Yosef Abramowitz: Energized to Change the World Through Solar

Yosef Abramowitz, an Israeli solar pioneer from Newton, is joined by U2 singer Bono and Congressman Joe Kennedy to celebrate a new solar field his company developed in eastern Rwanda.
Yosef Abramowitz, an Israeli solar pioneer from Newton, is joined by U2 singer Bono and Congressman Joe Kennedy to celebrate a new solar field his company developed in eastern Rwanda.

By Todd Feinburg

Published March 02, 2016, issue of March 03, 2016.

When Yosef Abramowitz talks business, he can sound like your everyday international tycoon. But not for long. Soon, he’ll be saying something like, “For me, this was not just a business, it was really an issue of justice and it was a social movement.”

Which is no surprise coming from a man who, since making Aliyah from Newton with his family ten years ago, has earned the nickname “Captain Sunshine” for his role in creating the solar industry there. “We have a lust for saving the world and we have a business model to do it,” is the way Abramowitz puts it.

It was late afternoon back in August of 2006, the end to a stunningly hot day of travel, that Abramowitz and his family stepped out of their air conditioned van and onto the desert sand a few hours from Jerusalem. Even though the sun was setting, “It burned us to a crisp,” said Abramowitz, who was making Aliyah with his wife, Susan Silverman, and their five children. Who could blame these Americans if they had begun longing for home – for the comfort laden, homogenized softness of Greater Boston – even before life on the kibbutz had begun?

The sun was so hot – even the last few blasts of light sizzled as the blaze sank into the horizon – that an idea began to flicker. He hadn’t thought about it before arriving, but feeling the power of the sun triggered Yosef’s curiosity: surely the kibbutz was running on solar electricity, and he couldn’t wait to see the installation.

Abramowitz asked and was shocked by the answer – there wasn’t a solar field on Kibbutz Ketura, nor on other kibbutzim in the area. In fact, while solar hot water heaters have long been common in Israel, the resistance of a society weighted down with bureaucracy and a single, government controlled power company made such innovation difficult. “No one is crazy enough to fight the politics and the bureaucracy in Israel,” to get the permits necessary to construct such infrastructure, Abramowitz was told.

The lack of solar electricity made no sense in a region that has some of the highest levels of solar radiation on the planet, especially with the Arava institute for Environmental Studies right next door and considering Ketura is “an American oriented kibbutz with the highest education level of any kibbutz in the country.”

Solar field at Kibbutz Ketura
Arava Power Company
Solar field at Kibbutz Ketura

So Yosef set aside the book he was going to write and instead started organizing for action. Activism is nothing new for him – it’s been a way of life since Abramowitz was a student. He’s been nominated for Nobel Peace Prizes (yes, more than one), led hunger strikes, fought for the rights of Jews in the Soviet Union and won a free speech case against Boston University at the U.S. Supreme Court.

His plan was to create a solar startup, but the effort met with resistance. “When we tried raising money in Israel, people, including really good friends, said ‘you’re a naïve American kibbutznik – It’ll never work. Why do you think you’ll succeed when the natives haven’t?’” This is where being an outsider actually helped, in Yosef’s view. “Because we came from outside the country and from outside the industry, we hadn’t been broken down by the cynicism that Israelis experience when dealing with their government ministries.”

Abramowitz turned then to friends and family in the Boston area to fund the start-up, and he co-founded Arava Power Company with partners David Rosenblatt and Ed Hofland.

Attracting investors was easier than changing the laws that control the development of infrastructure like solar. Again, the locals warned that the government was intractable and the laws couldn’t’ be changed. Abramowitz couldn’t believe it. “When cynical Israelis would say it was impossible to do, I’d say, ‘Wait a second, I used to get Hebrew teachers out of solitary confinement in Siberia, you’re telling me we can’t change a couple of laws in our own country?’”

It took five years to fight through the bureaucratic muddle, as Abramowitz had been promised, but in 2011 Arava opened Israel’s first large scale commercial solar power field on the kibbutz, followed by other installations in the area, and Arava has since become the leading developer of solar in Israel.

Once begun, the solar slog started to pick up speed on its own. “While we were building the first fields, something incredible happened,” explained Yosef. “People started coming from all over the world to see us on the kibbutz. And they were mostly from the developing world. And they essentially said, ‘Hey, start-up nation, can you help us start our solar industries?’ So we set up a sister company to handle the roll-out outside of Israel – primarily in Africa.”

Abramowitz is now the CEO and co-founder, with David Rosenblatt, Ed Hofland, and Howie Rodenstein, of Energiya Global Capital (Rodenstein, of Needham, is the Chairman of the Board), which is working eagerly to spread renewable energy to 100 million people in Africa. Which puts Abramowitz firmly in his comfort zone as a businessman activist on a mission to use technology to improve the lives of millions.

Abramowitz appears to be getting more ambitious as he focuses less on personal gain. “At this point in my life I’m interested only in social change that’s scalable at crazy levels. It’s not any more for me about doing good things, nice things, it’s now taking all the things that we’ve learned and scaling it.”

Interestingly, Abramowitz said that to make this kind of change happen, the incentives of a for-profit business model are required. “If you’re going to transform a continent of 600 million people without power, then it has to be a for-profit with social goals and with a business model that works.”

An Evening with Solar Revolutionary Yosef Abramowitz

Wednesday, April 6, 7:30 pm
Hebrew College, Berenson Hall 160 Herrick Rd., Newton Centre

In this upcoming Martin Kace lecture, Yosef Abramowitz will share his unconventional journey from Boston Jewish educator to Israeli solar impact investor. He will discuss how being an observant Jew and human rights activist were central to broadening his vision and expertise as an Israeli solar investor.

2015 Nobel Prize nominee Yosef Abramowitz is President of Gigawatt Global and its Israeli affiliate Energiya Global. He was nominated for Gigawatt Global’s work with the Rwandan solar field project, which now provides 6% of the country’s power. He co-founded the first Israeli solar company, Arava Power, in 2006. CNN named Abramowitz one the top six Green Pioneers Worldwide.

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