By Zafrir Rinat

More than 50 years after people first began developing solar energy to address energy and environmental problems, Israeli scientist Dr. Zvi Tavor has managed to turn solar energy into a widely available electricity-saving product. Today, when Earth Day is being marked all over the world, the 93-year-old Tavor will receive a special certificate of honor from the Jerusalem municipality for his activities on behalf of the environment, first and foremost his development of a system of solar panels to heat water tanks – a system now found on the roofs of almost all Israeli houses.

Zvi Tavor, why do people in Israel still not know how to utilize solar energy effectively?

“I think that in the near future, there will be no choice and they will have to do so. When the price of a barrel of oil was low, it did not interest anyone. But when the price started rising to $100 a barrel, suddenly everyone understood. After that, the price dropped, and enthusiasm waned again. In my opinion, we have sufficient space in the Negev to develop solar energy, and eventually, we have to think about what our priorities are. Should we grow more oranges or find answers to the energy crisis? We need economists to make the calculations.”

How did you start dealing with the subject?

“When I came to this country, I joined the Prime Minister’s Office, and I was party to the establishment of a scientific council in the ministry and an attempt to set up a laboratory for industrial research. One of my jobs was to answer nudniks who sent letters and asked why we didn’t utilize the sun’s energy more. When you answer a nudnik, you have to be a greater expert than he is, so I started taking an interest in the field. It was clear to me even then that we would need a source of energy of our own, so that we would not just be dependent on outside sources. Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion immediately understood the importance of the matter, and with the assistance of the Rothschild family, he took care of getting a preliminary budget for research.”

The ‘Tavor surface’

What did you ultimately develop, and what were the implications of this development?

“Contrary to what many people think, it was not I who invented solar panels for heating water. They existed even before I began dealing with the subject, but they were very ineffective, because their black surface lost a great deal of energy. What I did was develop a surface, which is also sometimes known as the ‘Tavor surface,’ that loses less energy and makes it possible to double the amount of heat the panel can emit. This became a very popular product, and a few years later, legislation was even enacted that made it mandatory to install these panels.”

To what extent is this accepted practice in other countries, and what are the main environmental advantages of these panels?

“It has spread to other countries, but it took several years. I heard a short while ago that only in the past few years has Egypt started obliging its citizens to install panels. There are countries like Germany that do not get sun like we do, but nevertheless promote this on a national level. It aids in saving electricity, and that is the main advantage. I have one on my roof and when the sun shines, I don’t use electricity. But from my point of view, the main importance is the fact that it helped serve as a basis for developing the idea of utilizing solar energy to generate electricity.”

How did it develop in the direction of generating electricity?

“For many years, it was thought to be impossible to use solar energy for a large-scale power station. But through entities like the Israeli company Luz, large facilities were developed with panels that made it possible to produce electricity not in kilowatts, but in megawatts. They were even assisted by a technician who worked with me. The company set up several large facilities in the United States, in California; this was possible because the Americans had the money to set them up, as well as the space. Today, there is another system of utilizing solar energy for producing electricity, but the advantage of the system I worked on is that it is possible to store the energy and not lose it, and therefore to use it for producing electricity even when there is no sun. It may be a less elegant facility compared to the other system, but it became accepted, and today it is in use in countries like Spain.”

You were also involved in developing a model for the electric car. What became of that project?

“I’m not a transportation expert, but it turns out that one third of the world’s energy is used for this purpose, and the alternative is an electric vehicle. I was optimistic because I was looking for a market for the electricity we could produce from solar energy. Fortunately, Teddy Kollek was director general of the Prime Minister’s Office in the early 1960s, and he supported my idea of setting up a nongovernmental agency to engage in research. And that is how we started to develop a model for an electric car. There were already cars like it at the time, but they were mainly commercial [vehicles]. We tried to develop a model for a private car. We developed one and showed it at an international conference.”

What became of that car?

“I thought people would be lining up to get it, but in rich countries, there was a better alternative at the time in the form of regular vehicles, and in poor countries, there was no money for it. Nobody wanted to invest in the necessary infrastructure. Today, because of the energy crisis, they are prepared to do so, and I certainly respect an entrepreneur like [Shai] Agassi, who is working on this. The model we developed is still in the Ormat company’s museum today, and I heard that they are planning to put it on display.”

Do you believe the human race will indeed base a significant portion of its energy consumption on the sun, and that people will travel in electric cars? Might they not prefer nuclear energy?

“I don’t know the subject of nuclear energy well enough, but I’m not afraid of using this kind of energy. As for solar energy and the electric car, I’m not a prophet, but I think they will have to use it, because of the price of oil and because oil will run out. Of course it’s also beneficial to the environment, and pressure by environmental activists can help.”