find the innovator, find the risk taker, from a very conservative community, very closed community. He saw in this relationship an opportunity to lift his entire village who had to fight the government.

LANDAU: Things were now somehow stopped on the government level. We have every opportunity to believe we were going to untangle.

ABRAMOWITZ: There were a couple of bureaucrats who didn't recognize his legitimate land rights, and he put together a plan and got on the first license from the history of the state of Israel for a Bedouin. And it's going to be solar fields in the future will all depend on if his field gets built. You show me injustice and I go right back into any antiapartheid activism mode, and wham. It turned out the hot bed for the entire apartheid movement. This is the beginning, where it started. The first organizing meeting happened in a rabbi's study.

RABBI JOSEPH POLAK, DIRECTOR, BOSTON UNIVERSITY HILLEL HOUSE: He came to me saying, what's any one of you doing about apartheid? I am not aware of anybody doing anything. He got increasingly more agitated by the fact that he was talking to himself.

ABRAMOWITZ: I used to love standing above here with a megaphone and just belting it out. It was awesome.

POLAK: He transformed the campus. Everybody got hot on this issue. And he is essentially fearless. If a principle issue needs to be addressed, does not look right, does not look left, looks ahead and just goes. Don't cross the street.

SILVERMAN: Our earliest was sitting in his dorm room and making signs and the police, and the campus police coming to the door and arresting.

ABRAMOWITZ: There was a lot of backlash.

SILVERMAN: They threatened to throw him out of school, started proceedings.

ABRAMOWITZ: I am honing my activist skills here and became quite audacious.

SILVERMAN: He got a pro bono lawyer from Boston and it went to court and he won.

ABRAMOWITZ: The fact we won, like means are you ready for the next battle, you can do something even greater.

POLAK: His parents, I say this in the best sense, are flower children.

ABRAMOWITZ: We are standing in front of Spanish house, which was an urban hippy commune.

POLAK: The real 1960s hippies.

ABRAMOWITZ: A lot of plants inside, not all of them legal.

POLAK: He came out of that culture, a very, very idealistic culture.

ABRAMOWITZ: It was a hot bed of activism, fighting for good causes and even the DNA to really have no fear in almost anything else that I do. I was just raised in a way that exposed me so early to the sense of obligation and empowerment. My dad was on the mall with Martin Luther King for the "I have a Dream" speech, and my mother, we grew up in the antinuclear energy activist.

DEVORA ABRAMOWITZ, MOTHER: We were planning a civil disobedience at Seabrook. I figured it certainly would not harm them for them to have the training.

ABRAMOWITZ: I learned how not to be afraid of attack dogs, water cannons, arrests, teargas.

MARTIN ABRAMOWITZ, FATHER: Was Josef a troublemaker? Of course, that's part of the fun of being a social justice advocate. Wherever he found an issue that spoke to his heart and saw an opportunity for his making a difference, he just jumped in.

DEVORA ABRAMOWITZ: If anyone can, Yosef can.

MARTIN ABRAMOWITZ: He never let me down.

ABRAMOWITZ: These were inspiring grownups who were trying to do something momentous, and I got swept up into that. And I guess I am still drinking the Kool-Aid.

I can't believe it. I am so excited.


ABRAMOWITZ: This is a different kind of technology that will work in all sorts of kinds of light. Tonight we're leaving to the Rwanda to the youth village where we're going to install the first kilowatt of solar power.

MICHAEL GREEN, CHIEF ENGINEER, ENERGIYA GLOBAL: The atmosphere in Rwanda is different than the other countries. We really don't know exactly what to expect, and we're about to learn how to use it. So lay the panels out such that these are all at the same end and then you will connect the panels together one to the other using the female and male connectors. They make a series.

ABRAMOWITZ: I can't believe it. I am so excited. We thought the best place to start in Africa would be in Rwanda 18 years after the genocide. Rwanda has a unique and deeply tragic history, yet it is a history that we the Jewish people could understand.

A friend of mine, a real hero, a real innovator, built a youth village in Rwanda.

ANNE HEYMAN FOUNDER, AGAHOZZO SHALOM YOUTH VILLAGE: I am sure that you heard about what I was doing and I heard about what he was doing. I am the founder of the youth village in Rwanda. It was really the connection between holocaust, genocide, often, and I don't understand why we can't learn from each other. We need to put these kids in an environment where they're given a value system, where they're given support, where they're given education. I went to see if there was a model to follow.

ABRAMOWITZ: She took Israeli innovation and how do you raise a generation of orphans, and has brought that model to Rwanda. It is a very expensive model.

This technology doesn't only work in direct sunlight, but it also works when there is clouds. Everybody has to help. We're going to unroll it to the other side.

HEYMAN: It made sense to connect what he was doing with what I was doing. And Yosef said I am bringing these solar farms to Africa and what do you think? And that was the beginning of a beautiful thing.

ABRAMOWITZ: We're going to take off the covering paper. What we're doing is opening up the world of potential solar power to the students.

TREVOR GREEN, BUSINESS DIRECTOR, AGAHOZO SHALOM YOUTH VILLAGE: There is going to be multiple blue collar jobs created because of that as well as high tech jobs. And I think simply exposure to a project of this scale is going to hopefully propel them to places in their life they didn't even imagine when they first arrived here.

ABRAMOWITZ: We looked at 75 markets around the world, which is half the planet, that doesn't yet have commercial solar power. There are 1.6 billion people on the planet today without electricity 1.6 billion. I can't picture that. Look at the people on the planet, it's the same people. It's the ones that don't have clean water, the same people, all preventable.

The government has asked us to build the solar field. It will supply about 10 percent of your entire country's energy. We did all the feasibilities, the environmental, the soil sample, the grid study, which is complicated, and we're going into final negotiations.

GREEN: Not only is this site going to be the first solar TV site in Rwanda but specifically in the east African region and sub-Saharan Africa in general.

ABRAMOWITZ: You want to peel it off.

GREEN: For an innovator like Yosef to come to Rwanda and employ a technology that is used before and do it here where no one else tried to do it, that is innovation.

HEYMAN: This is the model for developing the project. Let's build the solar field that will generate income to build the village.

ABRAMOWITZ: What we do here, it is much more transformative to changing the world. I think all innovators fail, myself many times included. This storyline cannot fail.

We'll build the solar field and hopefully a hundred and a thousand, and Africa is different. I have a great family. I'm part of a people that's always been part of progressive social movements. I don't know what the future will bring, but I know that what I am doing now I feel is just an incredible privilege, and I have incredible people that I have partnered with, and my family supports me in these Quixotic quests that somehow still manage to move forward.

This little light of mine, I'm going to let it shine. All around the world I'm going to let it shine.

I like to be a catalyst. I want to show people it is possible.

I am going to let it shine, let it shine.

GUPTA: Yosef's team and the Rwandan government are in final talks. Now, if all goes well the field will be finished by the end of the year, providing eight percent of Rwanda's energy. Also in the works, fields in Romania, Haiti, and a dozen other countries. Yosef is an entrepreneur, an educator, an activist and perhaps now the innovator who sparked a solar revolution. That earns him a spot on THE NEXT LIST.

I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta. We'll see you back next week.