Easy rider

An Australian oleh wants Israel to get to know – and become known for – an electric-powered, shotgun-resistant folding bicycle

Inspector Gadget, your bicycle is ready. Andrew Hamilton has prepared it according to all your needs: It has an advanced battery pack to give you an extra burst for pursuing bad guys, and it folds up nice and small, too, like the impossible tools that you use to catch them. It can even survive a gunfight.

Of course, even those who aren’t fictional characters can appreciate the benefits of Hamilton’s bicycles. Based on a British-made folding model considered by aficionados the best of its kind, the Freedom E-bike offers a heretofore unknown commuting experience. The bike makes quick work of hills with a peppy electric motor, positioned in the hub of the front wheel, that springs to life with a flick of the wrist on the right handgrip, motorcycle-style. Then, it goes from basic transportation to suitcase-sized sculpture in about 10 seconds with a few easy snaps and folds.

It’s not a new concept. There are dozens of similar bicycles available commercially, some with integrated power systems and others with snap-on kits that can be assembled by buyers or by dealers. Hamilton’s combination of parts is unique, though – a package that he claims is stronger, lighter and even cheaper than the competition. And it’s made in Israel.

The Freedom E-bike was born, however, in Sydney, where Hamilton works as a lawyer specializing in IT and telecommunications issues. About two years ago, he explains, he was simply looking for an inexpensive way to get to work. And he had some very specific requirements for the vehicle that would make that possible.

“I wanted to ride a bicycle to work, but I didn’t want to break much of a sweat,” he says, “and since the weather can change quickly in Sydney, I also wanted to be able to take the bus if necessary. A folding electric bike was my holy grail.”

There were lots of options, though, and Hamilton wasn’t satisfied by any of them. So he went about putting together a bike of his own.

“I started doing some research into what was available in the form of electric bikes, to see if they were any good. I found that the Brompton was considered the best folding bike, and that there was a kit to put a motor on it. The kit was available in the UK, but it took a very long time to get to me [in Australia], and they didn’t supply a battery, so I had to come up with my own battery solution,” he says. “After a lot of research, I chose the latest in lithium-ion, nanotechnology cells. I put all that together and it worked really well.”

That might have been the end of the story, had Hamilton and his family not made aliya recently. But when he started pedaling around Jerusalem on his one-of-a-kind bicycle, and people started asking Hamilton where they could get one just like it, he saw an opportunity.

“I figured I’d try to get in contact with the people doing the kit in the UK,” Hamilton continues. “Well, they were out of commission. They had so much demand that they decided not to do the business anymore. Basically, the guy was one of those weird engineering characters who didn’t know anything about customer service or running a business.”

That setback, which forced Hamilton to source his own parts, actually turned out to be a boon. He was able to choose parts that better served users’ needs than the prepackaged kits then available.

“The kit I got was really quite complex to install for the customer, and it was more complex for the company that was doing it, which was why they couldn’t keep up with demand. It was too tricky,” he says. “I thought, there’s got to be a better way.”

There was.

“Because it’s a folding bike, you want to keep the bike as free of stuff as possible. But most battery kits that you can buy for bikes, you can’t put on folding bikes because they interfere with the fold. So,” Hamilton says, “I thought, I need to take a minimalist approach. I asked myself, what absolutely has to be on the bike? The motor absolutely has to be on the bike and the throttle absolutely has to be on the bike. But [I realized that] the battery doesn’t need to be on the bike and the [output] controller doesn’t need to be on the bike.”

That’s where the Freedom E-bike’s design differs from others.

“Since the Brompton comes with an integrated, front-mounted luggage bag, and the battery I chose is small, I realized I could put the battery in there and get it off the bike.  It doesn’t interfere with the fold, so when it folds, it folds perfectly, the way the Brompton is supposed to.

“But that wasn’t the end, because there are seven different wires that you’ve got to connect, and they’re taking a lot of current. So I managed to source a high-current, seven-pin connector, which was pretty hard to find, and it makes the connection a breeze.”

He swapped out the right hand grip for the throttle, changed the front wheel to fit the stronger-than-usual electric hub motor he had chosen, put the battery in the storage bag and plugged it in.

“Away you go!” as he says.

Indeed, away you go. Turn the throttle on the Freedom E-bike and you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the silent push of the electric motor. That initial difficulty of starting to pedal is gone, making commuting and errand running a nearly effortless affair. You could refrain from pedaling entirely if you wanted to, letting the motor do all the work for you… but that would drain the batteries much too quickly.

When the battery is low on charge, Hamilton says, it can be fully recharged in about an hour and 20 minutes with a standard charger – a fraction of the time that the competition’s batteries require. And once fully charged, he adds, the Freedom E-bike’s power pack will provide enough juice for most people’s needs.

“In a city like Jerusalem, which is pretty hilly, a fully charged battery will give you about 15 kilometers of power, together with a moderate amount of pedaling,” he says. “Now, it all depends on how much effort you put in, it depends on the terrain, it depends on the wind conditions. But I find that I can pretty much get anywhere in Jerusalem and back home on a single charge. I’ve ridden to Yad Vashem and back [to the German Colony], to Mount Scopus and back… all sorts of rides, on a single charge.”

That’s a testament, he says, not to his legs but to his battery – a pack of A123Systems lithium ion cells, like the ones used in several electric and hybrid cars, that Hamilton assembles for his bikes. They offer more power in a smaller, lighter package than the other batteries on the market, he says.

“Because other companies use a battery that is less advanced than ours, they need a bigger battery to provide the same amount of ‘grunt’. Instead of carrying around a 3- or 5-kilo battery, you can use a 1-kilo battery and have it be sufficient for most urban cycling that you do. And it’s modular, so that if you want to add another pack to that, you can.”

The weight savings is not insignificant, Hamilton notes.

“In the biking world, people pay a whole lot of money to save a few hundred grams. Weight is very important – particularly in a folding bike, since you don’t just ride it, you also carry it.”

In addition to being light and powerful, the Freedom E-bike’s batteries are extremely resilient, as well.

“I’ve even had them shot by a bomb-detonating robot, a few days after I made aliya,” Hamilton says with a laugh. “I rode down to a mall in Talpiot, and I didn’t want to bring the bag, with the battery, into the mall, because with the wires hanging out I was worried it would freak out the security guards. I figured I would just leave the bag tied up with the bike…

“Well, when I came back two or three hours later after shopping in the mall, my bike was there but there was no bag – just little pieces of black plastic lying all around. Apparently, someone had called it in as a suspicious package and the sappers shot it with their shotgun.

“Eventually,” Hamilton continues, “I managed to track down the bag and get it back. The battery was still in there – and of 12 cells in the pack, six of them were salvageable, despite having taken four concrete slugs at point-blank range! So it’s very robust. That’s not something I’d recommend you do at home, of course, but it just goes to show that it’s very safe in a transport application.”

There are other, more conventional safety issues of electric bicycles to consider. In the UK and Europe, Hamilton notes, regulations require that the motor not provide assistance above 25 kph.

“The logic is that, if it isn’t helping you go faster than you could go under your own power, then it doesn’t require any different safety standards – sturdier brakes, etc.”

Bigger, more powerful motors allowed in the US are also heavier, which makes them more attractive to daredevil tinkerers than they would be for casual commuters, who are Hamilton’s target market.

“The way this motor works, its gearing makes it ease off as it gets faster. What this means is that, as you get tired and provide less energy, the motor helps you more, but if you’re feeling like you really want to ‘go for it,’ the motor pulls back and provides less boost. So it’s a self-balancing thing. It’s about the way most people use a bicycle for commuting, just a bit easier. It has all the advantages of a regular bike in terms of promoting fitness, and in terms of getting from Point A to Point B, without all the sweat,” he says.

“If you ask people why they don’t use a bike for getting around, they’ll typically answer that they don’t want to ride hard enough that they get really sweaty, that the hills are too hard and that they’re scared of traffic. This solves at least two of those problems. The boost makes the hills much easier and it makes riding much more pleasant in general. And since it accelerates to about 25 kph, you can merge into traffic or keep up with traffic to a degree. In fact, especially on inclines, I find myself passing some cars.”

So much for what the product can do. What does it cost?

A fully assembled Freedom E-bike will set you back about NIS 7,500, Hamilton says.

Now, that’s a hefty price for a lightweight bike. A brand new 50cc motor scooter costs about the same, and will easily have you zipping around town at 90 kph per hour.

“True,” Hamilton concedes. “But you have to factor in fuel costs, maintenance costs and insurance costs to that. You don’t get the heath benefits that you get from riding a bike, either. And then there’s theft. With a folding bike, you never have to worry about that. At home, you just fold it up, carry it inside and leave it by your bed. At work, you fold it up and leave it under your desk. You never have to worry about it.”

The price, although steep, is also competitive in its market. Most models in the US and Europe cost as much or more. In Israel, the options are extremely limited.

“One of the reasons that I started building these bikes here is that a relative ordered a folding bike with an off-the-shelf electric kit from a place in Tel Aviv. The kit wasn’t as good as ours, with a weaker battery, and it was mounted in such a way that it prevented the bike from folding. I knew we could do better. In fact, for almost the same price, we sell a better bike with a better kit.”

Still, the high cost means that Freedom is currently selling the vast majority of its bikes overseas, where folding electric bicycles are selling like hot cakes. In fact, it’s one of the fastest growing markets in the world. In Europe, annual sales are expected to triple in the next two years; throughout Asia, sales figures are skyrocketing, and in the US, new models are being introduced all the time to meet burgeoning demand.

Hamilton, who has filed a patent in Australia for his unique combination of parts and design features, hopes to turn his tiny operation into an Israeli powerhouse. He imports all the parts – motors, batteries, plugs, etc. – from his various suppliers, then assembles the bikes here to be shipped around the world. Israel’s location and low shipping costs in general make this an advantageous place to set up operations, he says.

“The interesting thing is that it’s so cheap to mail from Israel. It actually works out cheaper to mail from Israel to New Zealand than it is to ship from Australia to New Zealand,” he says. “Even for shipping inside Australia, it’s cheaper to just ship everything from Israel.”

Hamilton also hopes to soon work out an agreement to import Brompton bikes to Israel, which would significantly reduce costs. And he is working with an Israeli company that makes small electric motors to fabricate one to the Brompton’s factory measurements – which would obviate the need for the stretching of the front forks that current hub motors require of all electric conversions – so that Israeli ingenuity can take its place alongside the Chinese power plants currently dominating the industry.

That dream is still far from becoming reality. But, Hamilton shows, hopping onto his gadget bike and speeding off with a quiet whirr, it’s quickly unfolding.

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Seeds of success

castor-4Shlomi Jonas and Doron Levi are serious about a plant with a funny name. That’s because jatropha, an otherwise puzzling and forgettable plant, may be the key to one of the most important alternatives to fossil fuels in the coming years – and because Jonas and Levi’s company Galten is at the forefront of making it so.

Jatropha is a long-overlooked plant that has recently begun receiving loads of attention. The seeds of the leafy green tree are rich in oil that can be used to make biodiesel, a “green” fuel which offers several benefits over other alternative fuels that are currently popular.

 

It’s a perennial plant that can start producing oil in its second year of growth, and will continue to be productive for more than 30 years. It’s so tough that it can survive up to three years of consecutive drought, and so versatile that its byproducts can be used to make soap, mulch, herbal medicines, and more.

 

Galten is cultivating jatropha on some 200,000 hectares in Ghana, betting on the plant’s ability to supply barrel upon barrel of one of the hottest new fuels in the world today.

 

“We are planting oil wells,” says Jonas. “It’s as simple as that.”

 

On the other hand, maybe the prophet Jonah was onto something. Jonah may have wept over the “kikayon” – that is, the castor bean plant – because of the loss of the shade it provided him. But today the humble, inedible plant is receiving high praise for its biodiesel potential. Castor bean seeds contain as much as 54-percent oil by weight, much higher than most plants currently used for biodiesel. In fact, castor bean produces about three times as much oil per hectare as soy bean, one of the most popular biofuel crops.

“It’s one of the most productive plants, in terms of oil produced per unit of land farmed,” notes Dr. Oren Ostersetzer-Biran. He is leading a research team at the Agriculture Ministry’s Volcani Center that is working to breed castor bean plants for optimum growth and production.

 

Both jatropha and castor bean are relatively new candidates for farming, so their growth characteristics are still being developed.

 

“The castor bean plant was cultivated for a short while in the ’60s, but then it was pretty much abandoned thereafter,” says Ostersetzer-Biran. “So we’re really starting off from zero.”

 

Already, Ostersetzer-Biran says, each castor bean plant can produce about 100 kilograms of oil per dunam per year. His team’s experiments in the fields in Beit Dagan, outside Rishon Lezion, will soon double that, he says.

Here’s an example of how they’re accomplishing that: In nature, the plant’s seed sacs pop open so the seeds can scatter. It’s an evolutionary development that helps the plant survive and spread. In terms of industrial production, though, it’s counterproductive for efforts to collect the oil-rich seeds. So the Volcani researchers are breeding castor plants in which that genetic trait is suppressed. Likewise, they are developing plants that grow a larger number of seeds, in closer bunches, than the wild natural variety, whose home habitats includes Israeli roadsides and neglected lots. All these things together, the researchers hope, will make the harvesting of castor bean seeds easier, faster and more lucrative.

 

A similar process is at play with Galten’s jatropha plants, with a castor oil biodiesel venture in Namibia run by three other Israeli companies working in cooperation, and with a number of other oil-rich plants in labs and fields around the world. There’s a race, then, to see who can breed the most productive plants the fastest. Galten and the Volcani researchers believe that they are several steps ahead of their competitors in making that happen.

 

THE SEARCH for alternatives to petroleum springs mainly from two concerns: the impact of carbon emissions from the use of fossil fuels, blamed for global warming in the landmark Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report of 2007, and most countries’ unsettling dependence on fossil fuels for energy. A recent EU study found that biofuels lead to significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, and that this benefit will only improve as the fuels themselves continue to develop.

 

But getting in on the biofuels boom is about more than lowering carbon emissions and diversifying energy sources. It is “green” in the business sense, too.

 

Recent legislation in Europe and the United States mandates increased biofuels consumption, which means a guaranteed market. In 2003, the European Union set a goal for biofuels use of 5.75% of total consumption by the end of 2010, and even higher afterward. In America, the Energy Policy Act of 2005 mandates biofuels consumption of 7.5 billion gallons by 2012.

Even if those targets are not ultimately met – and at the current rate of implementation, they will not be met – they will at least have provided a significant push to the biofuels industry. In fact, they already have. If a company were to target just commerical trucking and municipal buses in the United States, for example, it would be looking at a market that has jumped in the past few years to more than 1 billion gallons annually. And with the world biodiesel market averaging roughly 40% annual growth, global consumption is estimated to exceed 40 billion gallons within the next decade.

In addition to trucking and personal automobiles, in the next few years trains, aircraft and home heaters are also likely to enter the picture as biodiesel applications, each with tremendous business potential.

So, there is definitely a market. But can it be profitable? Absolutely, insiders say.

“Most people make the mistake of assuming that petroleum has to be a certain price for us to make money. They’re wrong,” says Galten’s Levi. “If a company in Europe has to buy biodiesel because of the EU mandate to do so, then our oil is not in competition with petroleum, it’s in competition with other biodiesels. When we went ahead with our plans to produce oil from jatropha, oil was at $50 a barrel. Since then it has gone up and come back down, but it doesn’t really matter. The factors that make biodiesel profitable have to do with the costs of production, not the price of petroleum.”

Currently, Ostersetzer-Biran says, the price of castor bean oil is relatively high because of its demand for use in plastics. But he believes that, with larger-scale production and the advances that he and his team are making in breeding the plant, the price of production should fall considerably.

CURRENTLY, ETHANOL is king of the biofuels. But its reign looks to be a short one. Based on plants such as corn and sugar cane, ethanol is produced by the fermentation of sugars into an alcohol that can be added to regular gasoline. It’s extremely popular in Brazil, which is rich in sugar cane, but is rapidly losing ground in the United States, which relies on corn for the fuel.

 

In addition to questionable benefits-versus-costs calculations, ethanol production has caused an acute crisis in food prices, especially as corn has turned farmland and a key food crop into a fuel, causing corresponding spikes in other commodities. On top of that, ethanol’s net energy savings is being challenged; new research suggests that it may actually take more energy to produce than it saves.

 

Biodiesel made from soy beans has many of these same downsides. But so-called second-generation biodiesels, made from plants such as jatropha and castor beans, do not. They are made from inedible crops, and they don’t compete for farmland, as they are suited to grow on poorer-quality land that would otherwise not be farmed.

Oils used for biodiesel – including palm oil, soy bean oil and the seeds of jatropha and castor bean – are cheaper to produce than ethanol, they don’t evaporate as easily as ethanol does, and they produce more energy per weight than ethanol does.

(One benefit specific to castor-based biodiesel is that it has a much higher “flash point” than petrodiesel, meaning that it is less likely to cause an explosion if a car is in a collision.)

 

 

For all these reasons, the United States is beginning to shift from ethanol to biodiesel. Europe, meanwhile, is already pretty heavily invested in biodiesel.

 

HOWEVER, BIODIESEL is not a perfect solution to the fuel puzzle.

Jatropha is a labor-intensive crop, as each fruit ripens at a different time and needs to be harvested separately. It is an ancient plant but it has never been fully domesticated, Jonas concedes – which means that there can be large differences in oil volume and quality from one plant to another.

At Volcani, Ostersetzer-Biran’s team is experimenting with a dozen or so varieties of the castor bean plant selected from among some 150 different varieties from all over the world, to breed plants that will grow tall enough and uniformly enough to make mechanical harvesting feasible, and to do so with reliable quality control.

 

Another issue related to supply is the fickle nature of farming. One benefit of petroleum is that, rain or shine, it flows. Farming, though, is heavily dependent on weather and other environmental factors. Is Galten concerned about how a harsh winter, for example, or a sudden drought, could impact production?

 

“There’s a risk in any farming venture,” Jonas acknowledges. However, he says, “the plant is extraordinarily robust, and the conditions in Ghana are both highly conducive to jatropha growth and very unlikely to suffer setbacks. The plant is resilient to disease – ironically, because of its toxins, which also make it repellant to animals.”

 

The conditions in Ghana are not just “highly conducive to jatropha growth,” as Jonas says. They’re also highly unusual, as Levi testifies. Speaking to The Jerusalem Post from the sprawling fields that Galten controls, Levi describes an environment far removed from the central Israel home base of his company.

 

“We deal with three or four local chiefs, and you have to sit with them in these elaborate ceremonies that last for hours,” he explains. “There are special rites that you have to learn, like pouring out water before you drink, to show that you respect the land. Some of our contracts are signed with fingers, not pens. It’s definitely a long way from the board rooms of Tel Aviv, and it takes patience.”

Those tribal chiefs, Levi continues, are concerned first and foremost with providing employment for their people, whether it’s efficient for the business or not. “And we’re okay with that,” he says. The company hires hundreds of locals because “the people here have the know-how to work the fields. We bring them the opportunity to work and make money. At the same time, we are making use of land which otherwise would have no use. It’s good for everyone.”

The “Israeliness” of the company, Levi says, “is not expressed by having Israelis grow the plant, but by the fact that we have brought our technology and know-how to those who are growing the plant.”

Galten chose Ghana for its political stability, but also for its lush fields and warm climate.

“It’s perfect,” Levi continues. “Yesterday morning, it was hot as hell. Then at 2 o’clock, it was raining like crazy. A few hours later, there were clear skies. With a climate like this, you don’t need sophisticated irrigation methods. All we have to do is to invest some money, clear away some land and plant the seeds. Then keep doing it. It’s like when you know exactly where oil is, and all it takes is some time and effort to get it out of the ground.”

There is competition for superiority in the jatropha market, especially from India. The government there has earmarked some 11 million hectares of land that are suitable for jatropha cultivation, and it has embarked on an ambitious project to grow the plant along the length of the railroad from Mumbai to Delhi.

“Actually,” says Levi derisively, “the Indian government’s plan is based on encouraging small farmers to grow enough for themselves, then sell any excess they have. That’s not the right model for mass production.”

In addition, there is a growing sense, revealed in the reports of several energy investment companies, that much of the press on jatropha thus far has been more hype than reality.

“You can’t believe everything you read on the Internet,” scoffs Jonas.

“We have actually called up some of the companies claiming to be cultivating jatropha, companies that are raising lots of money around the world based on the claim that they are growing jatropha, and asked to order oil. Quickly it became clear that they’re not close to producing oil, or that they’re really just small-time farmers.

“In the end they don’t really grow jatropha, but work primarily with other alternative fuels. They just don’t have the know-how and experience that we have,” he says.

While that remains to be seen, Levi claims that Galten will be able to put its first jatropha-based biodiesel on sale by the middle of next year. The company already has in place a draft contract with two large companies for the sale of oil produced, one with a major Brazilian firm and the other with a European refinery.

At Beit Dagan, Ostersetzer-Biran explains that Israel is not meant to be the center of biodiesel production. Rather, Israeli research will produce the most efficient and desirable plants, which will then be marketed around the world to anyone wishing to capitalize on the coming biodiesel craze. And while the “winning formula” is yet to be found, the seeds of success have already been planted here.

What is biodiesel?

Rudolf Diesel used vegetable oils in the early models of his unique engines, a century ago, and believed they would be as important to transportation and energy production as fossil fuels were. With the development of biodiesel, that prediction is coming close to fruition.

Biodiesel, though, is only one of the two most common types of biofuels.

Biofuels are an alternative energy source to fossil fuels, which are considered the cause of global warming. One method of biofuel production involves crops high in sugar, such as sugar cane, or starch, such as corn; these are fermented to produce ethanol, which is blended with gasoline.

The other widespread method of biofuel production involves plants high in vegetable oil, such as palm oil, soy, jatropha or castor bean; this oil is refined and added to diesel fuel, hence the name biodiesel.

Pure biodiesel can be used by itself in some standard diesel engines, and as a blend with regular petroleum-based diesel fuel in most standard diesel engines built since the mid-1990s.

The diesel engine is most prevalent today in the trucking industry, which is currently the main focus of biodiesel firms. Countries that encourage biodiesel use can theoretically make a significant reduction in their carbon emissions, and trucking firms can expect to save large sums of money on reduced fuel costs.

Since diesel engines are already more fuel-efficient than their gasoline-burning counterparts, the viability of biodiesel could also spur greater use of the diesel engine in passenger cars.

Biofuels are attractive energy sources for several reasons: they are renewable, their carbon emissions are theoretically offset by the carbon dioxide their plants absorbed while they were grown, and they reduce countries’ energy dependency on fossil fuels.

However, recent studies suggest the picture is not so rosy – or green, as it were. One major downside of large-scale biofuel production until now has been the creation of a crisis in the global agricultural market, as food crops such as corn and soy are diverted to fuel production.

Another significant problem is that, instead of reducing carbon emissions, biofuels may actually increase them, since the energy required to produce biofuels is higher than that required to produce gasoline. Worse still, some countries have cut down rainforests and introduced other environmentally damaging methods in a scramble to make way for the profitable new energy crops.

Plants such as jatropha and castor, though, offer the opportunity to produce biodiesel without competing for farmland or diverting food crops from the market. Assuming continued improvements in the efficiency of the fuel and in the methods of production, Rudolf Diesel very well could prove prophetic.

Pros and cons of biodiesel made from jatropha or castor oil

Pros:

Reduced dependence on fossil fuels

Lower carbon emissions than petrodiesel

Cheaper than petrodiesel

Higher production per hectare than soy or corn

Uses marginal land, creating no competition for food crops

Cons:

Crop yields and quality vary widely

Clearing forestland or draining wetlands in order to plant biodiesel crops would offset the fuels’ environmental benefits

 

 

A shocking development

This is so weird. I shouldn’t be surprised by the Vectrix, but I am. I have read up on the groundbreaking electric scooter; I have watched video of the machine in action; I know, in short, what to expect. And yet, here I am, not quite understanding how I have suddenly been propelled forward by a bike that gave me no advance warning of its impending surge into traffic.

Tzahi Ziv of IFI Motors, which is importing the American-made scooter to Israel, has already briefed me on the vehicle’s operation. He has explained that the brushless electric motor housed in the rear wheel spins in near silence, and that, unlike internal combustion engines, it makes its maximum output right away, so it doesn’t need to reach high RPMs to pour on the power.

In other words, there’s no “vroom, vroom” when you pull back on the throttle, but there’s plenty of “zoom, zoom.”

And what a strange “zoom, zoom” it is! Upon turning the starter key (you can’t really call it the ignition) I am greeted not with the usual throaty growl of a thumping engine, but with a chipper “Ready… GO!” on one of the bike’s digital dials. Like a radio controlled toy hurtling past surprised motorists, the Vectrix has me zipping through the Ramle industrial zone where IFI’s offices are located.

Acceleration is brisk and instantaneous; the manufacturer claims a 0-80 kph time of 6.8 seconds, and I believe it. The ride is silky, the handling smooth. The bike has a contemporary, mildly aggressive look to it that covers up its geeky insides and sets it apart from its smaller, weaker cousins.

(One of Vectrix’s main marketing messages is “Cool people drive electric.” The company is trying desperately not to be associated with the pocket protector crowd.)

Also differentiating the Vectrix is its high-end parts list, including outstanding Brembo brakes. It doesn’t really need them, though: Turning the throttle forward, away from me, utilizes the engine’s regenerative braking system, which returns a considerable amount of energy to the battery even as it stops the wheels with authoritative bite. Another fancy extra is the reverse feature, a useful help for maneuvering the 200-kilo-plus vehicle from a standstill and in tight places. When stopped, turning the throttle forward (as in braking) will send the Vectrix backward at an easy pace.

In many ways, says Ziv, the Vectrix aims to change people’s minds about electric vehicles, scooters, and even transportation itself. For one thing, he says, “When you plug in your scooter, you’ll stop thinking of it as an oily machine and start thinking of it like a cell phone.”

It’s definitely a departure from the ordinary. Like other electric vehicles, the Vectrix has no need for gas, or oil. Gears and a torque converter are also unnecessary. The nickel metal hydride (NiMH) battery can provide up to 100 kilometers of travel, depending on driving style, on a full charge – which is provided from any standard electric socket. The engine is designed to whir quietly for years without a hint of trouble, and without leaving a wisp of pollution in its wake, either.

 

The absence of carbon emissions makes the Vectrix a godsend for those eager to look chic while saving the planet. (Witness former US presidential candidate and affirmed Harley Davidson fan John Kerry tootling around on a crimson Vectrix, for example.) On a scale of 1 to 100, a gas-guzzling SUV’s polluting effect scores around 70; a family sedan scores in the upper 50s, and a medium-size scooter a much cleaner 30. But the Vectrix, as a zero-emissions vehicle whose only contribution to pollution comes from the small amounts of coal-fired electricity used to power it, comes in at a very environmentally friendly 11. Hook up your scooter to a solar-powered, wind-driven or water-powered electricity source and the score drops to just three, Vectrix adds.

Now, green is great. But if anything is going to turn electric vehicles into bestsellers, it’s the rising cost of gasoline. Consumers around the world are so overwhelmed by the skyrocketing prices that they are looking for ways to save on fuel costs, from telecommuting to replacing their gas-guzzling vehicles. Automobile manufacturers have suffered massive declines in sales over the past few months, while fuel-sipping scooters and motorcycles are experiencing a major spike in sales.

“Our sales are up 200 percent,” a Vespa dealer in the United States told a local newspaper last month. “Demand far exceeds supply. And it’s obvious if gas continues to rise, so will interest in scooters.”

More specifically, electric scooters are selling well in Europe; hundreds a month are leaving dealerships in England now.

Of course, there are numerous electric cars currently in production, but they are either extraordinarily expensive or woefully inadequate for anything more than a neighborhood cruise. Scooters, by nature, are an easier application of the electric motor. And Israel, with its relatively short commuting distances and high-density population centers, makes for a logical home for such an electric vehicle.

The Vectrix is not the first electric scooter to reach these shores. But the other models available, from E-max and Eco, lose steam at about 55 kph and are limited by their range of 40-60 km. These are small, underpowered vehicles that have failed to make much of an impact on Israel’s fast-growing scooter market. They are essentially gimmicks, enticing only to those who are most dedicated to minimizing carbon footprints, options only for those satisfied with a machine capable of little more than short excursions about town.

Indicative of these shortcomings is the fact that, outside of fleet sales to police and municipalities, only a few dozen electric scooters were sold in Israel last year. And even those sales have not augured well for the electric scooter, according to Ziv, who says the Jerusalem municipality has expressed interest in the Vectrix because it is disappointed in the weaker models it recently purchased.

 

(Fleet sales are the main prize for electric scooter companies, since government bodies and major corporations gain the most benefit from them. Ziv says IFI will likely depend heavily on such sales for the Vectrix, which is catching on with police forces, airport security companies and municipal workers in Europe and the United States.)

So, until now, the electric scooter has been, shall we say, less than successful. IFI promises that the Vectrix will change that picture, however, and with it change the landscape of Israeli transportation. Can this capable and clever scooter deliver on that promise?

Measured against conventional scooters, the Vectrix is a strange bird. For licensing purposes, the bike is classified as a 125cc scooter, which will allow new riders to drive one right away, even though its size and acceleration are more like that of a much larger 400cc scooter. In terms of economy, though, the 125cc class is a poor match for the Vectrix: even with the electric scooter’s extremely low operating costs, the NIS 50,000 price tag is still four times that of a gas-powered 125cc scooter.

The top end of the scooter spectrum is also a poor fit for the electric. While the Vectrix may look and feel like a so-called maxi-scooter, whose purchase price is in the same range, similarities between the two end there. The audience for larger machines would be disappointed in the Vectrix’s restricted top speed of 100 kph – some 40-60 kph less than they would be expecting – and its limited range, which would make long trips up the coast, or down through the Negev, impossible. Fuel and maintenance costs make the conventional bikes less economical than the Vectrix, but the big-engined scooters offer more overall than the green machine does.

Recognizing this conundrum, IFI’s strategy is to aim for the middle – the prospective purchaser of a 250cc scooter. This category is all about value: it offers more speed, more stability and more storage space than the 125s and makes a highway run a realistic endeavor. Just as importantly, it does all this for about half the price of the “real deal” maxi-scooters in the 400-500cc class. Owners of a 250cc bike don’t necessarily want to drive farther than their daily commute to work, but they want to arrive in style and still have change in their pockets for a nice business lunch; the 250s allow them this indulgence.

“Do you realize how many lawyers drive scooters to work in the metropolitan Tel Aviv area?” Ziv asks, potential sales figures gleaming in his eyes. “There is definitely a market in Israel for the Vectrix.”

To be sure, the slick, ultramodern and smooth-sailing bike will attract a lot of attention. But there’s still a mammoth price difference between the Vectrix and most of the 250cc scooters available, which can be had for about NIS 28,000. No problem, Ziv says, opening a spreadsheet filled with calculations. That gap diminishes during the life of the scooter, Ziv points out, as fuel costs and maintenance visits make the gas-powered bikes a constant drain. The Vectrix, in effect, “saves” money from Day 1.

How much money? Consider: At current gas prices of roughly NIS 7 per liter, a gas-powered bike needs about NIS 35 to take you 100 kilometers. Charging the Vectrix’s batteries with 100 kilometers worth of electricity, on the other hand, only costs about NIS 4. That difference might not seem like much, but over the course of a year it can add up to thousands of shekels. Over the life of the vehicle – assuming a certain number of kilometers driven – the Vectrix is not only economically competitive but actually cheaper to own than a 250cc scooter.

Will that be enough to make the electric, which still can’t match the top speed or the range of the 250s, a winning product? And how many drivers will in fact travel the kind of distances necessary to see their investment pay off? Undoubtedly, there will be a number of people happy to pay extra for a tool as cool as this. How big that number is, though, may come down to how many people can overcome the very real problem of recharging.

Despite Ziv’s reassurances that a Vectrix owner can find an available electric socket wherever he may need one, this is clearly not the case. Anyone without a parking spot right next to their kitchen window – that is, almost all Israelis – will have to contrive some sketchy means of “juicing up” their ride. (As one commenter asked in response to a preview of the Vectrix in a local motorcycle magazine, “What are we meant to do with this in Israel, hang a 30-meter extension cord out the window to plug in our bike parked outside?!”) Add in the fact that recharging still takes several hours, and the convenience of a three-minute stop at the gas station looks pretty darn good.

Project Better Place, in its joint program with Renault to build and sell plug-in electric cars in Israel by 2011, is planning to build hundreds of thousands of charging stations across the country to make the technology feasible for consumers. That’s not only an ambitious goal toward massive social change, but an admission that the current infrastructure does not allow for a seamless transition from fossil fuel-powered vehicles to rechargeable electric vehicles.

Electric scooters have been in production for some 30 years already, without making much headway in the market. The Vectrix is definitely cooler than all of them, and the closest one yet to offer consumers a viable alternative to their gas-powered vehicles. Although it isn’t the answer to our transportation problems, it does seem to stand on the threshold of such a solution and hint that one is closer than ever. Until that perfect bike comes rolling into town on its silent electric motor, though, Israelis’ “zoom, zoom” will still be accompanied by that old familiar “vroom, vroom!”

…Actually, that’s one thing I hope they can keep!

…but not a drop to drink

Israel’s water shortage has reached a critical point. The Kinneret (Sea of Galilee), the country’s main source of fresh water, has dropped below all previous “danger” levels, and experts are warning that the two main aquifers may soon suffer irreversible damage.

There are two questions to ask about this situation: Why? and What now?

Our water resources are limited, and highly dependent on rain. The past few years have been particularly dy — but, if our water eceonomy were properly managed, that should not be too large a problem.

More challenging has been the population explosion that this country has experienced, not only in its 60 years, but especially since the early 1990s. Of course, this has brought a massive increase in consumption — in homes, in agriculture and in industry — as well as increased wastage.

What of conservation efforts? Unfortunately, they have been minimal and belated. And although drip irrigation makes Israeli agriculture water-thrifty, the fact remains that our lucrative produce and flower industries amount to a massive export of our precious water resources.

Fanciful solutions to Israel’s perpetual water shortage have been proposed, including such far-fetched ideas as floating huge water balloons from Turkey across the Mediterranean. These are largely impractical and overly costly measures. The least drastic, and most feasible, solution offered thusfar has been desalination. Although not a perfect solution, it can produce large amounts of drinking water in a short amount of time and at a reasonable cost.

Israel already features the world’s largest desalination plant of its kind in Ashkelon, and another is set to come on-line soon. There are even suggestions that, if it builds more desalination plants, Israel can be a net exporter of water.

In any case, Israel must act quickly to remedy its dire water shortage. All the major security issues of the day will pale in comparison to the disaster that will take place here if the proverbial well does, in fact, run dry.

Making waves

It doesn’t look like much, this thing lying dormant in the grassy driveway of Shmuel Ovadia’s exceedingly modest offices in south Tel Aviv. Still, Ovadia insists, this bunch of plywood and rusting engines, bolted together in an old shipping crate, could save the planet.

The box of parts, and the large metal arm lying on top of it, is meant to be stationed a few kilometers away, just off the coast. There, in the surf that endlessly laps at the shore, a set of Ovadia’s buoys would exploit one of the world’s most reliable – and most potent – sources of energy.

The idea is fairly simple: Every wave on the ocean represents a significant amount of force; if even some of that tremendous energy could be harnessed, it could be turned into electricity.

“They say that just 1 percent of the energy in the oceans could power the entire world,” Ovadia says, with a raise of the eyebrows and a nod of the head, as if to stave off any “no way” reaction. It is, he assures, a viable goal.

The tricky part of realizing such potential is finding a way to capture as much of that energy as possible and turn it into electricity in a safe and cost-efficient manner. Until now, the dozens of contraptions that have been tried – although tantalizing and inspiring – have proven unable to meet that challenge.

Part of the problem lies in the sheer brute force of the sea. One apparatus, a 750-metric-ton device, was torn to shreds off the coast of Scotland as it was being put in place. And that was in relatively shallow water. Attempts to harvest the even more powerful currents farther out to sea and deeper down require complicated feats of engineering that make such efforts impractical in the near future.

The beauty of Ovadia’s system, he says, lies in its simplicity. Rather than try to channel the ocean’s power, Ovadia wants to go along for the ride. His buoys lie atop the water, at or just off the beach. As waves raise the buoys, attached hydraulic arms, contract – turning an alternator, creating electricity. The entire process is fully automatic, and requires not a drop of fuel.

“I don’t need smoke-belching towers, I don’t need turbines, I don’t need anything polluting,” Ovadia says. What’s more, he adds, his company’s zero-emissions, quiet power plants could produce commercial amounts of electricity while taking up just a 10th of the space required by coal-burning or natural gas-burning power plants. The lower infrastructure costs, combined with lower per-kilowatt production costs, mean that the original investment in an ocean wave power plant manufactured by his firm SDE would be repaid in five years – a fourth of the time that most conventional power plants need to “earn their keep.”

WITH ALL these advantages, you’d think potential
clients would be busting down Ovadia’s door. According
to him, they are – and they are hailing from some
unusual places. In addition to some general interest
from companies and governments in Chile, Argentina,
Spain, Cyprus, Monaco and other countries, SDE is in
very serious negotiations with the government of
Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim state.

“We are very interested in this technology,” Dr.
Faizul Ishom of the State Ministry for Development of
Disadvantaged Areas told The Jerusalem Post. “We are
an island country with a lot of beaches, so it could
be very good for us, and for our environment too. We
want to apply this. I have already talked with power
companies about it.”

Ishom and other Indonesian officials have visited
SDE’s offices here, and they hope to return soon to
finalize a deal. Initially, Ishom said, his country is
looking to buy an ocean wave power plant capable of
producing 100 MW, at a cost of $650 million. If that
plant is successful, Indonesia would be interested in
another one on the scale of 500 MW.

Pakistan – the world’s only nuclear-armed Muslim state
and, like Indonesia, a nation that has no formal
diplomatic ties with Israel – is also eager to have
Ovadia’s company build a power plant for its citizens,
an official confirmed to the Post. Count India and Sri
Lanka among the countries in talks with SDE, as well.

Ovadia is focusing on Africa as a potential market,
too. The general manager of the Zanzibar Electricity
Corporation confirmed talks over a power plant between
10 MW and 100 MW in capacity. Tanzania, whose severely
unstable electricity supply has crippled its already
fragile economy, is eager to see a 500 MW plant
constructed as soon as possible. Gambia, in a similar
situation, paid for Ovadia to make a presentation in
the capital.

“One of our country’s biggest challenges is that we
have no reliable source of energy,” Ebrima Camara, of
the Office of the President, told the Post. “If we
had, we could increase our potential to attract
investors for industry and manufacturing. We really
want to be able to give our people the ability to be
self-reliant and productive, so if we can get a
technology like this, which would make electricity
cheaply and reliably, it would mean a lot for Gambia.”
Following what Camara described as “a very fruitful
meeting,” Gambia and SDE are negotiating over a 70 MW
power plant in a deal that would be worth millions of
dollars.

FOR ALL this attention from the rest of the world,
though, Ovadia lacks recognition here at home.

“I used to get research grants from the Industry and
Trade Ministry,” Ovadia says, noting that his funding
was cut in 2000, following a severe leg injury that
kept him out of work for two years and prevented him
from meeting deadlines that would have qualified him
for further support. “Now,” he says bitterly, “I’m
just a pest to the government.”

What Ovadia wants, he says, is not money, but
recognition.

“Israel has maybe 10,000 meters of breakwaters along
its shores. Those breakwaters could produce 10% of the
country’s electricity needs. If we could put our buoys
on the breakwaters, they would not only produce
electricity, but also act as a kind of shock absorber
and lengthen the life of the breakwaters,” he says,
getting excited.

“I can build a plant here, for example, that will
produce 100 MW of electricity. This is not meant to
answer all the country’s needs, but it can definitely
provide a good chunk. And with oil selling for more
than $100 per barrel, it’s definitely worth
considering.”

That there is very little consideration of the
potential in SDE’s system vexes Ovadia. The Israel
Electric Corporation “pretends to be interested in my
technology,” he says, “but in reality it sees us as a
threat.”

IEC did not respond to that claim, but acknowledged it
had no interest in SDE or ocean wave energy. A
spokesman for the Office of the Chief Scientist of the
Industry and Trade Ministry said the body was
continuing to invest in local research and development
of alternative energy options, but had no particular
interest in Ovadia’s ideas at this time.

Ovadia claims he is doomed by bureaucrats swayed by
lobbyists for conventional energy firms offering
kickbacks, payoffs and the promise of cushy “adviser”
jobs in the power industry upon leaving office.

“It’s no wonder that, when you ask officials about my
ideas, they come up with excuses like, ‘This isn’t the
time for this sort of thing,’ or ‘It isn’t convincing
enough,’ or ‘The technology isn’t ready yet.’ They
prefer to protect the interests of those who sell coal
or who operate coal-powered plants,” Ovadia says.
“Why? Those are deals worth billions. You think
someone would risk losing that by supporting my little
buoys?”

Ovadia doesn’t name names. Is he paranoid? Making
excuses for his failure to inspire his countrymen?
Either is possible, or both. Or, it may just be that
he is exhausted from the efforts of trying to infect
bureaucrats with the exuberance of a dreamer.

AT 56, with his hair dyed black and agitation
exaggerating the lines that middle age and frustration
have carved into his face, it is clear that it hasn’t
been easy for Ovadia, being told over and over again
for decades that his idea wouldn’t work.

It was as a soldier on leave, waiting outside the old
Yaron Cinema in South Tel Aviv, that he first
considered the potential of ocean waves. Sitting on
the railing as waves rolled toward his feet, Ovadia
was mesmerized. There must be a way, he figured, to
turn that hypnotic motion into something useful.

It took Ovadia, who pulls out forms detailing his 17
different patents, more than a decade to develop his
foggy notion into concrete reality. After completing
his service in the Engineering Corps, he worked in a
plant manufacturing motors, learning about pneumatics,
hydraulics and electricity. Eventually he struck upon
the idea of a way to put the waves’ own energy to use.
The theory behind wave energy exploitation goes back
ages; bringing theory to practice often takes ages. As
he brought SDE to life, Ovadia built and tested eight
different models of his system, starting with one so
small that it fit in his bathtub. He made each of the
models larger, until they required a shipping
container full of water, and eventually tested his
current system in the Jaffa Port.

Along the way there have been numerous
disappointments, including what he calls obstruction
from the Israeli establishment and what he vaguely
refers to as “some troubles with unscrupulous
partners.”

Then there are the nagging questions – about whether
the relatively gentle waves licking at the country’s
Mediterranean coast are strong enough to make this
technology worthwhile; about the ability of SDE’s
buoys to survive and operate in the brutal environment
of seawater, and about the environmental damage that
could result from installing a power plant of this
type on the shore.

Ovadia has heard these complaints, it seems, a
thousand times before. Yet he patiently addresses each
issue.

No matter where an ocean wave power plant is, Ovadia
explains, it would produce different levels of energy
during different times of the year, as waves are
higher during certain periods and lower during others.
Likewise, waves are higher and more powerful in some
parts of the world (coastal areas on the North Sea,
for example) than others (such as the calmer beaches
of the eastern Mediterranean, to our disadvantage).

True, he notes, the potential benefit in relation to
other methods of producing electricity would not be as
great here as in Britain or Spain, but it would still
be significant. And his power plants would be
economical to run even in areas where weaker waves
predominate.

“But I’ll tell you something,” he says. “Even in the
Kinneret, I can make energy.”

An SDE power plant, Ovadia continues, “can produce
electricity at a fraction of the cost of coal, a
fraction of the cost of solar and a fraction the cost
of wind. Run one six months to eight months per year,
and you still come out ahead.”

Further, he says, “When are waves the highest? In the
summer and in the winter. And when is the demand for
electricity highest? In the summer and in the winter.
It’s a perfect match.”

What about reliability? Compared to the other wave
energy systems being developed around the world,
Ovadia’s invention seems downright flimsy.

What his design has going for it, he says, is that the
buoys actually see less exposure to seawater than the
other systems. There is a built-in self-correcting
mechanism whereby, should a large wave overwhelm the
buoy, it would flip over and then “wait” for lower
tide to flip back. Unlike other systems deployed far
out to sea, the moving parts in his power plants are
easily replaceable. Also, the plants can be maintained
easily, and they can be run automatically. One person,
he says, could run five plants at a time, if
necessary.

Lastly, what of the environmental impact?

“Strictly speaking, the beach would be damaged
slightly if we installed these,” Ovadia says. “But on
the other hand, people die from the pollution caused
by power plants burning fossil fuels. Which would you
prefer?”

Besides, with such little interest here, he notes
wryly, “It isn’t as if we’re going to take over
Frishman Beach tomorrow.”

FORTUNATELY, OVADIA says, beaches needn’t be marred.
In his preferred scenario, a breakwater would be built
first, and the buoys attached to it. A place like the
Ashdod Port, where a 3,350 meter-long main breakwater
and a sea wall 800 meters long already exist, would be
an ideal location for SDE to prove its technology.

Just in the past few weeks – after years of fruitless
lobbying all over the country – Ovadia has won over
the Ashdod Municipality to the merits of such a plan.

“The mayor and the city engineer have looked over this
idea thoroughly, and it seems quite worthwhile to us,”
said David Hartum, deputy director-general of the
Ashdod Municipality. “We are suggesting building on
the breakwater in the port. We like the fact that it’s
ecological, as ocean waves do the job instead of oil,
and that it involves a one-time cost to produce
electricity. We are definitely interested.”

The only thing standing in the way of the country’s
first ocean wave power plant, then, is the Israel
Ports Authority, whose approval for the project is
required. A spokeswoman for Shlomo Breiman,
director-general of the Israel Ports Authority, said
he was looking into the idea, but would have to review
thorough studies on the potential environmental impact
on the port basin – and any potential impact on the
port’s operations, especially – before giving the
project a green light.

Should SDE win a contract to build a power plant in
Ashdod, it would certainly mean vindication for Ovadia
– proof that, where other concepts have failed, his,
like his buoys, has stayed afloat. But for the most
part he is looking to other markets, focusing on
underdeveloped and energy-poor countries in Africa and
Asia. It is there that he expects to see his first
power plant built – he estimates – within two or three
years.

“When I was in Gambia,” he recalls, “we went to visit
a little village. At one point our meeting was
interrupted by afternoon prayers… There I was, this
Israeli Jew, surrounded by Muslims praying intensely.

“These people,” Ovadia says, leaning forward as if to
reveal a secret, “are in desperate need of energy in
order to improve their lives. Well,” he says, leaning
back in his chair again, “I will be their messiah. I
will save them.”

Cut and dry

You don’t want to die. Not in a catastrophic flood
caused by the melting of the polar ice caps. Not in a
monstrous hurricane spawned by unnatural weather
patterns. Not of thirst, after all your local water
sources have dried up in a relentless series of heat
waves. You don’t want to suffer the fate promised to
you in An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore’s over-the-top,
Oscar-winning movie about the impending doom of global
warming.

So, you listen to Avi Harel, CEO of Vortex Ecological
Technologies, and take solace in the company’s
solution, which makes pollution and global warming
nothing more than a tempest in a teacup.

With the company’s Advanced Vortex Chamber, industrial
emissions stream into a cone-shaped device that
accelerates the flow of gas through a spiral, creating
a kind of cyclone. Into that maelstrom, a cleansing
liquid is sprayed. Droplets of this liquid attach to
hazardous particles that a factory would normally
belch into the air we breathe. In the chamber,
however, they are shuffled into a separate container
where they are rendered into either an easily
treatable powder or a liquid fertilizer.

Harel claims the company’s products can neutralize 99
percent of the poisonous sulfurous gas particles
emitted by the burning of fossil fuels, and that
they’ll also reduce carbon dioxide emissions by
10%-15%.

‘That’s enough,’ he says, ‘to make a difference.’

Indeed, while removing pollutants is boon enough, the
Advanced Vortex Chamber’s reduction of CO2 is much
more significant when it comes to fighting global
warming. CO2 is by far the biggest factor in creating
the greenhouse effect that is, almost all scientists
now agree, behind the record temperatures being felt
around the world. And it is produced mostly by
factories and power stations – precisely Vortex’s
target customers.

There’s just one snag: Vortex currently has systems
that can handle only smaller factories and power
stations. It would take a sizable contract with a
large facility – like the oil refineries in Haifa or
the Hadera power station, both of which are currently
in negotiations with Vortex – for the young company to
be able to produce a system on a larger scale. Until
that happens, Vortex can only go so far.

Although the company has contracts with some
Scandinavian companies, and it is in talks with firms
in the US, ‘Israel is not much of a market for us
yet,’ Harel admits.

In a sense, then, Vortex is representative of Israel’s
efforts at confronting global warming. There is plenty
of potential here, but it is not being realized. The
country is merely taking baby steps toward progress.

AS IT IS, Israelis’ environmental record is a poor
one, from picnickers littering in parks to industrial
factories dumping toxic chemicals into rivers and
streams. More than these, though, government inaction
is the main reason for pessimism that the country will
turn its act around to handle a problem as large as
global warming.

‘The government isn’t doing much at all about the
issue, really. There just isn’t enough shock yet. No
one’s trying to actually make things better,’
complains Dr. Eli Galanti, fellow and research
coordinator at Tel Aviv University’s Porter School of
Environmental Studies.

Just because Israel contributes very little to the
problem of global warming – the scale of our industry
and of our transportation system simply pales in
comparison to nations like the US and China – doesn’t
mean that we should contribute little to its solution,
Galanti says. After all, we’ll feel the effects just
the same.

That could mean more forest and bush fires, more
invasive species or pests, a delayed growing season or
any of several other ill effects of global warming.

‘We will have hotter and slightly longer heat waves in
the summers,’ Galanti says. ‘That may seem trivial,
since it’s already pretty hot here, but it’s not
trivial at all. A major implication is a drop in the
amount of rainfall we get, since even a minor change
could mean trouble for our drinking water supply.’

The water supply is already precariously low, thanks
to skyrocketing demands on our modest resources from a
burgeoning population and from an agricultural
industry that farms crops with high water needs.

Several answers to these problems are already here. In
addition to techniques of drip irrigation that Israel
has mastered, universities and private firms are
developing methods of raising crops that grow well in
our climate with much less water. Ending water
subsidies for farmers producing water-intensive crops
could bring those methods into wider use. Such a step,
however, is not on the government’s agenda.

Neither is it clear when or even if the government
plans to build desalination plants that would increase
the amount of water available, despite the fact that
Israel boasts the world’s largest seawater reverse
osmosis desalination plant, in Ashkelon.

Another step, installing water saving devices
throughout the country, remains just an idea.

‘If every household were fitted with water saving
devices – at a cost of NIS 185 million – we could save
NIS 375 million in a year. So, in six months, that
project would pay for itself. Yet the government won’t
make that investment,’ bemoans Noga Levtzion-Nadan, an
environmental economist.

‘The government thinks so short-term… but for
environmental issues, you can’t just think short-term.
The problems are all long-term,’ she says.

BACK TO carbon dioxide: The government is choosing to
continue to produce more of it, when clean
alternatives are available.

Over the objections of the Environmental Protection
Ministry, the National Infrastructure Ministry plans
to push through construction of a third coal-burning
power plant in Ashkelon to meet the ever increasing
electricity demands of the country. Meanwhile, plans
for a non- polluting solar power station in the Negev
continue to drag on fruitlessly, thanks to
administrative delays.

Although National Infrastructure Minister Binyamin
Ben-Eliezer says the government is committed to its
2006 decision to produce up to 10% of the country’s
electricity through renewable energy in 10 years, the
plans to construct another coal-burning power plant
are an indication that there is little action behind
those words.

‘[The decision] is not moving and not being
implemented in the field because this plan has not
been placed very high on the national agenda,’ Dr.
Yishayahu Bar-Or, the Environmental Protection
Ministry’s chief scientist, told The Jerusalem Post
recently. ‘Right now the government is dragging its
feet on this.’

‘It’s bizarre that Israel hasn’t invested heavily in
alternate fuels and energies,’ says Tel Aviv
University’s Galanti.

It’s not only bizarre but economically misguided, says
Levtzion-Nadan, who has carried out extensive research
on the government’s budgetary commitment to
environmental policy.

‘If 10% of our energy consumption came from renewable
energy sources, over 20 years we would save NIS 9
billion. Yet in the budget, Israel invests only NIS
2.1 million per year in renewable energy. It’s a
joke.’

What’s more, there are hidden costs to the ostensibly
cheaper fossil fuels.

‘We pay about NIS 4.3b. per year – in health costs,
lost labor costs, lost tax revenues, etc. – because of
our complete reliance on fossil fuels, and the health
hazards they cause,’ says Levtzion-Nadan. ‘We don’t
see that cost at the gas pump, or in our electric
bill, so we think that those things are cheap. But the
cost is there. It adds up and has an effect on the
economy. We all pay the price for that way of life.’

FORTUNATELY, there are also positive developments,
although they are small.

The government has ordered that oil-burning power
stations change over to natural gas, for example.
Burning natural gas still contributes to the
greenhouse effect, but to a significantly lesser
extent, and it pollutes much less as well.

The Finance Ministry announced last month that it
would exempt a new electric scooter from purchase tax,
to make the clean-running vehicle more attractive. Tax
on the two hybrid cars available here, the Toyota
Prius and a hybrid model of the Honda Civic, is
already a fraction of the tax on other cars.

Diesel emissions standards, unchanged for 30 years,
have been updated so that older, polluting models will
be taken out of use.

‘The things that we have accomplished, just in the
transportation field and just in the past year and a
half, have been significant,’ says Shuly Nezer, head
of the Environmental Protection Ministry’s air quality
department. ‘And there’s hope that we can make even
more changes.’

Nezer notes that there is now a ‘green taxation
committee’ in the Finance Ministry, working together
with the Environmental Protection and Transportation
ministries to classify vehicles according to their
emissions. It is conceivable, she says, that higher
efficiency vehicles, such as small cars, modern
diesels and scooters and motorcycles, could receive
tax breaks in the very near future.

‘We are also working to make Israel more efficient in
its energy usage,’ Nezer adds. ‘We have put out a call
to local councils to use more efficient lighting on
roads, for example. As we explain, these steps are not
just good for the environment, they are more
economical in the long term.’

While government efforts to fight environmental damage
began in earnest a decade ago, they are finally
bearing fruit now, thanks in part to a larger public
awareness of the problem and pressure from an
increasing number of environmental groups.

As Nezer says, Israel has a long way to go – but it
has also come a long way, too. Despite being
classified as a developing country in the United
Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the
country’s greenhouse gas emissions per capita are on
par with levels in superstrict Western Europe.

‘We are not China and India,’ Nezer says, referring to
two of the largest polluter states. ‘It’s true that we
could do much more. But things are beginning to
change, they really are. What you see here today is
much more advanced than it was five years ago. I am
very optimistic.’

UNTIL NOW, economics has been used as an excuse for
inaction on pro-environmental projects. Ultimately,
though, financial concerns may end up as just the
thing that pushes Israel to act.

As noted above, several policy changes would provide
financial savings over time, in addition to their
positive environmental impact. At some point soon, the
benefits of change will become too evident to ignore –
and they may serve officials who care less about the
environment than they do about their ability to fund
some other project with the savings of an
environmental one.

Already, the private sector is showing an interest in
environmental issues.

What more and more people are discovering, says
Levtzion-Nadan, is that ‘companies that manage their
environmental obligations are often well managed in
general. If they have a sound, coherent strategy for
dealing with environmental issues, they usually have
sound, coherent strategies for other areas of
operations as well. So it’s a very good way to
evaluate companies, from an investment standpoint.

‘In fact, I do that a lot for investors. Investors
need to have a complete view of a company; they need
to know everything about the company. They are now
starting to realize that if a company pollutes today,
it’s going to be looking at a fine, or at the costs of
a clean-up, or at a major lawsuit.’

So maybe Avi Harel will soon be getting more calls at
Vortex’s headquarters in Haifa.

‘Not only can we help the environment,’ he says, ‘we
can help companies save money.’ And that, as he
already mentioned, is enough to make a difference.

(Box 1) From Kyoto to Kiryat Ata

The 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro produced the
United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change
– a series of agreements, or protocols, aimed at
reducing emissions of greenhouse gases. Five years
later came the Kyoto Protocol, which further outlined
the terms of those efforts. In doing so, it has become
more famous than the original treaty.

The 169 signatories of the Kyoto Protocol (including
Israel) commit to reducing their emissions of carbon
dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, sulfur hexafluoride,
HFCs and PFCs. The new target levels are only modestly
lower than 1990 levels – but, due to the growth in
emissions since then, that represents a much more
ambitious goal.

Well-developed, industrialized countries bear the
brunt of the responsibility for reducing greenhouse
gas emissions, facing significant financial penalties
for not meeting targets. Meanwhile, still developing
nations are not obligated to make the same kinds of
changes to their infrastructure, as the process of
industrialization that creates greenhouse gases is
considered vital to those countries’ ability to
improve their weak economies.

Kyoto creates a financial incentive for industrialized
countries to help developing countries in two ways. In
the first, an industrialized country that fears it
will not meet its emissions targets can purchase
so-called carbon credits in developing countries (the
investment from which is meant to be used by the
poorer country to develop). These credits, being
tradable, have become a kind of commodity in
themselves, and are even being traded by investors
without any connection to their environmental impact.

The second option is for industrialized countries to
earn credits by investing directly in a ‘clean
development mechanism’ – a project to reduce emissions
– in a developing country. Last year, Israel’s
Environmental Protection Ministry announced that the
country’s nine CDMs would bring about 15 million Euro
into Israel’s economy. About 40 percent of that came
from just one CDM, a project at a chemical factory in
the Haifa Bay area. Currently, there are 15 CDMs in
Israel, and the ministry is actively seeking more
prospective projects.

(Box 2) What can Israel do?

‘Sustainable development doesn’t mean going back to
living in the Stone Age,’ says environmental economist
Noga Levtzion-Nadan. ‘It means recognizing that our
resources are limited, and finding ways to manage
those resources as best we can.’

The following are some suggested ways of better
managing Israel’s resources.

Steps the government could take to reduce CO2
emissions:

*Building solar energy power plants instead of coal-
burning power plants.

‘Today, solar energy is absolutely worthwhile in
Israel. Unfortunately, what’s holding it up is
bureaucratic snafus,’ says Shuly Nezer, of the
Environmental Protection Ministry. ‘Without a doubt,
if there were the will to do so, this could be
achieved immediately.’

*Strengthening – and, more importantly, enforcing –
restrictions on pollution and CO2 emissions.

‘Industry will move forward only if enforcement is
tough enough. otherwise, it’s too cheap to just
continue polluting,’ says Levtzion-Nadan.
‘Furthermore, there has to be consistency from the
government. If, for example, a company feels that
today’s stiff regulations won’t be in effect five
years down the road, then it probably won’t bother to
comply today. Why should it?’

Steps the government could take to increase the
country’s drinking water supply:

*Ordering the installation of water-saving devices;

*Building more desalination plants.

In October 2006, a little more than a year after it
commenced initial production, the seawater reverse
osmosis desalination plant in Ashkelon delivered its
first 100 million cubic meters of water. The plant
produces around 13% of the country’s domestic consumer
demand at one of the world’s lowest prices for
desalinated water.

The growth industry

You’re darn right, it isn’t easy being green. Not when
you’re standing only kilometers from the Lebanese
border. Not when you’re within spitting distance of a
target as tempting to Hizbullah gunners as the
Northern Command headquarters. Not, in other words,
when you’re a tree in the Biriya forest and Katyusha
rockets are raining down all around you, as they did
in last summer’s war.

Some 800 fires were started by the month-long barrage
of rockets as they came screaming into the North,
destroying 12,000 dunams (3,000 acres) of forest in
the process. Together with the adjacent Naftali Ridge,
this pastoral crest just north of Safed in the Upper
Galilee suffered the most; combined, they accounted
for three- quarters of the damaged area.

Sixty-year-old pines that had adorned these hills,
nestled between the Hula Valley and the infamous
Hizbullah stronghold towns of Maroun a-Ras and Bint
Jbail, were consumed in a matter of hours. Winds
whipping through the canyons during the driest days of
July and August carried fires through brush and woods
in the blink of an eye. The conflagration was
relentless.

‘Hundreds of Katyushas fell here,’ recalls Aviram
Zuck, head of Upper Galilee forests for the JNF. ‘We
just kept running from one fire to the next. It’s a
testament to the relentless efforts of the firemen and
the forestry workers that we didn’t lose more of these
trees than we did.’

Dr. Omri Boneh, the JNF forester in charge of the
entire North, puts it in perspective: During the war,
he says, ‘we dealt with more fires than we did in the
past five years.’

The damage was costly, any way you look at it.
Extinguishing the fires cost some NIS 15 million;
rehabilitating the forests will take an estimated NIS
80 million or more. At Biriya, trees that burned were
some of the oldest planted trees in the country, some
even predating the state. Naturally, there is no way
to replace trees of that age except to plant saplings
and wait another half-century. But there are not yet
enough saplings to plant, even with the stockpiles at
nurseries around the country, and not enough hands to
plant them virtually overnight. Just the first phase
of rehabilitating the Biriya forest, Boneh estimates,
will take three to five years.

Despite the difficulties, though, foresters like Zuck
and Boneh are not depressed. As they play their part
in helping the country recover from the lingering
effects of last summer’s war – and with the planting
frenzy of Tu Bishvat as a backdrop – they are
approaching their task with a sense of purpose in a
time of renewal.

REHABILITATION EFFORTS began immediately after the
cease-fire between Israel and Hizbullah took effect
last August. Dead and damaged trees were felled and
sold to the wood industry before they dried out.
Debris was cleared to prevent vermin from being
attracted to the sites. Mulching of unsellable wood
was begun, both to prevent soil erosion and to help
heal the soil by sealing in as much moisture as
possible. More recently, foresters have used
improvised earthen dams to prevent runoff water from
the rainy season from carrying away the mineral-rich
ash and topsoil.

The ground is also being prepared for replanting – by
volunteers who have already begun notching saplings
into furrows and covering them with protective
sleeves, by the little hands of schoolchildren who
will have made trips to this site and many others in
the week before Tu Bishvat, and by the government
ministers and captains of industry who want to show
their commitment to the hard-hit North, whether at
ceremonies sponsored by the JNF, the Jewish Agency,
the Nature and Parks Authority or any number of other
green groups.

But this New Year for the Trees is something more for
the foresters of the North, Boneh says. As corny as it
sounds, it is a time for growth.

‘We didn’t want these fires,’ he says, ‘but the fact
is, they have given us an opportunity to make some
positive changes.’

To start with, the forest is getting a makeover. New
plantings will contribute to the variety of ages and
species of trees at Biriya, which should improve the
overall health and sustainability of the forest.

‘The Katyushas and the fires have also brought to
people’s attention the importance and the beauty of
our country’s green areas,’ Boneh continues. ‘Since
the war, the number of visitors to the parks and
forests in the North has increased tenfold.’

Many of those visitors have come to lend a helping
hand to the rehabilitation effort. Some came to trim
healthy trees’ damaged branches, others to clear the
debris so that visitors could enjoy the many trails
winding through the hills and gorges of the forest.

‘When something as tragic as last summer’s bombardment
happens, naturally people rally behind the cause,’
says the lanky Boneh, blending in among the thin pines
during a walk through the woods.

‘We’ve had thousands of volunteers come up here,
putting in thousands upon thousands of man-hours of
work. They’ve come from hi-tech, from the army, from
industry. They’ve been individuals, and they’ve been
families. They’ve been Jews and they’ve been Arabs.
It’s been an amazing wave of solidarity. And we
thought it would pass, you know, after a month. But it
hasn’t. It has just kept going. We’re still getting
100-150 people a day up here.’

As the foresters climb a dirt trail overlooking the
Dalton vineyard across the valley, a small group,
sweating in the midday sun, helps prepare a patch of
damaged earth for new, young trees. Around a corner,
more volunteers are plunging little flags into the
little piles of ash where old trees once stood, and
where new trees are meant to planted for Tu Bishvat.

‘While we are still licking our wounds from the war,’
Boneh says after waving hello to the volunteers, ‘we
are also taking the opportunity to try to form a
stronger bond with the communities in the area. We are
not just rehabilitating the forests, we are improving
the public’s access to them, with more and better
trails, with picnic sites and lookout points, and the
like. We want people to feel a stronger connection to
nature, and we want to encourage tourism based on the
wonderful resources we have here in these forests.’

Indeed, tourism to the North took a big hit last
summer; hoteliers were so hurt by the fighting that
the government awarded them compensation so they could
stay afloat until business picked up again. This part
of the country lacks the grandeur and majesty of the
Golan Heights, and also lacks the sand and surf of the
coast. It trades in large part on its calming green
hills and valleys, which make it an island of serenity
in an otherwise loud and busy country. The foresters
want to make sure the Upper Galilee retains that
character.

‘After the war, the government has had to answer all
kinds of questions about its preparedness for another
war,’ says Zuck. ‘Well, having healthy green areas is
a major quality of life issue for citizens, and you
shouldn’t need the threat of another war to ensure
that people have quality of life. These forests are
some of Israel’s – and especially northern Israel’s –
greatest resources.’

Protecting and developing that resource requires
investment, though – and since last summer’s scenario
of rocket barrages is entirely repeatable, not
everyone feels it is a safe investment.

‘Some people ask whether it makes sense to replant all
these trees, if they can all just get burned again,’
Boneh says with obvious understatement. ‘Well, we
don’t see it that way.’

Actually, they see rehabilitating the forest as a sign
of the country’s civilian resolve, no less important
than its military resolve. Replanting trees becomes an
act of defiance against Israel’s enemies, an old-time
expression of Zionism.

‘The rockets hit a lot of civilian infrastructure
during the war, and it was deemed vital to risk
people’s lives during the fighting to repair that
infrastructure. And why is that?’ Boneh asks. ‘Because
as Israelis, we found it unacceptable that the train
would not run all the way to Nahariya. We insisted on
maintaining our way of life.’

The same goes for defending the forests.

‘Listen, if you can fix the train lines, the
electrical lines and whatnot while rockets are still
falling, why not also try to save and rehabilitate the
forests?’

Israel, the only country in the world to have more
trees at the end of the 20th century than at the
beginning, is already known for its affinity for trees
– and not just on Tu Bishvat. But with so much of its
forests burned in such a short time, and another
66,000 dunams of open green areas and 71,000 dunams of
pastureland suffering damage as well, it is more
apparent than ever that nature cannot handle the
repair job alone.

‘It used to be that people thought that forests could
take care of themselves,’ Zuck says. ‘But now people
see that even trees need help sometimes.’

(BOX) Where Tu Bishvat was born

The secular celebration of Tu Bishvat that centers on
the festive planting of trees began in the Galilee at
the turn of the 20th century, and took off within a
few years as a quintessential Zionist symbol of
regeneration in the Land of Israel. Just as trees
would set down roots in the soil, so too would legions
of Jews become attached to Palestine.

But the momentum behind the holiday – the force that
pushed Tu Bishvat from a day marked primarily as a
starting point for counting agricultural tithes, as it
is described in the Mishna, into a real ‘New Year of
the Trees’ rich in symbolism – came from the mystics
of 16th-century Safed, who frequented the Biriya
forest to meditate on the divine.

The Tu Bishvat ‘seder’ that many Jews perform today
was intended to be much, much more than the mere
enjoyment of fruits native to Israel. Behind the
bounty of fruits and nuts stands a highly esoteric
ritual of spiritual significance, recorded in a work
written in Turkey but based on the kabbalistic
teachings of Rabbi Isaac Luria (the ‘Ari’) and his
disciples. In the same fields outside Safed where the
Friday night service welcoming the Sabbath was
authored came a vision of the cosmos that drew heavily
on the power and symbolism of nature.

In a sense, then, Biriya is where Tu Bishvat was born.
It is fitting, too, as the area was home to many of
Judaism’s early luminaries – evidenced by the fact
that the hills in and around the forest are dotted
with the graves of rabbinic giants dating back 2,000
years. Buried in the quiet groves are the legendary
talmudic rivals Abaya and Rava, as well as the intense
Yonatan ben Uziel, whose tomb in the spot known as
Amuka has drawn visitors throughout the centuries, and
numerous others.

Not far off stands the resting place of Honi the
Circle Maker, who learned a fabled lesson about trees
that completes the ethos of Tu Bishvat. According to
the story in the Talmud, Honi (who was so pious that
he could demand rainfall in times of drought) chanced
upon an old man planting a carob tree. ‘How long will
it take for this tree to bear fruit?’ he asked.

‘Seventy years,’ came the reply.

Incredulous, Honi then asked, ‘And do you think you
will live another 70 years and eat the fruit of this
tree?’

‘Perhaps not,’ replied the man. ‘However, when I was
born into this world, I found many carob trees planted
by my forefathers. Just as they planted trees for me,
I am planting trees for my children and
grandchildren.’

Finally, to drive the point home about the importance
of such practical deeds, Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai
added the following dictum: ‘If you have a sapling in
your hand and are told, ‘Look, the Messiah is here,’
you should first plant the sapling and then go out to
welcome the Messiah!’