Jewish Entrepreneur Known as ‘Captain Sunshine’ Has Surprising Solution to Power Africa

As the Trump Administration hits the solar industry with tariffs, Josef Abramowitz gives insights into how clean energy has changed over the years — and what drives his work in Africa.

By Josh Shepherd Published on January 28, 2018

On Monday, the Trump Administration announced the U.S. would impose a 30 percent tariff on imported solar panels and washing machines. While some praised the move, many objected. “Tariffs are taxes on families,” said Senator Ben Sasse (R-NE). “You don’t fix eight years of bad energy policy with bad trade policy.”

One longtime Jewish entrepreneur sees this moment as an opportunity. Josef Abramowitz has spent over a decade seeking to develop clean energy solutions that make sense economically. Helping local communities has driven the father of five to give emerging technologies a closer look.

In recent years, his energy firm Gigawatt Global has built solar fields in the U.S. and Africa, with many more in development. A public-private partnership called Power Africa helped pioneer these efforts, which started in the war-torn nation of Rwanda. The Jewish family man began to be called “Captain Sunshine.”

Abramowitz contends the cost of solar energy is now comparable to other forms. Willing to answer tough questions, the Boston native who now lives in Israel spoke with The Stream while visiting Washington, D.C.

Powering Beyond Poverty

The Stream: What is the mission of the Power Africa initiative?

Josef Abramowitz: There has been a debate for decades: What is the best way to lift nations out of poverty? It used to center on foreign aid intervention, both charity and government aid. Those funds saved a lot of lives and helped a lot of people.

But foreign aid hasn’t really been transformative since the Marshall Plan in Europe. The U.S. government, the World Bank and others realized there is actually an unlimited amount of private equity in the world. That’s capital looking to make more money. And there’s only a limited amount of charity and foreign aid that can be given.

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Maybe there’s a different way to help nations lift themselves out of poverty by using whatever limited resources we have to de-risk certain markets. Then the private sector can come in with unlimited funding. That’s the notion behind Power Africa. It’s a leverage play, with a little bit of government dollars to bring in billions in private sector money.

We have to start by looking at jobs, education and health care. Those are the key factors in alleviating poverty. The central element that tends to be missing to advance all of them is electricity. Can you really have good health care without electricity? Can you refrigerate vaccines? Can you really have good education without access to electricity and the internet? And why would you invest in industry when, half the time, there’s not any power coming on to the grid?

We need a new way of thinking about lifting nations out of poverty. Access to energy has a transformative effect on African economies. So that’s what Power Africa is.

The Stream: How has this initiative changed under the Trump Administration?

Abramowitz: We’ve seen bipartisan concern around poverty alleviation. Both Bush presidents were very involved with Africa, such as the trade deal that passed and addressing the AIDS epidemic. President Obama sustained and even increased humanitarian efforts. Under the Trump Administration, it’s evolved.

The word out of the White House is that President Trump has three priorities for Africa. I’ll give you a bit of a scoop from a well-placed source. First, their policies will focus on empowerment of women. That’s very interesting and the right thing to do from a development perspective. Second, it is U.S. jobs. They want to prioritize the inclusion of U.S. hardware, consultants and services.

Third, they want to blunt the spread of Islamic jihadism on the continent. Terrorists are trying to relocate from other places where the U.S. has a strong military footprint. They’re trying to recruit others to do harm. The Africa policy is centered on those three policy directives.

Changing Lives at Home and Abroad

The Stream: This summer will mark the fifth anniversary of Power Africa. Could you share about your first project in Rwanda and the progress since then?  

Abramowitz: They had this notion of leveraging a little bit of money to get a lot of money into electrification. It was a good idea but an unproven concept. The first success under Power Africa is a solar field at the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village.

This village in Rwanda houses orphans who lost parents during the genocide. This is a country that experienced great darkness, as the Jewish people have. It’s built on an Israeli model of youth villages that were set up after the Holocaust to take in orphans. It isn’t just housing; this village has become a place of leadership development.

This 8.5 megawatt solar field in Rwanda is the first one in sub-Sahara Africa. It supplies six percent of the country’s generation capacity. They look to Israel as a model. President Kagame saw that I had put together the team that built the Israeli solar industry. Gigawatt Global is an American-owned Dutch developer, with a research headquarters in Jerusalem. We’re kind of a hybrid.

We need a new way of thinking about lifting nations out of poverty.

The way Power Africa works, we got a grant from the Overseas Private Investment Corporation or OPIC. We got a little bit of European grant money. For every dollar in grant money that we got, we were able to marshal 23 dollars in private sector project finance. That’s great leverage.

It’s supporting an ally of the U.S. and Israel in Africa. We proved it works. Now a lot of people are working in Africa because they’ve seen it can work.

The Stream: You and your wife Rabbi Susan Silverman have adopted two children from Ethiopia. Is there a personal aspect to your work in Africa? 

Abramowitz: We have five kids, two from Africa. Of course, that motivates our work. We are forever blessed from Africa and we want to return the blessing. Adoption has been a life-transforming journey. It expands our consciousness when we understand vulnerability.

One of our children’s birth parents died from AIDS. He was saved through a USAID-funded program in Ethiopia, where pregnant women with AIDS would take a drug so it wouldn’t pass to their children. It was a powerful journey. With our other son, his story starts when he was two weeks old. We don’t know all the details, except that he was born in poverty. Our lives have been forever changed for the better.

We’ll keep giving back as much as we can. As a company, we are coming with a deeper understanding of the challenges of a continent and a deeper commitment to overcome those challenges. We’re willing to take and mitigate risks that other energy companies wouldn’t normally consider.

Answering Criticisms of Solar Energy

The Stream: Many Americans are skeptical of solar power. A number of government-backed solar energy firms went bankrupt over the past decade, notably Solyndra. Where do you see solar as a viable alternative?

Abramowitz: A technology company like Solyndra had some unique issues. The whole premise of the Energy Department’s loan guarantee program had to do with, How do you bring down the cost of solar? The truth is, the Chinese have done it through economies of scale. The price per kilowatt/hour we were hoping new technologies were going to get us to have occurred naturally by market forces.

As to the viability of solar, the future is here today. We just built a solar field in Glynn County, Georgia. It’s 22 megawatts. Forget that it’s solar! We went to Georgia Power, which isn’t an environmental company. We said, Would you like us to provide power at the same price as conventional? They agreed, in a deal not based on government subsidies. We did 100 percent of the financing.

Solar power makes sense economically. You don’t need subsidies for solar and wind, which is why under Trump we’re still going to see a significant increase in renewable energy — because the economics are there. We all save on the air pollution.

The Stream: You mentioned earlier how clinics use refrigerators. Is the power supply constant enough with solar to run refrigeration at night?

Abramowitz: A lot of hospitals in Africa, if they have power, are often using expensive and polluting diesel. The lights often go out during medical operations. Their services are limited to the day.

If you look at individual clinics, they are moving towards power sources that can be charged during the day. That’s happening right now all over the continent. It’s normative. Having solar during the day lowers the electricity bill for a hospital. We’re saving lives through cost savings.

“The Economics Are There”

The Stream: Some policy experts point to how solar power has a low energy density. Solar panels are expensive and must be placed across a large area of land to be effective. How do you respond? 

Abramowitz: Solar panels are not expensive. Well, they just got expensive because the Trump Administration has announced a 30 percent tariff on imported solar panels. We built a solar field in Georgia for the exact same cost as conventional energy. It’s right near the Brunswick Airport.

This notion that solar is expensive, that’s old thinking. The Holy Grail of energy is in our hands. We are at grid parity today between renewables and conventional power. And the cost of renewables is only going down.

Now, it does require some space. In the U.S., there’s plenty of space for solar if the economics are there. We can reduce our kids getting asthma because of pollution. There’s a cost savings there. It’s time to reevaluate the reflexive negativity on this.

The Stream: It’s because American taxpayers have subsidized solar and wind for a long time.

Abramowitz: Subsidies are on the decline! There have been some tax credits along the way, sure. But if you compare the tax credits to those the oil, gas and coal industries have had, the tax credits for solar are a drop in the bucket. We want state and federal governments to be hands-off and let the market run forward.

The economics are now in our favor. We’re only going to save money. The jobs are there, much more so than in oil, coal and gas. With this announcement, we could actually lose 23,000 U.S. jobs in the solar industry.

This notion that solar is expensive, that’s old thinking. The Holy Grail of energy is in our hands.

If you cherish the majesty of God’s creation, of nature and of human life, you have to look at the facts here. The cleaner the energy, the healthier we will be. Who wants to live next to a polluting power plant? Why should our children be breathing in smog? Why should our soil and water be potentially contaminated?

The alternative is actually cheaper. We need to embrace technology and energy as gifts from God.

Faith, Hope and Free Enterprise

The Stream: How does your faith inspire your entrepreneurship? 

Abramowitz: One of the attributes of faith is its relationship to hope. Entrepreneurs have to do things that people have never done before. You need a positive worldview about what could be. I believe the value of hope is something the Jewish people represent in the world.

We’ve been around a long time and have been oppressed throughout history. We returned to our ancestral homeland after 2,000 years of keeping that dream alive. It’s a hallmark of hope. We came back and created a vibrant economy that’s solving so many global challenges — from water to health care to clean energy. We’re part of a story of hope and redemption.

To go and take on big challenges as an entrepreneur, what keeps the juices going during the tough days is faith. We were put on the planet to do something and it better not be boring. And it hasn’t been.

 

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