>The greening of Israel

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Water-short, energy-challenged and traffic-congested, Israel is a land of environmental experiments


The greening of Israel

Water-short, energy-challenged and traffic-congested, Israel is a land of environmental experiments, reports freelance writer CHRISTINE H. O’TOOLE

Pittsburgh Post Gazette

Sunday, February 20, 2011

NETANYA, Israel

On the coastal highway to Haifa, the sunlit Mediterranean Sea is mirrored by miles of glittering rooftop solar panels, providing residents with home-cooked hot water. It’s common sense to harvest solar radiation here at the latitudes where it’s strongest. But can a crowded, drought-prone country, packed with cars and poor in plant life, oil and water, really go green?

Israel has no choice. The constraints posed by climate, geology and rapid growth have forced the country to experiment with untested ideas in environmental sustainability.

From a landfill-turned-city park, to a national network of charging stations for battery-powered sedans, to wetlands reclaimed from agriculture, examples are everywhere. Touring the country through the sandstorms that battered it in December, I saw projects with both grit and promise.

A 60-meter hill of trash along the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway — it looks like a mountain on the board-flat landscape — grew over Israel’s first 50 years to become the rank centerpiece of a noxious eyesore. But the Hiraya garbage dump now is being transformed into Ariel Sharon-Ayalon Park, which will repurpose the 2,000-acre landfill for recreation.

In a city with a heavily used beachfront but no green space, the site, double the size of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, looks like an urban mesa, with cycling paths and public spaces. Fed by trickles of water — here called rivers — its cedars, figs and olive trees will act as a ‘green lung’ to mitigate airborne pollutants along the busy Route 1 corridor through which a half-million commuter cars pass daily.

Israeli traffic, particularly on the northern highways, is an intractable 24-7 snarl. Despite rail service connecting Tel Aviv and Jerusalem with Ben Gurion Airport, intra-city mass transit options are limited. In Tel Aviv, where a third of the country works, a light rail/subway plan has been stalled for years, and a promised city bike-share program has yet to debut.

Meanwhile, gasoline costs nearly $7 per gallon in a nation completely dependent on foreign oil. That prompted young entrepreneur Shai Agassi to ask: ‘How do you run an entire country without oil, with no new science, in a time frame that’s fast enough to get off oil before we run out of planet?’

On the northern edge of Tel Aviv, Mr. Agassi’s new venture is demonstrating the answer: A Better Place is producing an electric battery-powered car supported by a national network of charging stations.

Mr. Agassi has promoted the system as a giant leap in convenience. Drivers can use home plug-in chargers and extend the car’s range by swapping out batteries on the road. A Better Place has shrewdly built acceptance for the system with free tours and test drives at its demonstration center. Forty thousand people have visited since it opened last March.

‘We’ve created a system that will work on all-electric cars — the Leaf, the Volt, the Mitsubishi,’ Sidney Goodman, vice president of the $700 million startup, told a group of American visitors.

A Better Place’s main partner is Renault, whose Fluence Z.E. electric car will go on sale outside the United States this summer with a base sticker price of nearly $29,000, plus a monthly battery lease of about $100.

As a crowd of observers watched, Mr. Goodman demonstrated the robotic technology that runs the drive-in maintenance system. A machine lifted the car a few feet, extended one arm to detach a spent battery from below and smoothly substituted a fresh one in under five minutes. Mr. Goodman says Israel will have 50 battery switching stations by the end of this year.

The technology has the most promise for small ‘transportation islands’ like Israel and Denmark, but was successfully piloted in buses during the Beijing Olympics. Tests with taxi fleets in Tokyo will be followed by one in the California Bay Area next year.

Water is precious in Israel; the second rainfall of 2010 didn’t occur until my December visit. Although a controversial drought tax that rationed residential water usage was suspended last year, a new 40 percent hike in water tariffs is expected to have the same effect. It’s all the more surprising, then, that the country has allowed an agricultural kibbutz to revert to a wetland wildlife preserve.

As winter dusk fell over the 15,000-acre Hula Nature Reserve near the Golan Heights, thousands of grey cranes suddenly descended. They’d returned to the wetland, a migration stop for two millennia, where neighboring farmland has been turned into an eco-tourism center.

Kibbutz agriculture drained most of the swamplands in the 20th century and wildlife vanished. Now waterfowl, wild nutria, water buffalo and other species thrive in the nation’s first nature reserve. A re-flooded peat bog filters water flowing to the nation’s only fresh water lake, the Sea of Galilee.

Golda Meir famously voiced the Israeli complaint: ‘Moses dragged us through the desert to the one place in the Middle East where there is no oil.’

Israel will continue to struggle with meager resources, despite the recent discovery of a promising offshore natural gas field. But there’s a flow of fresh thinking about how to meet the nation’s environmental challenges.
Christine H. O’Toole is a freelance writer who lives in Mt. Lebanon (chris@christinehotoole.com).

First published on February 20, 2011 at 12:00 am

The greening of Israel

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