By SHARON UDASIN 02/23/2012 04:22
OECD findings are front and center at Eilat-Eilot Forum for Renewable Energy Policy workshop.
Hiking the Negev wilderness By Joe Yudin
By establishing a cleantech “cluster” within its bounds, the Negev will simultaneously stimulate regional development as a whole, experts agreed during a workshop at the Eilat-Eilot Forum for Renewable Energy Policy on Wednesday.

The forum, held predominantly at the Eilot Regional Council, precedes the larger annual Eilat-Eilot Renewable Energy Conference to be held this year in November. During various workshops throughout the day, Israeli and international professionals heard statements from industry leaders and brainstormed solutions together on different renewable energy issues.

The Negev workshop was based on a report that an Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development team has been preparing for the past year or so, called Cleantech in the Negev as an Engine for Regional Development, and is still in draft form. The purpose of the workshop was to validate the report’s findings and determine what can be done to further develop the Negev cleantech sector and really create this “engine,” said Avi Feldman, director of regional development division of the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry.

“We want to create in the Negev a cluster or ecosystem that will support activity in this area,” Feldman said.

The results of the OECD findings support the idea of creating a Negev cleantech hub and also provide recommendations as to how to overcome barriers that may stand in the way, explained Jonathan Potter, its chief author, of the OECD Center for SMEs, Entrepreneurship and Local Development.

“We argue that there is potential to develop cleantech activity in the Negev as part of a wider Israel cluster,” Potter said. “It is worth investing in cleantech in the Negev.”

However, while 14 percent of the newest firms created in the Negev are cleantech, industry professionals cannot expect to yield high-volume production from a Negev cleantech cluster, as the land is too limited.

Instead, such a hub should instead focus on demonstration and testing of different renewable energy ideas, according to Potter. Production demand could, nevertheless, occur in certain nearby industries – like chemical plants at Ramat Hovav, a relocated IDF base, and housing and infrastructure in local communities, he said.

The region currently suffers from a highskilled labor force shortage, combined with a perceived-to-be unattractive living environment as well as potential difficulties with transmission capacity, Potter explained.

Another barrier is the fragmentation and “lack of coordination for cleantech policy across the government,” he added.

But by attracting investors, establishing a center with testing facilities for small cleantech firms and strengthening ongoing cleantech research at central regional institutions like Ben-Gurion University, the Negev will likely be able to create and benefit from a successful cluster, according to Potter.

Key to making such a cluster work in the Negev is maintaining its focus as a “test bed” for research and development rather than commercial production, agreed Prof. Philip Cooke, director of the Center for Advanced Studies at the City and Regional Planning School at the University of Wales, Cardiff, and a consultant for the OECD report.

In its ideal form, such a cluster would be managed by a central organization that received some subsidy from the government and would contain office space as well as an incubator building where cleantech entrepreneurs could rent out space for experimentation and development, Cooke told The Jerusalem Post. Most important to building a successful cluster, however, is maintaining variety as to the types of technologies operating within it, he said – such as housing both water purification firms as well as solar companies in the same grounds.

”Don’t fill your basket only with the same colored eggs,” Cooke said. “A successful cluster has a mix of related activities.”

He expressed hopes that the future Eilat- Eilot Cleantech Center, approved in 2010, will become such a place.

“You get certain synergies out of the fact that you have concentration of expertise, some extra efficiency and value and innovativeness,” Cooke said. “You get more mutations when you have more different species in the same place.”