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The Jerusalem Post: Business and Innovation

There is something new under the sun

 
 OFER YANNAY: ‘Entrepreneurs are the key. The biggest things in the world today are managed by entrepreneurs and not by politicians.’  (photo credit: ALONI MOR)
OFER YANNAY: ‘Entrepreneurs are the key. The biggest things in the world today are managed by entrepreneurs and not by politicians.’
(photo credit: ALONI MOR)

An interview with Ofer Yannay, chairman and founder of Nofar Energy.

‘Everyone disregards the power of consistent optimism,” says Ofer Yannay, founder and chairman of Nofar Energy, one of the largest commercial and industrial solar companies in the world. Yannay, 48,  has utilized his optimism and determination to propel Nofar Energy to its position as a global leader in renewable energy investments.

His book about the story of the renewable energy revolution, New Under the Sun, will be available in English next week. Yannay will be one of the leading speakers at the Jerusalem Post Conference in New York on Monday, June 5. In a wide-ranging interview with The Jerusalem Post, he discussed his innovations in the field of renewable energy, how he has overcome business failure and personal tragedy, and his formula for success. 

Yannay, the second of eight children, was born in 1975 to Mordechai and Toni Yannay, who came to Israel in the 1950s. Ofer’s father was born in Tunisia and made aliyah with his parents to a refugee absorption camp in Yavne’el. Toni and her family, immigrants from Libya, went to Hatzor HaGlilit in northern Israel.

After their marriage, Mordechai and Toni moved to Yavneh and became successful educators. Mordechai was the principal of the religious high school there, and Toni was a preschool teacher. “We grew up in Yavneh, which was then in Israel’s periphery,” says Yannay of his childhood. “The best thing about growing up in the periphery was that you were not given a chance to succeed; and because you had no opportunity to succeed, every chance you had was something that should have never happened. When you think that way, you say, ‘Why should I limit myself?’”

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Yannay attended the yeshiva high school in Nehalim and studied at Yeshivat Har Etzion, where he participated in the Hesder program and served in the IDF tank corps. After completing his army service, he was accepted into Hebrew University’s Amirim program, the university’s interdisciplinary honors program, earning his bachelor’s degree in physics, mathematics and computer science. 

In 2001, Yannay started his first business venture, a food delivery service called Go4Eat. It was an idea that was ahead of its time in the pre-smartphone era, and the business failed. Yannay returned to school, earning a master’s degree from Ben-Gurion University in business administration. While studying for his MBA, he learned about renewable energy, which is derived from natural sources that are replenished at a higher rate than they are consumed, such as sunlight and wind. He decided to enter the field of solar energy. 

Yannay founded Nofar Energy in 2012. He explains the significance and meaning of the company name. “I was working in renewable energy at the time in Italy, driving 1,200 kilometers daily throughout the country. I thought that if I wanted to open a successful company, I needed to understand that the chaos that renewable energy creates is permanent. Traditional energy is extremely conservative. Its efficiencies have not moved for two decades, and the price has not changed. I thought to myself, ‘I want to open a company that can thrive on chaos. What is a good name for that?’ Every plant and tree needs something solid to rest upon, but there is one plant – the water lily, nofar in Hebrew – that can thrive on water.” Nofar Energy was born.

Initially, Yannay tried to sell solar panels to moshavim, but the project stalled because he encountered governmental red tape and bureaucracy that stymied his efforts. In 2012, he made his marketing breakthrough. “I analyzed the bureaucracy in the Israeli market,” says Yannay. “I noticed that the kibbutz movement was considered a governmental distribution company, just like the Israel Electric Corporation, with no bureaucratic restrictions.” 

Yannay began selling solar panels as a source of renewable energy to the kibbutz movement, and by 2015 his company had installed many projects and more than 1,000 rooftop solar panel systems. He began to think of how Israel could produce 10% of its energy from renewable energy, which at that time was the energy goal for 2020. “I thought that we needed something like rooftop systems in their simplicity, but like land in the size of their systems.” 

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Yannay made a breakthrough by implementing unique photovoltaics technology – panel structures that could be installed on bodies of water such as lakes, basins and reservoirs instead of solid structures like a roof or terraces.

These solar panel structures are now used throughout the country and, he explains, they do not pose any environmental threat or danger to the fish below. In fact, the opposite is true. The floating solar panels are both efficient and ecological.

In December 2020, Nofar Energy issued an IPO on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange in what became the second-largest IPO in Israel’s history after the Azrieli Group. The company expanded its efforts beyond Israel. Today, Nofar Energy includes an extensive portfolio of over 2,000 projects and subsidiaries across seven countries, both in Europe and America, and major renewable energy and energy storage projects, generating over 1,000MW of renewable energy.

Yannay’s book, New Under the Sun, was first published in Hebrew in 2022. Yannay says he wrote it in response to the popularity of renewable energy so that the public could better understand the concepts and move forward. 

“When we began in 2010,” he says, “the renewable energy field was a nice idea. It was highly subsidized and very expensive, but no one imagined that it could ever compete with traditional power stations. In the last decade, the price went down by 85%, efficiency increased, and the capacity became enormous. Solar energy is cheaper and cleaner than natural gas.”

Yannay predicts that renewable energy will take over the market and will become the world’s primary source of energy. In 2022, some 30% of the world’s energy was generated by renewable energy, and for the first time, he notes, carbon emissions declined worldwide. “This is a battle that will be over in less than a decade,” he asserts. “The transformation of the world’s energy system to renewable energy is a biblical event. It is amazing, and I am very happy to be a part of it in Israel. We are moving forward in many territories around the world with this unique, innovative idea.”

In his view, raising the issue of climate change as the only reason to promote renewable energy is not a wise decision. He suggests that there are enough valid reasons to promote renewable energy as a clean, inexhaustible energy source without having to resort to other arguments.

“If you have 100% renewable energy,” he says, “you have cleaner and cheaper energy than natural gas. Moving forward, the cost of energy will eventually go down to zero. He explains that countries that move quickly with renewable energy will reach lower energy costs sooner than other markets. “This game will be extremely significant in 20 to 25 years, but you have to play now if you want to be in one of the first spots in 20 to 25 years. Currently, Israel is a bit behind.”

Yannay explains that while Israel has talented entrepreneurs, a relatively small market, and a great deal of sunlight, only 12% of the country’s energy comes from renewable sources. “We need to diversify and use other sources such as wind power and hydropower, and open the grid to add more wind, and we need to use hydrogen for long-duration storage.”

In his book, Yannay discusses the bureaucratic obstacles he encountered in creating his company and succeeding. He suggests that dialogue between regulators and entrepreneurs is essential to the success of alternate energy. 

The book also discusses Malthusianism, the theory named after Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834), who suggested that population growth is potentially exponential, while the growth of the food supply is linear and finite and will eventually be depleted. Despite the fact that the world population has increased from two billion to almost eight billion since the 19th century, innovation and technology have expanded the food supply. Similarly, Yannay explains, while energy resources such as coal and oil are finite, energy from the sun is clean and renewable. 

Yannay attributes much of his success in life to his mother’s advice to continue to study and grow. He admits that his taste in reading has changed over the years from fiction to biographies, and he reads books that analyze different industries. Yannay has also developed an interest in learning about geopolitics because, as he notes, “every country is a potential market that we would like to enter at some point.” 

He adds that Talmud study, which requires interpretation of complex and often ambiguous texts, has helped him in honing his business acumen. “It is similar to what happens in the business environment. No one gives you a textbook and says, ‘This is the way to make money in the energy market.’”

Returning to his theme of the need to remain optimistic and positive about life and business, Yannay mentions the death of his wife, Talli, five years ago from cancer. Yannay is raising their 13-year-old daughter, Shira, as a single parent. Does he encourage her to study hi-tech or energy? “I am happy that she now loves to read,” he says with a smile. “She will find her way in life and will have all options open to her.”

Perhaps Yannay’s determination and optimism in the face of difficulty can best be expressed by a story he tells of his daughter’s birthday during the first outbreak of COVID in March 2020. 

Every year on his daughter’s birthday, Yannay would wake her up in the morning with a balloon and a cake. Coming home late from work on the night of the first COVID quarantine, he realized he had forgotten to get a cake for her birthday the following day. He was undeterred. Yannay called a neighbor and asked her to bake his daughter a cake. The neighbor agreed, and he brought it home in the middle of the night. Next, he called a toy store and begged and cajoled the owner to bring him balloons at 3 a.m. and deliver them through the window.

Yannay cites two other life lessons that have helped him in his career: valuing the importance of teamwork, and the importance of speaking up as a leader. “You cannot do everything by yourself,” he explains. “You must have a partnership with the people who work with you. They should complete you in their abilities and temperament.

Nothing can be done alone. Regarding leadership, he says, “Leadership requires you to speak out and say what you think to make sure that everyone understands your opinions and ideas so that people will be affected by what you say.” Yannay is outspoken about the role of entrepreneurs and their role in society today. “Entrepreneurs are the key,” he says. “The biggest things in the world today are managed by entrepreneurs and not by politicians.”

As our interview comes to a close, Yannay provides a sneak preview of what he will discuss at The Jerusalem Post Conference in New York, including what he terms a “mega-project” to modernize the water and electricity supply in

Africa that would involve Israel and Arab nations. 

“In 2022, when Putin invaded Ukraine,” says Yannay, “he thought no one would stop him because he controlled Russian natural gas. Putin was using old energy as a weapon. I want to present the concept that we can use energy not as a weapon of war but as a means to create prosperity and peace.”  

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