The newest cash crop for kibbutzim in the south - solar energy - appears to be blocked by a bureaucratic technicality.
Ten kibbutzim in the Arava and many more in the Negev are eager to become the "sun farmers" of Israel and plant their unused fields with photovoltaic (PV) panels. If allowed to do so, they could make the South entirely energy self sufficient during the day and even eventually export energy to the North. Such a capacity would also significantly reduce Israel's dependence on foreign oil.
The Public Utility Authority (PUA) recently put together a plan for the private production of solar energy through rooftop units. However, because of a glitch in the phrasing of the plan, kibbutzim may not be able to join the program. If kibbutzim cannot participate, then companies like the Arava Power Company (APC), which is part of Kibbutz Ketura near Eilat, will have to wave goodbye to $2.5 billion in potential investment it has reportedly been negotiating to bring to Israel.
PUA's plan is to offer individuals the opportunity to install a photovoltaic panel on their roof. The panel would generate enough electricity to power the apartment or house and the state would buy the rest of the electricity. Aside from the private initiative aspect, the plan also proposes to raise the price the state would pay for each kilowatt hour from 87.6 agorot to NIS 2.04, which would begin to make it feasible for a private individual to operate such a household station. According to PUA's plan, a two kilowatt-peak station for private homes would cost NIS 62,000. The price of a strong solar infrastructure in the South could be up to $1.2b., according to some estimates.
The Arava Power Company would like to take advantage of this plan on a much larger scale. Instead of one panel, they'd like to put up thousands, APC President Yosef Abramowitz told The Jerusalem Post. They are ideally suited to do so because the Arava is one of the sunniest parts of Israel and much of the land is not suitable for farming. Instead of fields of vegetables, they would cultivate fields of solar energy. According to reports, the company is in the process of recruiting foreign investment to the tune of $2.5b., which could potentially cover the cost of installation in the South. Abramowitz said they had held meetings with 10 other kibbutzim in the area that were also excited about the idea, and that kibbutzim in the Negev had also expressed interest.
"The key is for the kibbutzim to be able to join the program on the exact same terms as every other citizen of the country," Abramowitz, a recent immigrant from Boston, concluded.
But that's just where the technicality comes into play. The plan as currently written limits the individual or company to one panel per electricity meter of low wattage. This would mean that every homeowner in an apartment building could theoretically install one on the roof. However, a kibbutz is a collective, and receives all of its electricity through one high-wattage meter. In other words, a 200-house, four-company kibbutz would be able to put up just one panel. Moreover, because their electricity comes in a high wattage, greater than the normal input of an apartment or house, they may also be disqualified from participating in the program.
Ilan Suleiman, PUA's spokesman, told the Post Monday that "a kibbutz represents one collective consumer. However, we are aware of the problem and we are dealing with it. When we've figured out a solution, we'll publicize it."
A revised version of the project's plan is due out sometime later this month.
Abramowitz said there were technical solutions to the problems that they had already suggested to PUA.
Kibbutz Movement Secretary Zeev Schorr was adamant that the country's 280 kibbutzim be granted equal access under the program.
"We will not stand by while the kibbutzim are discriminated against. We have a meeting with Fuad [National Infrastructures Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer] soon to discuss the issue. If we see that we cannot resolve this through political channels, we'll have to resort to legal ones," he declared to the Post on Sunday.
Schorr may have an ally in the minister, according to a letter obtained by the Post. In that letter, the minister assured the recipient that the kibbutzim would be provided for under the initiative.
The reasons for PUA's seeming recalcitrance on the matter are twofold, a source close to the matter said. Their policy is based on the belief that PV is not economically feasible. Four years ago they discussed the matter in depth, the source said, and have not reevaluated their basic position, even as the cost has dropped and continues to drop due to the development of new thin film technology.
The second reason, which is understandable, according to the source, is the fear that a few kibbutzim will grow to dominate the entire supply of what is supposed to be, at heart, a rooftop initiative. The authority is afraid that what should be a program for 10,000 individuals will be gobbled up by a few well-situated kibbutzim. Electricity for the entire project is capped at 50MW. However, the source said, exceptions could easily be made, or the project expanded to accommodate both kibbutzim and individuals.
Noam Ilan, head of the Sustainable Energy Department of the Eilat-Eilot Environmental Unit, has also been a big proponent of kibbutz involvement.
"In the Arava there is a lot of sun and a lot of interested residents. It has great potential," he told the Post.
Ilan characterized the problem as a technical one and was convinced that the state was eager to solve it. He sent a letter of his own to PUA stressing the importance of including the kibbutzim. He noted that the project would assuredly help Eilat become "the first solar energy city in Israel."
Solar energy has become a hot topic recently, as Ben-Eliezer has made renewable energy the top agenda item for his ministry. The government has set a goal of producing 10 percent of Israel's energy from renewable sources by 2020.