Arnold Goldman, (1943-2017) who died in June, has a fair claim to be called the father of the global solar energy industry. He was also an extraordinary creative thinker, deeply influenced by kabbalah. Vast solar thermal plants around the world bear witness to Arnold’s technological achievements, but his books of thought, photocopied and circulated among friends and family were never published, though Arnold had very much hoped that at least one would be before he died.
His thinking seems to me to contain little known insights (which Arnold thought were completely obvious) that are crucial to understanding and confronting our intertwined energy, ecological and economic crisis (as well as stuff so wild that, had Arnold not been so smart, I would have immediately dismissed, and plenty that I just never understood.)
A few years ago, I wrote the piece below, trying to make sense of his life and a little bit of his thought, but never published it, partly because I knew that Arnold planned to speak for himself. Now that he no longer can, it seems right to put it out.
Arnold reviewed the piece not long before he died and confirmed that it accurately represented a part of his thinking.
Here is a taste and then the full article.
“As Goldman sees it, the basic choice we must make about our energy sources is this: do we use sunlight as fossil or as flow? Either way, our energy comes from the sun. But how we choose to capture and utilize sunlight has enormous economic, ecological, geo-political and spiritual consequences for our world.
If we choose fossil, we will continue to derive energy from finite stocks of billion-year-old sunlight buried underground, “hauling stuff out of the ground and burning it,” in Goldman’s words. We will continue to cut ourselves off from an awareness of our connection to the infinite flow. We will continue to encourage regimes that happen to be sitting on top of these stocks to concentrate vast wealth in a few hands, while abusing their populations and neglecting to develop their human potential. We will continue to fight bloody wars over the right to control the land beneath which the dwindling supplies of fossilized sun are stored. And we will continue to actively cause global climate change.
The alternative is to go with flow, investing in the development of the sophisticated technologies and learning organizations that can harness an inexhaustible plenitude of sunlight and the related, sun-driven, natural processes of wind and waves. We will have energy that is essentially free, widely distributed, inherently democratic, energy that promotes consciousness of our interconnectedness with all of life and doesn’t wreck the planet…
“We now need what I call ‘energy for life,’ (Goldman said.) “We must recognize the profound connections between the content of the fuel we use and the quality of the lives we lead. We urgently need to convince policy makers of this connection.”
In the beginning, there was energy.
When we are trying to understand our interconnected ecological and economic crises, energy is fundamental. Energy – lots of it – is the essential input for our systems of food and transportation, for our farms and homes, cities and industries. And we’re realizing that there’s something very problematic about the energy we’ve been using. Because the cheap fossil fuels, reservoirs of billion-year old sunlight that have powered the spectacular economic development of the past 200 years, turn out to also have some rather spectacular drawbacks: they are finite; they have an inconvenient tendency to be buried under the land of people who don’t like us; and they aren’t so cheap any more, either. Moreover, we have learned that combusting fossil fuels is melting glaciers, raising sea levels, exacerbating droughts and making storms more destructive.
Why have these unfortunate properties coalesced, and how can we conceptualize energy in a way that might enable us to understand and reverse these interlinked phenomena? On June 12th, 2008, I made a trip to the Negev Desert in Israel, a journey that took me to the outer limits of human technological ingenuity, beyond the limits of my spiritual worldview and began to answer these questions.
The Negev is just about as far off the beaten track as you can be in Israel. Setting out from Jerusalem for the Negev, you soon leave the lushly irrigated banana fields of the country’s central plain and find yourself in rust-colored scrub land dotted with cacti and eucalyptus. Skirt around the city of Beersheva, take the undulating country road heading East, and the desert opens up before you with its soaring ridges of striated sandstone mountains. Drive a little further, and you’ll catch a glimpse of the sparkling, spherical dome at Dimona that is rumored to house Israel’s not-officially-there nuclear reactor. It’s an iconic structure in its way, emblazoned on scores of Sunday supplement exposés over the decades. These days, however, it’s looking distinctly retro, like the centerpiece of a moon city from some 1950s sci-fi movie.
But on this June day, the destination the sleek tour bus that left Jerusalem early this morning with my friend Michael Kagan and myself on board, is not the energy of the past, but of the future. So we veer off the main road a couple of miles before Dimona and instead enter the Rotem renewable power research park. At the far end of the park, we round a sandstone escarpment – and before us is spread a shimmering field of some 1,600 flat, square mirrors geometrically arrayed around a 60-meter-high tower. Perched on the tower is a boiler that’s another 15 meters tall. Each side of the boiler bears a pattern of five fat white dots laid out as on the face of a die.
We have come to witness an epoch-making event; the inauguration of a test plant built by Luz2, one of the world’s leading solar energy companies. This mirror array embodies the most advanced solar thermal technology on the planet.
While I take in the austere scenery, Michael breathlessly explains how the mirrors, are individually programmed to track the movements of the blazing desert sun. Each one concentrates maximum intensities of reflected sunlight at precisely designated spots on the boiler surface. The white dots are there to help calibrate the focusing system. This targeted solar energy heats water in the pipes to temperatures of over 500° C, generating steam that drives turbines which in turn produce electricity.
Our bus comes to a stop at the perimeter of the field of mirrors, and we dismount into the brutal desert heat. It’s only eleven in the morning and the temperature is already over ninety in the shade. Michael, who’s given to waxing lyrical about technology, is now comparing the mirrors to “heliotropic sunflowers pointing towards the sun at exactly the correct angle… absolutely magnificent.” We head towards a white marquee in search of shade and some cold water.
The marquee has been put up for the inauguration of Luz2’s revolutionary technology, and the crowd that has assembled in it looks more like the guests at an Israeli wedding than employees and investors in a hi-tech company. They wear Chinos and open-necked shirts (which is what people wear to Israeli weddings) and are schmoozing over champagne and platters of kiwi, watermelon and passion fruit. Some greet long lost friends with bear hugs and bellows of delight. Others check in with their offices in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem on their BlackBerries, while waving with their free hand at arriving friends and colleagues. Many of the Luz staff have brought their children and even grandchildren, so there are joyful, chocolate-smeared kids everywhere, balancing plates piled high with mousse and profiteroles. The whole event feels like an exuberant, extended family celebration.
Instead of messages from absent relatives, though, there are video greetings from a string of Silicon Valley venture capitalists and blue chip corporations including Google and BP, who have so far invested US$160m in Luz2. These are followed by a ringing endorsement from the CEO of Pacific Gas and Electricity, a California utility that has just placed a 900MW deal with the company, enough to power a small city. It is the largest contract ever signed for the supply of solar energy anywhere in the world. The family members listen amiably, applaud and go back to schmoozing with old friends.
Luz2 logistics staff sporting bright yellow t-shirts mingle with the guests. Their shirts bear the iconic silhouette of the Blues Brothers in black trilby hats and sunglasses. Underneath is a triumphant announcement: “The Luz Brothers are back!” This might appear to be no more than a cute pop culture reference but, in fact, the story behind the founding of Luz2 does bear a striking resemblance to the plot of the R&B cult classic. Jake and Elwood Blue’s mission to reconstitute their once-great band is the aptest metaphor for the remarkable rebirth of Luz fifteen years after the failure of the company’s first incarnation.
The legendary Luz International Corporation was founded by Arnold Goldman in 1980, with headquarters in Jerusalem and Oakland, CA. By the late 1980s, Luz was the undisputed world leader in solar energy production. It was the first company to prove that solar energy could be generated commercially on a scale that would supply the needs of major utility providers. In 1989, the Luz plants in California’s Mojave Desert produced no less than 90% of the solar energy generated on the planet. Between 1984 and 1990, Goldman’s company installed 340 MW of Solar Electrical Generating Systems (SEGS) at nine locations in Southern California. In ten years of operation, Luz drove down the price of solar energy from 24 cents per KWh to just eight in the final system that went into production, and six for systems on the drawing boards. These spectacular efficiency gains were of an order that was more characteristic of the semiconductor industry than of a business in which the deliverables were steel, glass and construction equipment. Almost twenty years before Google announced the goal of achieving RE<C (renewable energy that is cheaper than coal), Goldman believed that the holy grail of price parity between renewable and fossil energy sources was well within Luz’s grasp.
But with oil prices having reached an all-time low of US$17 per barrel, fossil fuels were cheap and seemingly inexhaustible. Governments saw no need to nurture alternative energy sources any longer. (Most, it could be argued, had never seen the need in the first place.) In 1991, the Governor of California overruled a 90% majority vote in the California State Assembly and elected not to renew the land tax exemption on Luz’s solar energy fields, leading to large cost overruns in the construction of the company’s ninth plant. Luz collapsed; its team dispersed. The original nine SEGS continue to produce significant amounts of solar energy in Southern California to this day. In their quiet, continuing effectiveness, they are a utopian counterpoint to the oil- and coal-favoring energy policies of successive American administrations.
Outwardly, Arnold Goldman moved on from Luz. He set up a high-tech consulting business, dabbled in medical technology, and in 1998 co-founded another company, InSyst Ltd, which developed systems for automating complex semi-conductor production processes. Yet privately he admits that he was thinking and writing about Luz almost constantly in the years after its collapse, endeavoring to analyze and learn from the company’s failure. For Goldman, Luz had never been just a clean technology business; it was his life’s work, and it was inspired directly by his spiritual beliefs. And in mid-2004, when climate change was becoming a serious concern and a renewed call went out for technologies to save the planet, he was convinced the time had come to put the company back together again.
Goldman had no office, no money, and no infrastructure. His first meetings, with some of Jerusalem’s leading engineers and inventors, took place in hotel lobbies, and then at his home in the South Jerusalem suburb of Talpiyot. There, they hammered out the blueprint for a new kind of solar generating plant.
Michael Kagan was part of the original team and described one of their early eureka moments: “Arnold was adamant that he wasn’t going to set up a new company just to do the same old thing over again. There had to be some quantum improvement in the technology to make it worthwhile. The original Luz generating process was based on parabolic trough mirrors that received sunlight and focused it on long pipelines filled with oil. The oil was then pumped several kilometers to a boiler where it drove a turbine and produced electricity. We knew that there was a lot of energy lost in that process. After months of brainstorming in Arnold’s basement, we hit on the idea of using flat heliostat mirrors that tracked the sun and reflected its light on to a single point. This had the dual advantages of cutting the cost of making the mirrors, and also allowing distributed power generation. With the sunlight from each mirror field focused on a single point at the top of a tower, we no longer needed to pump super-heated liquids to a central boiler; instead we could generate electricity at the place where the solar energy was collected. When we did the math, we found that we had a technology that could double the solar to electrical efficiency of the competing solar thermal companies.”
With that breakthrough in hand, Goldman went to see Yisrael Kroizer, a brilliant engineer and production manager who had been Chief Operating Officer of Luz back in the 80s. He had his own consulting company by then and was doing very well indeed. He showed Kroizer the plans. Kroizer took a pen and paper and, with mounting excitement, worked through the calculations for himself. Then Goldman looked him in the eye and said: “Yisrael, we need you. We’re putting the company back together.” Kroizer left his new firm and rejoined Luz. He went on to play a central role in designing the next big advance in the company’s approach, known as Super Critical Steam and UltraSuper Critical Steam turbine technology. As Goldman later described the development process, “we came up with a lot of different concepts and patents on the way to market. The real story here is that we didn’t let ourselves get stuck, intellectually or ego-wise in any one technological model. The learning curve is the key thing, rather than buy-in to a particular approach.”
After Yisrael Kroizer came on board, more than twenty other key staff from the original Luz team joined up. Says Kagan: “In the fast-moving world of Israeli high-tech startups, people don’t go back to what they were doing two decades ago. It’s unheard of. But this was different. People simply felt that working at Luz had been the most meaningful time of their careers.” So if, that morning in the Negev, the families of Luz2’s employees in the marquee were acting as if they had known one another for half a lifetime or more, that was because many of them actually had.
With the video greetings over, Arnold Goldman himself takes the stage. A slight, trim figure with a neat white Dutch-style beard, he pats the head of a stray grandchild streaking past and makes a short and self-effacing speech. He thanks Luz’s employees for their astonishing achievement in designing and building this demonstration plant just 18 months after the company was reestablished. He acknowledges the extraordinary faith that the company’s investors, partners and customers have shown in such a new startup. Then he hints at what it is that makes Luz so remarkable. “I feel it’s significant,” Goldman reflects, “that the name of the alternative energy research park that houses our plant is Rotem. Now rotem in Hebrew is a kind of bush that grows in the desert. But we know that siach, another name for a bush, also means ‘conversation.’ I think that, in a real sense, the wonderful conversations that went into creating this technology inhere in the mirrors, the boilers and tower of the plant that stands outside the tent.” Goldman sits down to affectionate applause. The PA system begins to play the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun,” and a sumptuous selection of desserts is served.
Goldman’s Rotem comment was much more than a not entirely successful attempt at a pun by an occasional public speaker; it was alluding to a Kabbalistic theory of language in which words are the creative power of the universe and the very stuff of reality is formed from combinations of Hebrew letters. Kabbalistic thought is all over the blueprints for both incarnations of Luz: a couple of Jerusalem’s leading Kabbalists were retained by the original Luz in order to help the engineers and physicists solve technical problems; and before establishing Luz, Goldman had written two dense and detailed books of Jewish thought (photocopied and circulated to a few dozen friends and contacts) that set out the metaphysical and mystical propositions that he hoped to verify through the company’s work. Although much of Goldman’s thinking is couched in the arcane categories of Kabbalah, it contains profound and universally relevant messages about the significance of renewable energy – and, more importantly still, it really works.
The genesis of Luz goes back to 1969, when Goldman co-founded Lexitron, a California-based company that went on to produce the world’s first word-processing technology. The experience left him with an abiding fascination for language. In 1977 he moved with his family to Jerusalem, envisaging that he would take a sabbatical from business and write a book integrating the scientific, philosophical and linguistic insights that he had gleaned from his first company.
The document that emerged was “A Working Paper for Project Luz.” In it, Goldman posited a vision of our interconnectedness with all existence in which human beings are co-partners in the evolution of creation. His point of departure was the Kabbalistic concept of tzimtzum, or withdrawal. According to Kabbalah, in the beginning, there was only undifferentiated light, which filled all space. In the first act of creation, God “withdrew” and limited His self, producing a sphere of emptiness in which the universe could be formed, and human beings would have freedom to act. Creation is thus unfinished business. Our role is to be partners in that unfolding journey towards perfection. In Goldman’s words, “the Universe in which we live is dynamic, and in the process of completing its creation. We are active agents in the achievement of this process.” Yet most industrial technologies obscure this central fact of human existence. As Goldman put it: “It is difficult to see our role. The difficulty stems not from the subtlety of the relationship between our acts and the creative processes of the Universe, but rather from the strange way we have of isolating our handiwork from its overall organic context….we fail to view the automobile or telephone as an integral part of an organic system.”
“Project Luz” set out the theoretical and practical basis for a community based on technology which can weave humanity back into the fabric of the created world. It is the work of a formidable autodidact. It is also, in parts, all but incomprehensible. The diverse and uniquely personal assemblage of sources and subject matter means that there probably aren’t more than a handful of people who have read and grasped the whole book. (I confess to having skimmed over a fifty page excursus on how one might design an experiment that could empirically verify the reality of free will – the most important emergent property, in Goldman’s view – based on the famous Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen test.) One chapter explored the ontology of emergent properties, “barotes” in Goldman’s coinage – characteristics that inhere in complex forms of organization but are not present in its component parts. Another section posited and began to develop an alternative arithmetic that can do justice to our everyday sense of how these barotes emerge from simple elements: “We see daily that one and one is not really two…one mother, one father and one child, under the right conditions make one family.”
But in spite of all the hermetic obscurities, when “Project Luz” came to spell out the real-world consequences of his metaphysical speculations, Goldman’s vision was clear and compelling. He dreamed of creating an ideal community called Luz, whose members would be enabled to live their daily lives in a way that maximized their freedom and their consciousness of taking part in the ongoing evolution of the universe. This would require the creation of homes, businesses, schools and communities that would allow a human being to experience his interconnectedness with the world “with his eyes, with his hands, with ears, nose and mouth, as an observer and as a participant in changing the world around him to meet his needs.” Energy was one area in which Goldman felt that humans were particularly cut off from an appreciation of their connection to natural processes: “The myriad of political entities, drilling and mining companies, distribution companies and volumes of rules and regulations governing the production of fossil fuels makes it impossible for its recipient to comprehend the causal process, much less exercise any control over his situation.”
To overcome this alienation from the sources of energy that power our lives, Goldman envisaged that every home and public building in Luz would derive its heat and light from solar panels, “so one can see at a glance the causal connection between incident sunlight and the energy being produced for his use.” He also projected that Luz’s major industry would be a solar power corporation producing equipment for commercial and industrial customers. For Goldman, solar was the energy source that could create the greatest awareness of our embeddedness in the universe.
The utopian community of Luz never saw the light of day. But Luz, the solar energy company, did. As Goldman recalls when I meet him in his Jerusalem office a few weeks after the event in the Negev Desert: “When I went around trying to drum up interest in Project Luz, people with no money became very excited, while the guys who had money all fell asleep. But when I started talking about solar energy, the money people suddenly shook themselves awake. It was 1980, the time of the second big oil price spike, and they sensed an opportunity for alternative fuels. So a couple of those guys invested, and Luz, the company, was born.”
Occupying one wall of Goldman’s office is a white board covered with intricate flow charts and equations. Goldman animatedly explains to me the next big breakthrough in solar energy design that they represent. “We’re developing very special materials that would allow us to reach steam temperature and pressures, never before attained in power generation. If they are attainable we would even exceed our system efficiency goals.” On the opposite side of the room is a framed painting of Jacob, dreaming of angels, ascending on a ladder to heaven, and I am struck by the seamless integration of the spiritual and the technological on view. Goldman took the name “Luz” from the Biblical site of Jacob’s dream described in Genesis, chapter 28:
And he dreamed, and behold, a ladder was resting on the ground and its top reached to Heaven, and angels of God were ascending and descending upon it…and Jacob called the name of the place Beth El, though the town had been called Luz previously.
As he wrote of his formidable ambition for Luz in his first book, “I felt that I shared Jacob’s dream and was in my own way attempting to connect the Heaven and the Earth.”
Next to the painting of Jacob is a painting of the Hebrew letter aleph, calligraphed in luminescent shades of crimson and gold. The aleph (א) was a figure adopted by both the nineteenth century mathematician Cantor and by Jewish Kabbalists as a symbol of infinity.
Endorsed by celebrities such as Madonna, Demi Moore and Britney Spears, there has been a renewed interest, both popular and scholarly in the mystical tradition of the Kabbalah during recent years. In written form, Kabbalah dates back to the Sefer Yezirah, the “Book of Creation” that appeared around the year 400. Tradition, however, avers that the ideas in the Sefer Yezirah were conceived some 2,000 years earlier by the Patriarch Abraham, in the desert around the site where Luz2’s solar plant stands today. Jewish mystical teachings were passed down by word of mouth among small circles of initiates until the appearance of the classic text of Kabbalah, the Zohar, in Spain late in the thirteenth century. Three centuries later, the Zohar’s teachings were brilliantly systematized by the “Ari,” the “Great Lion,” Rabbi Yitzhak Luria (1534-72), who lived in Safed, a small town in the Galilee.
Within the Jewish mystical tradition, light is a key concept. Genesis Chapter 1 teaches that light was the first thing that God made. For the mystics, it serves as a metaphor for the influx of love and blessing that flows continuously into the Universe from the Infinite Source of life. In the Kabbalistic interpretation of Genesis 1, divine plenitude, both spiritual and material, constantly pours down on creation. According to the myth of creation formulated by the Ari of Safed, the Endless Light that originally poured into the universe was so overwhelmingly powerful that it shattered the “vessels” of creation that were unable to contain it, showering sparks of divine light everywhere.
The word Kabbalah itself means “receiving.” In the Kabbalists’ view, we pursue ethical and spiritual perfection in order to make ourselves into a vessel that can receive, hold and focus at least a small amount of the goodness of divine light. This can take many years of discipline and inner work. The contemporary Kabbalah teacher Rabbi David Aaron recounts how he first learned this lesson at the outset of his spiritual journey in a packed public class given by one of Jerusalem’s great Kabbalistic masters:
“He was quite old and had a long white beard and bright blue, penetrating eyes. He spoke in a soft voice with a thick accent. Then he held out an apple in his hand and dramatically raised it before me, dangling it by its stem. This great man wanted to give me an apple? I had no idea what this was all about. I reached to take the apple. But the whole crowd shouted, “No.” I became flustered and withdrew my hand. He offered the apple again, and again I tried to take it. Again the crowd yelled, “No!” Then I saw that people were motioning for me to cup my hand and hold it beneath the apple. I did so. The great Kabbalist smiled, and dropped the apple into my hand….It took years before I realized what all that meant…when you are offered a gift, do not take it; instead, make of yourself a space that can receive it.”
This image of making spaces that can receive infinite light was, Goldman says, consciously in his mind when he designed the original Luz technology: parabolic trough mirrors receive sunlight and focus it on long pipelines filled with oil. “Think about it,” he tells me. “Every two hours, enough sunlight falls on the earth’s surface to power all of human civilization for a whole year. At current rates of efficiency, a square of land a little over 200 miles on each side could produce enough electricity to power the entire United States. Solar energy is clean, abundant, essentially free once the technology is in place and, for human purposes, endless. Yet today, solar accounts for less than 1% of global energy use.”
The problem with solar, and indeed with other renewables, has been how to capture the comparatively tiny amount of energy that humans need in an efficient, cost-effective and usable form. In the way that Goldman conceptualizes his technology, there is a close parallel between the Kabbalists’ notion of our spiritual lives and the challenge of producing solar power: for the Kabbalists, the human task is to refine ourselves into vessels of flesh and spirit that can receive and channel a little of the infinite, divine light that is constantly being poured into the world; so, too, for the engineers of solar power, the task is to create vessels of silicon, steel and glass that are sophisticated enough to receive, channel and store just a fraction of the virtually endless flow of energy that daily pours down on the earth from the sun.
There are moments in our conversation when Goldman’s integration of technology and mysticism stretches credibility. At one point he remarks: “One of the Luz plants that’s still in operation in the US, at Kramer Junction in California, produced extraordinary results for the incidence of solar radiation falling on the site. We have year-on-year NASA data showing that over the past twenty years that plant has enjoyed the second highest intensity of sunlight of any place on the planet, a marked increase on the previous period.” And then in exactly the same quiet, unassuming way he adds: “You know, the people that built that plant really loved the work, more than any other construction team I’ve worked with. I really believe that their love is what drew down those exceptional levels of sunlight to the place. I’d like to find a way to test that sort of thing empirically.”
One lesson that Goldman learned from both the initial success and the eventual failure of Luz’s first iteration is that the conversations which go into creating solar energy needed to be far more complex and sophisticated than those in the fossil fuel business. As he puts it to me: “In solar everything is multi-disciplinary; material science guys need to talk to software people, semiconductor types have to converse with electrical engineers. Reaching the levels of efficiency that are needed is all about the quality of the dialogue within the team.”
The first Luz formed a network of highly creative and effective working relationships. “It was a unique work environment,” Goldman recalls. “Although the ideal community of Luz never got off the ground, I believe that through the company we did succeed in actualizing some of those values from the Working Paper about maximizing people’s creative freedom and autonomy. Nobody was ever fired from Luz for making a mistake. Mistakes were opportunities for learning and growth. We also had onsite Tai Chi, Yoga and Kabbalah classes, long before such things became fashionable in the high-tech world. I wanted the company to be a place not just to earn a living, but also a locus for personal and spiritual growth.”
A leading Kabbalist was hired as a consultant. He later wrote a short pamphlet entitled “The Kabbalah of Management,” which related the mystical concept of tzimtzum, withdrawal, to the ideal management style. Rabbi Gedaliah Fleer, another Kabbalah teacher, who was retained by Luz in the early 1980s remarked to me in his tiny, book-stuffed apartment, hidden high above the winding stone alleyways of Jerusalem’s Nachlaot neighborhood, “that booklet emerged from observation of Arnold’s highly unusual management approach. He was able to combine firm leadership with a remarkable capacity to make room for other people’s creative autonomy.”
As Goldman himself put it to me, “I would say that my contribution is to have shaped a wish into a plan. The fact that the wish is now practical allows others with deeper and broader technical and other skills to shape the plan and move it further and better than I am able to.”
In the years after Luz failed, Goldman realized that it had not been sufficient to create a unique learning culture inside his organization; the conversation somehow had to extend beyond the company, too. “There’s a whole set of assumptions, policies, and subsidies in place that today supports fossil fuels. It’s not a level playing field out there. I realized that in the first company I didn’t engage enough in those broader conversations.”
This realization drove Goldman to write a second book in 2002. “Moving Jewish Thought to the Centre of Modern Science” is a reformulation of his theories informed by the Luz experience. The book is predicated on another fundamental idea of Kabbalah. The Bible teaches that the world was made through the power of Divine speech. The Jewish mystics interpret this to mean that the words and letters of the Hebrew alphabet are the essential creative force of the universe. For Goldman, “the fact that the …forces of Creation are described and moved by letter, word and number, allows human beings, and other conscious beings with free will, to participate in the activity of guiding and moving Creation.”
This assumption led Goldman into Kabbalah-inspired interpretations of words. One such analysis compares the Hebrew word for sun, “shemesh”, with the word for oil, “shemen.” A comparison between the different final consonants in the two words reveals that “shemen…is connected directly through the Source, and thus requires significantly less effort and know-how than does shemesh…to connect with the Source of creation.” Goldman explained the idea to me in more down-to-earth terms: “Sure, there is some good technology in the oil drilling business, but compared with the technological and conversational sophistication that you need to do solar right, simply hauling stuff out of the ground and burning it is a whole lot easier.”
Goldman is a good enough businessman to know that his studies in the mystical semantics of the Hebrew alphabet are not going to move many people into the market for solar power. Yet he believes passionately that his Kabbalah-derived insights into the spiritual and cultural significance of making energy from the sun are universally relevant. Solar energy has the power to make us aware of our unfolding interdependence with creation. It connects humanity to a virtually infinite source of energy that pours down equally on each of us, and it is developed through complex, multi-leveled conversations, rather than through asserting exclusive ownership over an oil-rich patch of land. “I don’t give many speeches,” Goldman admits shyly, “but in the few that I do give, I emphasize these democratic, egalitarian aspects of solar power.”
Even for somebody who doesn’t share the spiritual underpinnings of Goldman’s approach, it is hard to deny the success of the cutting-edge technologies he has developed over the last three decades. Moreover, Goldman’s thinking harmonizes remarkably well with insights that have emerged in the past few years about why we urgently need to switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources.
First and foremost, of course, is the propensity of oil, gas and coal to wreck the biosphere if burned in large quantities. Combustion of fossil fuels emits greenhouse gases. An overwhelming consensus of scientists implicates these emissions in the onset of global climate change, with the potentially catastrophic consequences that we have already begun to see.
Their second problematic property is that oil, gas and coal are finite. This oil scarcity is exacerbated by the explosive growth of the global middle class, which is already placing great pressure on the earth’s dwindling supplies of non-renewable fuels. America invented the high-consumption, fossil-fuel-based lifestyle and exported it to the world. Now billions of aspiring Americans in China, India, the Far East and Eastern Europe understandably want a piece of it.
The third problem with fossil fuel reserves is their inordinate tendency to be located under the land of oppressive regimes hostile to the Western nations that are their principal customers. This awkward fact of political geology is a recipe for war and global instability; having fought three Middle Eastern wars since 1991, at the cost of thousands of lives and trillions of dollars, the US is at last finding that the geopolitical foolishness of relying on oil from the gulf has become too egregious to avoid.
Commentators like Thomas Friedman tend to treat this convergence of damaging properties as more or less a succession of unfortunate coincidences (or fortunate ones, if they are trying to build a convincing case against a continued reliance on oil). By contrast, Arnold Goldman’s religiously inspired perspective integrates these phenomena into a coherent ethical vision: for him, the negative consequences of fossil-fuel use are not merely a random combination of nasty accidents, but instead follow from a profound misunderstanding of the nature of energy itself.
As Goldman sees it, the basic choice we must make about our energy sources is this: do we use sunlight as fossil or as flow? Either way, our energy comes from the sun. But how we choose to capture and utilize sunlight has enormous economic, ecological, geo-political and spiritual consequences for our world. If we choose fossil, we will continue to derive energy from finite stocks of billion-year-old sunlight buried underground, “hauling stuff out of the ground and burning it,” in Goldman’s words. We will continue to cut ourselves off from an awareness of our connection to the infinite flow. We will continue to encourage regimes that happen to be sitting on top of these stocks to concentrate vast wealth in a few hands, while abusing their populations and neglecting to develop their human potential. We will continue to fight bloody wars over the right to control the land beneath which the dwindling supplies of fossilized sun are stored. And we will continue to actively cause global climate change. The alternative is to go with flow, investing in the development of the sophisticated technologies and learning organizations that can harness an inexhaustible plenitude of sunlight and the related, sun-driven, natural processes of wind and waves. We will have energy that is essentially free, widely distributed, inherently democratic, energy that promotes consciousness of our interconnectedness with all of life and doesn’t wreck the planet.
When I next run into Arnold Goldman, it’s in the Red Sea resort of Eilat at the opening of the Eilat-Eilot Renewable Energy Conference in February 2009. The meeting is a three-day jamboree of scientists, entrepreneurs, overseas investors, government ministers and policy makers who have convened to promote and celebrate the Israeli alternative energy scene. The industry has burgeoned spectacularly in the six months since Goldman and I last met. Best known for its dolphins and scuba diving, Eilat is poised to become Israel’s first solar-powered city. Luz2, now renamed Brightsource Israel has just agreed with Southern California Edison that it will build solar plants supplying 1.3GW of electricity (a deal exceeding by almost 50% the previous record-setting contract with Pacific Gas and Electricity I’d learned about during the ceremony in the Negev). Driving through the desert once again early that morning, we had passed a dozen kibbutzim, collective farms that have re-zoned their agricultural fields (long left fallow due to Israel’s deepening water crisis) in order to plant panels that will harvest energy from the sun.
As the elder statesman of Israeli solar energy, Goldman chairs and introduces the conference’s opening panel on “vision.” “We now need what I call ‘energy for life,’” he tells the thousand-strong audience of renewable energy industry leaders. “We must recognize the profound connections between the content of the fuel we use and the quality of the lives we lead. We urgently need to convince policy makers of this connection. We must be the prophets of these new industries… May they help bring prosperity and peace for all peoples.” Goldman concludes with the traditional Jewish toast: ”L’Chaim – to life!”
For Goldman, all electrons are not created equal; the type of energy we use is, far from being merely a technical or an economic issue is fundamentally bound up with the kind of life we want to lead. Energy is essential to all life processes. It is the lifeblood of our economies and civilizations. And it is provided for us free and in practically infinite amounts by natural processes that originate in sunlight. The type of energy we choose, whether fossil or flow, has profound implications for our values and our vision of the world.
We are being challenged to make a spiritual choice: will our energy sources continue to obscure our inescapable interconnectedness with the rest of nature, or will they demonstrate that we share a common power supply with all of life? Will they be an ever-growing cause of conflict or will they reach across borders and promote peace? Will they be concentrated in a few hands or accessible to all who need them? Will they reflect scarcity, greed and fear, or the flow of inexhaustible abundance?