PROBABLY EVERY READER OF THESE WORDS IS AS frustrated as I am: we live in a country that is drenched with sunshine, but in which so little of this seemingly free commodity is used to generate electricity. Our frustration is even greater when we think about all of those smoky coal-burning power plants that are likely to be built in the future or those frightening nuclear plants with which we are being threatened by those who claim to be more knowledgeable on the subject than us, and by the realization that all of that famous gas that “we” are supposed to have discovered under the sea is going to take years before it becomes available.
So why aren’t we using solar energy in a BIG way? The answer, we are told, is because it is too expensive.
As a scientist who has spent the last 35 years researching the various technological methods that can be used for converting sunshine into electric power, I used to go along with this line of thinking.
Recently, however, I realized that there was a serious flaw in my estimation of what can be done with conventional solar technology.
I had failed to take people power into account. I had ignored the simple fact that most people would be only too happy to be able to breathe cleaner air by ceasing construction of any new coal-burning plants and gradually, over a period of years, to close down all existing such plants. Moreover, not only would such an improved state of affairs make us more happy – with the aid of people power, it can be done in an affordable way.
IN ORDER TO UNDERSTAND THE MAGNITUDE OF THE problem and the potential costs, we must keep three numbers in mind. For simplicity, I shall round off these numbers so as to make the argument easier to follow.
The first number to keep in mind is 60 TWh (terawatt-hours) – the amount of electricity that was generated by the Israel Electric Corporation (IEC) during 2010.
The second important number is 2 TWh per year, the rate at which the first number is rising each year. If we take a look at the last 20 years of IEC electricity statistics, we see that this growth rate has been remarkably constant. That is to say, on the average, the IEC has needed to generate 2 TWh more electricity each year than it did the year before. I use the word “remarkably” because since 1990 we have had two Gulf wars, a massive influx of immigration, the Second Lebanon War, Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, and a world economic crisis. And yet Israel’s electricity production has continued to climb smoothly.
The third important number is 0.40 shekels per kWh – what we pay for electricity.
Since nothing as “paltry” as wars and world economic crises seem capable of shifting the 2 TWh/year (i.e. 2 billion kWh/year) trend, we may take it for granted that the money to continue this trend will be found – from our taxes, of course. The IEC does not divulge precisely how much each new plant costs, but in order to generate 2 TWh of additional electricity, they would need to install, on average, one new 375 MW conventional plant each year. At typical world prices of something like NIS 5 ($1.43) per watt, we are talking about NIS 1.875 billion each year – not including the cost of the additional fuel that these new plants will need to consume or the additional days off work or deaths that will result from an ever-more polluted environment.
SO WHAT IS THE ALTERNATIVE? CONSIDER THE following two steps: Step 1: We all pay NIS 0.48 per kWh for the electricity we consume, instead of NIS 0.40 – i.e. a 20 perecent increase. These 8 additional agorot will generate 4.8 billion shekels per year. At the current Israeli turn-key price of large photovoltaic (PV) plants, this would be enough money to cover the cost of a 400 MW plant (larger than any that has been built to date anywhere in the world). Such a plant, if located in the Negev or Arava regions, would generate approximately 0.7 TWh of electricity each year and would occupy 11,500 dunams.
Step 2: We build one such plant each year. In fact, since the revenue from the 8 agora/kWh levy will increase each year – because the total amount of electricity is increasing (and probably, too, because PV costs will decrease) – each year’s PV plant could be larger than the previous one. But, for additional simplicity, let’s stick with 400 MW for each new PV plant.
The critical reader will be quick to point out that a 400 MW PV plant would only provide 0.7 TWh of additional electricity each year and not the 2 TWh we have traditionally “needed.” So, what about the extra 1.3 TWh? There are two possible answers: the elegant one and the quickand- dirty one. The latter takes 65 percent of the 1.875 billion shekels saved by not constructing conventional plants we would otherwise have built and makes up the shortfall in electricity using polluting technology. This way we should at least have reduced our annual increase in pollution by 35 percent.
But there is a far more elegant alternative. A relatively small amount of the avoided cost could be used to offer massive cash prizes to the public for cutting down on the amount of electricity we waste – by not turning off the air-conditioner when we go for lunch, by not turning off our computers at night, by not switching off unnecessary lights, and so forth. If the prizes were large enough, saving electricity would become so second-nature to us all that the annual addition from large PV systems could well be enough without the need ever to construct another fossil-fuelled conventional plant.
Interestingly, the construction of one 400 MW PV plant each year for the next ten years would result in a 2020 total of 67 TWh of which 10 percent would be solar. Thus, if the government is serious about wanting Israel to be 10 percent “renewable” by 2020, this is how it could be done using off-the-shelf PV technology.
There are, in fact, other solar alternatives to PV, as I hinted at above. These could be employed, alongside PV, as the years go by – both to decrease the amount of land that is required, and to help promote local technology.
AT FIRST GLANCE IT MIGHT SEEM UNFAIR TO IMPOSE what amounts to a 20 percent tax on electricity in order to build PV plants. But a small amount of additional thought should convince the reader of three important advantages.
First, it is fairer than the present so-called “feed-in-tariff” practice whereby the IEC is forced to pay nearly 2 shekels per kWh to anyone who wants to sell them PV electricity. Ultimately it is we the public who are underwriting the feed-in-tariff in order to enable a relatively small number of individuals to make a profit on what is essentially a trivially small amount of electricity. Specifically, one million 1 kW PV systems would generate less than the annual increase in our present electricity requirements. Today, there are approximately 1 million solar water heaters on the roofs of Israel, so most of the PV systems would need to be installed in rural areas.
However, as should be clear from the above, the amount of PV electricity would be minute and the cost astronomical – and astronomically unfair to the tax payer.
Second, the proposed scheme, unlike the present feed-in-tariff, is on a scale large enough to provide significant amounts of our electricity needs. In particular, it would enable us to reach the government’s stated target of 10 percent renewables by 2020.
Third, with appropriate public education (through media advertising, etc.), we could reach a situation in which it would never be necessary to construct another coal-burning – or even a first nuclear – power plant. Calculations that my colleagues and I have recently published in the peer-reviewed literature indicate that 90 percent of Israel’s electricity could ultimately come from solar energy, with the remaining 10 percent provided by gas. Public enthusiasm, that all-important people power, could go a long way towards ushering in such an era. • David Faiman is a professor of physics at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. He is Chair of the Department of Solar Energy and Environmental Physics at the university’s Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research, and Director of the National Solar Energy Center at Sde Boker.