Tucked within that most banal of conversation topics—the weather—hides the key to solving an impending crisis in Israel.

You can hear it in the chatter of foreigners and immigrants, in particular. To them, the Tel Aviv winter, mild by global standards, seems downright unbearable. In hilly Jerusalem, it’s only worse. 

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The reason isn’t that their coats and gloves are cursed in the holy land; rather, it''s the pervasive cold they suffer indoors that makes the winter so miserable. Their apartments never seems to get warm enough. Their extremities are always cold. A hot shower—after extensive water heating—is the only reprieve.


The problem is, of course, shoddy insulation. “It’s like Israelis don''t realize there’s a cold season every year, and never consider it in their building plans,” a friend said at a recent brunch, in which swapped tales of numb fingertips and breath visible indoors kept the group engaged for far too longer than should be socially acceptable.

Israeli architecture, especially in older buildings from the days when climate control was a luxury and afternoon siestas were customary to escape the hottest afternoon hours in summer, is designed more to ventilate against summer’s heat than keep in the A/C or insulate against winter’s cold.

The problem extends well beyond mere shivering and kvetching. All those space heaters and hours operating water heaters for showers add up, and are one reason Israel is on the verge of an energy crisis.

"Israel is facing a serious risk of electricity outages this summer,” Energy and Water Minister Uzi Landau said in February, warning citizens that they should not run several home appliances at once. “The risk of an outage is especially high in the event of a failure at a power station, especially at times of peak demand. In the coming summer, there will be days on which the country will find itself with reserves of just 2-3%."

It’s not like the government isn’t doing anything. Aside from adding additional capacity to increase energy supply, the Energy and Water Ministry is taking serious steps to increase energy efficiency by subsidizing low-electricity light bulbs, regulating new appliances and running cute informational ads to get people to reduce their energy usage:
 


That said, insulation projects are visibly absent from the 10-year plan for reducing energy usage. Aside from retro-fitting a handful public buildings, insulation and winterization are barely mentioned, a fact that seems strange given that the domestic sector consumes as much energy as the public-commercial sector, and that the latter spends 60% of its electricity on heating and cooling.

Source: Energy and Water Ministry

Source: Energy and Water Ministry


In explaining retro-fitting for public buildings, the report notes that external thermal treatments, though somewhat expensive, can reduce energy costs on heating and cooling by at least 30%, while cheaper roof treatments can reduce them by 10%.

Why doesn''t the government apply the same logic to the domestic sector? By its own admission, “the domestic sector contributes about 32% of the total electricity consumption during summer peak demands, and about 49% of the total electricity consumption during winter peak demands.” In those public buildings, retro-fitting is expected to decrease energy demand 20% by 2020 - over 3 times the expected reduction of upgrading A/C systems.

In the United States, simple home winterizing steps like installing new insulation and energy-efficient windows were eligible for part of the $1,500 in tax credits offered as part of the 2009 stimulus package because they could reduce annual heating and cooling bills by 20%.

The potential of energy savings in buildings due to insulation is huge,” Dr. Tareq Abu Hamed, the director of the Arava Institute''s Center for Renewable Energy and Energy Conservation told The Bottom Line. “Households are responsible for approximately 30% of the electricity requirements. And 12% of the electricity in Israel goes to heating and cooling. With the right insulation you can save 30 to 50% of that energy.”


A 2010 International Energy Agency report by Ambassador Richard H. Jones also makes the case for focusing more attention on our buildings, assigning 5 of its 25 priorities for improving Israel''s energy security toward making buildings more energy efficient. According to that report, retro-fitting is an environmental step that actually saves more money than it costs:
 

International Energy Agency, Source: McKinsey, 2009


There are, of course, some easy steps the freezing cold among as can take on our own to warm up and keep bills low, such as covering cracks in doorways to prevent drafts and adding insulating plastic onto our windows. But until the government provides capital expenditure incentives for owners to retro-fit apartment buildings from the roof on downward, we can at least take pride that Israeli winters maintain a certain edge over even the coldest, most miserable winters abroad.

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