MITZPE RAMON, ISRAEL — The Better Place battery switching station, so new it hasn’t even opened yet, is not far from the town of Be’er Sheva in the Negev Desert. The Negev forms Israel’s bottom half, but it has only 10 percent of the country’s population. There are camels, yes, and Bedouins, whose fast-growing population has given birth to what's called here “Bedouin sprawl.”
Better Place is wiring Israel for electric cars, and that automated station in Mitzpe Ramon can replace a depleted battery pack with a fresh one in less than a minute. I saw the process in action in Japan. But Better Place founder Shai Agassi is Israeli, and the country is in the forefront of his ambitious plans to wire the world. Israeli President Shimon Peres is a big supporter. Here's the station, on a video I took:
In Better Place’s model, Israelis will buy the Renault Fluence Z.E. (zero-emission) cars and lease their 22-kilowatt-hour batteries, using both battery swapping and rapid charging to combat the EV’s short range. The Israeli plan is slightly behind schedule, but definitely moving forward. Also in the company’s sights are Denmark, Australia, Japan, China, Canada, Hawaii and San Francisco.
I was in town to visit Ben-Gurion University (BGU) of the Negev, which was founded specifically to foster economic development in the under-populated desert region. BGU has done its part by bringing in 20,000 students and promoting a huge variety of projects, which include saving the Dead Sea, promoting dryland agriculture with genetically engineered drought- and heat-resistant plants, solar and algae biofuel initiatives, and ecotourism opportunities for the Bedouin, who are no longer as nomadic as they once were.
But the Negev, and much of Israel’s land mass, faces geographic challenges. Be’er Sheva is within rocket range of the Gaza Strip, launching pad for countless rocket attacks against the southern cities. We reached Be’er Sheva in the midst of an undeclared war that closed BGU and sent residents into hiding in specially designed safe rooms. After an Israeli strike killed a Palestinian commander who’d reportedly been planning a fresh round of terrorism, Gaza forces sent more than 150 missiles into Israel, hitting fields, a closed school and a chicken coop, among other high-value targets. No Israelis were killed, but more than 25 Palestinians died in exchanges.
Students shouldn’t have to live with air raid signals, but it’s plain that the threat of such attacks is part of going to school in the Negev. That night, we had dinner with American BGU medical students, including Justin Levinson from Los Angeles. Working toward a career in international health, second-year-student Levinson said that studying in Israel “seemed like a fun adventure. And it’s definitely a little bit more of one now.”
BGU is well-prepared, and the campus — with a siren warning system and many shelters — may have been the safest place in town. Life went on, as did the school’s environmental idea factory. We drove past the Ben-Gurion National Solar Center, which includes testing stations that let companies try out their experimental panels under a relentless sun that is almost never obscured by clouds.
Professor Yaakov Garb told us that 70 percent of West Bank Palestinians now have low-cost, low-tech solar heaters that take advantage of that same abundant sunshine. It was an interesting affirmation that some Israeli environmental innovations are welcome on the other side of the border. Garb also led a USAID study that helped ease cross-border Palestinian truck traffic.
Dr. Yodan Rofė of BGU’s Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research took us through Qasr A Sir, population 3,500, a Bedouin village that is one of a handful that are officially recognized by the Israeli government. The town lacked grid electricity but bristled with solar panels and featured an ongoing wind power study. Summer Anderson, a visiting student from Houston working for the indigenous community action group Bustan, showed off the natural mud construction house she was building — and attracting a lot of attention among Bedouin craftsmen.
BGU features schools that study the intractable problem of desertification, and focus on water conservation and growing plants in an inhospitable desert that is one of the driest (and saltiest) places on earth. Despite that, we stopped at Kish Farm, where sculptor Daniel Kish (left) manages to produce an excellent merlot (and up to 5,000 bottles of varied wines) from that same salty soil. Before you ask me if I managed to float in the Dead Sea, let me say that I did indeed, and the salt makes it every bit as buoyant as they say it does.
But the sea is also rapidly evaporating, a phenomenon that is creating a network of huge, crater-like sinkholes along the southern coast. According to professor Noam Weisbrod, a water expert who leads excursions to Africa to install much-needed pumps, the sinkholes are created from tiny lesions when salty water recedes and the fresh water that takes it place erodes a sub-surface salt layer.
Before we left the campus, we had lunch with students from BGU’s huge international community — Turkey, India and Jordan were represented. Amir Swety, a Jordanian pursuing a doctorate in the specialized science of desalination, said that as an Arab studying in Israel, he faced “massive pressure from back home. After the Jerusalem Post wrote an article, the Jordanian media attacked me. People say that Israelis are monsters, that they want to kill Arabs. I myself took part in demonstrations against Israel. It’s difficult when you’ve never met people from the other side, but we have to bridge the gap between us — and science is the best tool for that.” Amen to that, no matter what language you want to say it in.
After three days in and around Be’er Sheva, it didn’t feel much like a war zone anymore. A fragile peace was in effect, broken by occasional rocket fire. We visited the Better Place station, but like the campus it was closed and a guard shooed us away. But Better Place and the projects I saw in the Negev are signs of a green future for the neglected region.
Before saying our goodbyes, we visited the grave of former Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, (right) who saw Israel’s future in the desert. He was buried there in a crafty bid to force visitors to make the southern journey. The tactic seemed to be working, because the afternoon of our visit, the site overlooking Israel’s Zin Canyon (it’s mentioned in Numbers as the site for Moses’ return from the desert) was crowded with tourists from India. A crowd of Nubian ibex, indigenous desert goats, wandered in and out, adding an appropriately exotic touch.