Arfin stands before a room of Palestinians speaking
Palo Alto resident David Arfin discusses green energy with mid-career engineers, architects and policy makers at a Auja EcoCenter near Jericho in February. (Photo/Courtesy of David Arfin)

Palo Alto entrepreneur advises Palestinians on solar power

With Palestinian-Israeli peace talks derailed, the U.S. government has to seek other ways to maintain influence in the Middle East — and that’s where Palo Alto resident David Arfin and his ideas on solar energy financing come in.

Arfin spent six days in February meeting with Palestinian entrepreneurs, bankers, businessmen and politicians as a State Department “energy diplomat,” advising on how solar power can help them become more energy self-sufficient.

Arfin, who also spent six days in Jerusalem talking with Israelis about similar projects, said the West Bank now gets 98 percent of its power from the Israel Electric Corporation — which in 2015 and 2016 temporarily cut off electricity to the area because of unpaid debts by the Palestinian Authority.

“What they really would like to see is a sense of having taken some control over their own destiny,” Arfin said. “No one wants to be dependent on another entity for their electricity. When you’re dependent, it’s a very vulnerable feeling. There’s a strong national will to create more clean energy.”

Arfin, 55, a member of Congregation Beth Jacob in Redwood City, is the founder and CEO of First Energy Finance. He previously developed SolarLease, a financing program that allows customers to install solar panels without making huge upfront payments.

Two years ago, Arfin spent five months as an entrepreneur in residence at Tel Aviv-based Israel Cleantech Ventures.

Israeli officials said in 2015 that less than 2 percent of the country’s electricity came from renewable sources, though their goal was to increase that to 10 percent by 2020.

As part of his work at ICV, Arfin established contacts with officials of the Palestine Investment Fund and was invited to a meeting in January 2016 in Amman, Jordan, to give an overview of how to finance a solar program.

Arfin, who was an intern in the Knesset in 1981-82 while studying at Hebrew University during his junior year abroad from UCLA, was contacted by the State Department in January and asked to advise Palestinians in Ramallah, Jericho and Jerusalem about how they could set up a solar power ecosystem.

“I learned how important soft power and diplomacy is, and cultural exchanges with a broad brush,” he said. “If we want to have influence, a seat at the table, this is really a way for the American government to send a message to the leadership and Palestinian businessmen and bankers that America wants to help.“

Though the Palestinians have virtually no access to solar power, he said a large majority of West Bank residents have rooftop solar water heaters, Arfin said, “so they view themselves as being solar ready and solar friendly and environmentalists in that sense.”

“They wanted to know about costs, about financing structures, about government incentives,” Arfin said. “About how to bring the cost of clean energy to be less than the cost of the energy they’re importing from the Israel Electric Corporation. I met some extremely smart, talented and motivated men and women who want to see this happen and are in positions of influence.”

Arfin, who said he has helped grow solar companies in Mexico, India, Europe and the United States, is optimistic that such State Department programs will continue with Donald Trump as president.

“I think my hopeful side says what the Trump administration understands is that economic progress and access to abundant low-cost electricity is a key to economic stability, and that’s a key to political stability and a key to reducing the chances of extremism anywhere,” he said. “It’s economic progress shared by the left and the right.”

Rob Gloster

Rob Gloster z"l was J.'s senior writer from 2016-2019.