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Israel Pushing to Make the World Greener

The world is going green. It's just taking a very long time.

China is a serial polluter, but the government is investing heavily in green energy for several reasons. First, it creates jobs. Second, China wants to compete on the global stage. Third, China realizes it's a big polluter and wants to offset some of the criticism.

In the U.S. we've been hearing the promises for years. Solar, wind, clean-burning shale. But today, only a very small amount of American energy is created through clean technologies.

Eilat, Israel
Cris haigh | Stone | Getty Images
Eilat, Israel

Israel perhaps has more to gain than anyone else from going clean and green. Right now, Israel is almost fully dependent on fossil fuels that pollute the country. Israel still gets its oil from secondary sources, because Arab nations won't sell to Israel directly.

That's just one of the many reasons why Eilat recently hosted clean energy companies from all over Israel. Investors, representatives from global stock exchanges and government agencies from all over the world flew in to see if Israel's clean-tech boom will be as successful as Israel's technology boom.

The fact the conference was in Eilat, on Israel's southern tip along the Red Sea was not an accident. Eilat is within eyesight of the world's largest oil producer, Saudi Arabia. The oil tankers come within a stone's throw of Eilat to deliver fuel to Egypt and Jordan. The Eilat Alternative Energy Conference was a clear shot across Saudi Arabia's bow, an attempt to show the world Israel aims to be a global energy leader—and soon.

Brain Power Creates New Power

While Israel is still almost fully dependent on dirty fuel, largely coal and oil, the country makes up for its massive shortage of natural resources with an abundance of brain power, ingenuity and an entrepreneurial spirit.

The number of Israeli companies specializing in powering the future is too long to mention— more than one hundred were present in Eilat. But a few of the all-stars are setting new standards in solar, wind and bio-energy.

Zenith Solar has a solar farm set up on Kibbutz Yavneh just south of Tel Aviv. They are helping power the kibbutz with electricity; on a good day, the solar dishes are Yavneh's sole provider of hot water. The old boiler system is almost completely obsolete. Zenith is able to harness more of the sun's rays than anyone else, by far. The average solar dish is considered to be about 25% efficient. That means it is able to use about a quarter of the solar energy it captures. But Zenith's dishes hold 80%.

CEO Roy Segev's dream is to see homes throughout California have a Zenith dish in their backyards to power the house and provide hot water. That won't happen for now, in part because of regulations and costs. But, Segev says, "At the rate we are going now in terms of global sales and production, we are getting very close to parody with the cost of traditional sources of energy."

AP

Sovna is a wind-power company that has carried through on a different idea. Instead of setting up wind farms away from population centers, Sovna is putting wind turbines on tall buildings in Tel Aviv. The buildings create wind tunnels. Sovna's devices are installed on the rooftops of skyscrapers, where they capture wind 20 meters above those roofs. That energy is stored, sent back into buildings as a power source, and routed into the national grid to help power the rest of the country. Sovna is also conducting tests on New York City skyscrapers right now.

Seambiotic is a firm started by a British-born, former star attorney in Israel named Daniel Chinn. His company isn't just on the road to making bio-diesel out of algae, it's also found a way to capture and harness exhaust from pollution-causing smokestacks at one of Israel's biggest powerplants in Ashkelon. Seambiotic takes the carbon dioxide waste, funnels it into algae pools, causing the algae to grow faster and stronger. That carbon dioxide allows the company to harvest a new batch of algae every week, while traditional corn-based biofuels can only be harvested once or twice a year. Chinn says, "Within five or ten years we will really be able to drive down the cost of algae-based fuel, and that's really the only thing stopping us right now." This year Seambiotic is building one of the largest algae growing facilities in the world in China.

Aora Solar has set itself up in one of the most desolate parts of the Negev Desert, at Kibbutz Samar. The kibbutz is generally very quiet, the homes look like something in Star Wars on the desert planet of Tatooine. The Chief Operations Manager is Yuval Susskind, a South African immigrant with big goals. His company points hundreds of mirrors towards a fruit shaped shelter suspended 40 yards above the desert floor. You can see it from 30 miles away. It captures the directed sunlight and turns it into power and hot water—perfect for isolated villages and developing nations that have no access to power or an electric grid.

Green Tech - A CNBC Special Report
Green Tech - A CNBC Special Report

Arava Power was founded by an American named Yossi Abramowitz. He and his family moved from Boston to the Negev-based Kibbutz Kettura three years ago. On his first day there, Abramowitz said he opened up the door and felt an enormous amount of heat smacking him in the face. "It was like that burst of hot air you feel on a hot August day in New York City when the subway approaches." Abramowitz added, "I thought this whole area must run on solar power. I asked around, I was shocked to find out there was no industrial solar power, not only at the kibbutz, but in all of southern Israel." It took him two years to get through a mountain of bureaucracy, but he did it. Siemens now owns 40 percent of the company and is investing heavily to make Abramowitz's vision of a solar panel lined Negev a reality.

Goodbye Gasoline, Hello Batteries

Then there's Better Place, headed by former Israeli Deputy Chief of Staff and possible future Chief of Staff, General Moshe Kaplinsky. Better Place is producing battery-operated cars that will have no need for gasoline. Kaplinsky says, "Most of the world's oil comes from places that don't share western values. It is a huge mission to reprogram the way the world drives but it is the right mission for Israel."

The company will start selling cars to the public next year at costs similar to regular gasoline- powered vehicles. Hundreds of Israeli companies have already ordered them for employees. In Israel, unlike the U.S., many companies provide cars for their workers and the gas to operate them.

Better Place was founded by Shai Agassi, who left his job as a top executive at the German software giant SAP to pursue his dream of making battery-operated cars. The company just opened its first operations center at a former fuel depot in Tel Aviv. It is open to the public. Hundreds of Israelis and potential investors come from all over the world to learn more about the idea and to test drive Better Place's cars.

When you drive it, the car itself is very quiet; but when you press the gas pedal the car accelerates as well as any gasoline-powered car. It is not like driving a golf cart. The operations center is as well-produced as any exhibit you'd see at Disney's Epcot Center, complete with Shai's hologram explaining his vision of the future, which hopefully isn't very far away.

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  • Carl Quintanilla is an Emmy-winning reporter and co-anchor of CNBC's "Squawk on the Street," broadcast live from the NYSE.