America is undergoing a quiet clean-energy revolution. Renewable resources such as solar, wind, hydro- and nuclear power produce more than a third of the country’s energy, and this sector is growing at a rate several times faster than the national economy. Many would be surprised to learn that this revolution has its roots in research done in the 1950s in Israel, where home use of solar energy has been the norm for decades. As we seek alternative sources of energy to power our society, policymakers should look to Israel for concrete ideas on utilizing solar-based innovations to reduce our carbon footprint and help average Americans reduce their bills.
Today, nearly every state in the union harnesses the power of the sun. Forty-two states have a total of 1,721 solar-powered electric plants, which produce 1 percent of the country’s energy. Four states in particular have made impressive strides in exploiting the sun: California gets 10 percent of its electricity from solar power, Nevada 6, and Vermont and Arizona 4 each. But much more can be done, and Israel has a successful model which, if implemented throughout the United States, would make a significant impact on the environment and on the average American’s pocketbook.
Humans have looked to the sun for energy needs for about 2,500 years, starting with the Romans, who used glass windows to heat their pools. But solar technology made almost no progress until about the mid-nineteenth century, when people – primarily in the United States – began using metal tanks to heat water. By the afternoon, these tanks had enough hot water to make a warm shower possible, but by night, the water would cool since there was no insulation.
It was an Israeli scientist who figured out how to harness the sun’s rays and convert them into usable energy. Harry Zvi Tabor transformed how humans utilize energy and will be remembered as the father of solar power.
In 1949 Tabor, a young physicist, immigrated to Israel from Great Britain. As the first director of Israel’s National Physics Laboratory, he started thinking about research and development possibilities. Solar energy, he decided, was a good place to start. “In a country with no raw materials and no fuel, the sun was an obvious thing,” says Tabor. “But it wasn’t obvious to anybody else. At that time, harnessing solar energy generally was considered an activity of cranks.”
Tabor knew the only substance that could capture and maintain a considerable amount of heat was polished metal, but the devices on the market used only ordinary metal. Tabor’s solution was to blacken the metal without destroying the properties that allow it to retain heat. With a bit of luck and hard work, he discovered which coatings would yield the desired result.
In 1955, Tabor and his team created a device to heat water using the sun’s rays and immediately realized that it was twice as efficient as anything created before. Their innovation produced more hot water than any previous devices and gave the solar water heater the potential to produce electricity in significant quantities using a small turbine. This became the Tabor Selective Surface, or in Hebrew, dud shemesh, a metal drum connected to two solar panels.
In 1976 the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, passed a law requiring every building constructed after 1980 to have solar water collectors. About 90 percent of all Israeli households use Tabor’s invention, and many buildings in Israel are powered entirely by solar energy. The law has saved Israel and its citizens billions of shekels in energy costs.
The Knesset’s research center estimates that the dud shemesh saves Israel 8 percent annually on energy consumption and has provided an affordable source of hot water for generations of Israelis.
Today, Tabor’s selective surface can be found everywhere. According to the International Energy Agency, solar water collectors are used by millions of people in 61 countries – including Australia, Barbados, Cyprus, China and nations throughout Africa.
Governments around the globe are taking notice and increasingly providing incentives for harnessing solar energy. As the number of droughts, storms, heat waves, rising sea levels, melting glaciers and warming oceans increases, global demand for Tabor’s innovation will increase as well.
In 2014, Congress passed the Strategic Partnership Act, landmark legislation that declared Israel a major strategic partner and laid the groundwork for cooperation in a wide variety of spheres, including energy, water, agriculture and alterative fuel technologies. U.S. energy executives and elected officials should leverage this legislation to help proliferate Tabor’s innovation throughout the United States. There are countless Israeli innovations, including the solar water collector, which can help America reduce its dependence on fossil fuels and reduce energy bills. As the U.S looks to solve 21st-century challenges, Israel can help it find practical solutions that benefit every American.
Avi Jorisch is the author of Thou Shalt Innovate: How Israeli Ingenuity Repairs the World (Gefen Publishing). He is also a Senior Fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council and The Israel Project