Could Israel’s solar energy guru win the Nobel Peace Prize?

Yosef Abramowitz’s Rwandan solar field has inspired the Nobel committee – and singer Bono, too

Gigawatt Global Co-Founders Yosef Abramowitz (L) and Chaim Motzen (R) with U2’s lead singer Bono at Gigawatt Global’s solar field in Rwanda (Courtesy)
Gigawatt Global Co-Founders Yosef Abramowitz (L) and Chaim Motzen (R) with U2’s lead singer Bono at Gigawatt Global’s solar field in Rwanda (Courtesy)

Come Friday, a tech project with strong roots in Israel could conceivably snag the country an honor it hasn’t been granted in over 20 years. Among the candidates for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize is solar energy company Gigawatt Global, whose co-founder Yosef Abramowitz told The Times of Israel that he really believes Gigawatt might have a shot at the prize.

It may be a very long shot: There are 273 candidates for the 2015 peace prize — 205 individuals and 68 organizations. But considering the weight being given to climate issues – on his recent visit to the United States, Pope Francis called for “bold action” to address one of the most serious problems facing the world – Abramowitz is convinced he has a chance.

“There are several climate and environment-related individuals and groups that are up for the Nobel, and by accepting those nominations, the selection committee apparently feels that the issue is an important one,” he said.

It’s not just the Nobel Committee that is impressed, as is U2 lead singer Bono, himself up for a Nobel Peace Prize. “Gigawatt Global has created a crazy futurist solar field that’s boosted Rwanda’s generation capacity by six percent and has basically blown my circuits with its possibilities. This array just has to be seen,” the singer said.

“The private sector has got as much to gain as anyone from helping lagging industries to flourish, growing businesses to grow further, and developing economies to become developed ones. And the private sector, in many ways, has more leverage than multilateral aid agencies in making that happen. It’s got even more leverage when it works in concert with those aid agencies and with national and local governments,” added Bono.

That is exactly what Abramowitz’s Gigawatt Global – an American-owned Dutch solar and social enterprise – does under the co-leadership of Chaim Motzen and Abramowitz, who is considered one of the world’s leading authorities on the practical application and commercialization of solar energy technology. A veteran of the Israeli solar-energy scene – for years, he ran Arava Power together with co-founders David Rosenblatt and Ed Hofland – Abramowitz has for the past several years been involved in major solar energy projects in the rest of the world, especially in Africa. The company has so far raised $8 million from 50 impact investors, and expects to become profitable within 18 months as projects now in the works reach completion.

It’s for Gigawatt’s groundbreaking project in Rwanda (designed by Motzen) at the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village that the company is being considered for the Nobel. Besides providing electricity for the school itself, the solar field set up by Gigawatt – the first in East Africa – supplies 6 percent of Rwanda’s total electricity needs, and provides a revenue stream for the school.

In other words, said Abramowitz, the Agahozo-Shalom project proves that solar energy is not only practical, but it can also be profitable – and that it can be the engine that propels Africa to a high-tech future.

“We’re not sure, but this could be the first time a for-profit organization was ever nominated for a Nobel,” said Abramowitz (the Nobel nomination committee had no comment on that). “But prizes aside, this is exactly the kind of project needed in sub-Saharan Africa. It’s a business model for electrifying Africa with zero emissions. This, we believe, is what impressed the Nobel committee, and while it’s nice to be recognized as a Nobel Peace Prize winner, it’s much more important for me to get the word out on how solar can change Africa.

“For Africa and other parts of the developing world, where a billion and a half people still live without power, electricity is the key to solving a myriad problems,” added Abramowitz. “Gigawatt’s Rwanda project shows that there is a way out of the darkness.”

Gigawatt was nominated for the Nobel last March by former Yesh Atid Knesset member Shimon Solomon (only members of national assemblies can nominate individuals or groups for the prize). Gigawatt, said Solomon, “created a business model that provides the youth village with enough revenue every year for the next 25 years to cover the health care costs of the 500 orphans in their care each year and to contribute to the economic and environmental sustainability of the village. Chaim Motzen, Managing Director and co-founder of Gigawatt Global, took the dream of the project from its inception to its successful completion.”

“Gigawatt Global has demonstrated an innovative, sustainable, scalable, revolutionary solution that balances growing energy needs with sustainable economic and social development that merits recognition and replication,” added Solomon.

While the solar field at the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village is based on solar technology with strong Israeli roots, the village itself also has similar roots; it’s modeled after Israeli youth villages such as Yemin ORT run by WIZO and other organizations, where kids from troubled families live, study, socialize, and learn the skills they need to thrive.

That solar is the way to go for Africa is obvious to Abramowitz; even if African countries wanted to build an advanced economy on oil, they couldn’t afford it. “Not only is diesel oil very expensive, especially for Third World countries that anyway have very little money, but it’s very bad for the environment,” said Abramowitz, citing the 2002 oil spill in the waters of Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands. “The ship that ran aground spilled almost a million liters (250,000 gallons) of diesel fuel, which was being transported for use in electricity production. The spill caused irreparable damage to a UNESCO World Nature Reserve.”

In economies that are already dependent on oil, a “weaning process” could help gradually bring in more alternative energy use, but in economies where there is no energy infrastructure, “we can skip the ‘old economy’ energy production methods and go directly to the more enlightened solar energy model,” said Abramowitz.

A successful green entrepreneur (Arava was an attractive-enough business for Germany’s Siemens to take a 40% stake in the company in 2009), Abramowitz is also known for his social activism (even setting a legal precedent in a free-speech case in the US Supreme Court), his work in Jewish education, and his advocacy for Ethiopian Jewry. Now, he’s known for bringing solar technology to Africa, too. “Other African governments have been very impressed with what we did in Rwanda, and they are working with us on details for similar projects in their countries,” he said.

An observant Jew, Abramowitz makes a point of wearing a kippah in his travels – and far from being an obstacle to doing business, the obviously Jewish symbol makes it easier for Africans to work with him. “African Christians are always quoting me passages from Genesis, about how God blesses those that bless the Jews,” said Abramowitz, adding that being an “out” Jew hasn’t hurt his work with Muslims, either. “I have consulted with the governments of at least seven Arab and Muslim countries on their solar programs.”

And it’s a “Jewish connection” that Abramowitz feels could be his “ace in the hole.” The Nobel will be presented on December 10 – not only at the end of the UN climate conference, but on the fourth night of Chanukah. “That’s always been a good time for us Jews,” said Abramowitz. “Maybe Gigawatt will have its own little Chanukah miracle.”

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