Arava region of Israel about to be 100% solar powered

What Israel – and the world – can learn from the Arava

KIBBUTZ KETURA member Seth Kessler gives a tour to a Kenyan delegation. Six hundred million Africans do not have access to energy today. (photo credit: YOSEF ABRAMOWITZ)
KIBBUTZ KETURA member Seth Kessler gives a tour to a Kenyan delegation. Six hundred million Africans do not have access to energy today.
(photo credit: YOSEF ABRAMOWITZ)
Here’s some great climate crisis news just in time for Tu Bishvat, the Jewish people’s environmental holiday: The Arava region – from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea – is about to be powered 100% during the day by the sun. Yes, that includes Eilat, all the hotels, factories, homes, businesses, kibbutzim and air conditioning – 100%! And by 2025, the sun will power all nighttime electricity needs as well.
As climate crisis news becomes ever more ominous, the United Nations says that in order to prevent true global meltdown – pandemics, drowned cities, extreme wildfires, super-charged storms, killer droughts, food shortages, massive extinctions, half a billion refugees and more – each and every country must cut its greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030.
I was privileged to be part of the Israeli negotiation team at the historic Paris Climate Conference in 2015, in which nations put forward their voluntary proposed cuts in emissions. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew in for the photo-op with the world leaders and pledged an unremarkable target of 10% by 2020 and 17% renewable energy by 2030.
Recently, at the cabinet meeting before Israel’s energizing climate conference in December, Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz pledged to up that to 25% to 30% renewables goal, and the electricity regulator just published an open call to the public for ideas on how to achieve the 30% goal in the next decade.
Don’t get too excited; even if Israel achieves that it will mean the country is a bad actor on climate, given the need of every country to go to 50% renewables. Even neighboring Jordan is on target to reach 20% renewables this year and 50% by 2030.
While sun-blessed Israel has been dragging its feet on rolling out solar, the Arava region has quietly pioneered a solar revolution that, if emulated, can save the planet. The country itself will be a little shy of hitting its modest 10% renewables goal by end of 2020, but the Arava Desert, including Eilat, will reach the pinnacle of what climate activists are dreaming of in a decade from now: 100% daytime, which is a feel-good way of saying 50% renewables for day and night use. This year!
One of the most surprising outcomes of the progress in the Arava is the number of African countries that have now expressed interest in replicating the 100% daytime solar goal. With 600 million people without access to power, another 200 million burning expensive diesel, and the population of the continent set to double in a generation, African ministers, ambassadors and entrepreneurs regularly come to Kibbutz Ketura for the solar tour and seek Israeli investment.
Since the entire planet must reach the 50% renewables goal during this “Decade of Action” called for by the UN, it would be instructive to understand what Israel has gotten wrong and what the Arava region, despite the national government, did right – and to understand why Israel’s environmental movement has allowed the gas monopoly to essentially write national energy policy.
OUR FAMILY arrived at Kibbutz Ketura in 2006, at the end of the day on August 24. As we opened the doors of the air-conditioned van, a blistering whoosh of hot air attacked our family of seven from Boston. The sun was about to set behind the Israeli mountains, but its rays seemed to cartoonishly burn us to a crisp within seconds.
“The whole kibbutz must run on solar power,” I said, and was surprised to hear otherwise.
The next day I asked about solar power in the Arava region, the third most extreme desert in the world. Nothing.
The third day I remembered that Israel was a leader of solar energy technology that must be deployed somewhere nearby. Nothing. “No one is crazy enough to take on the government,” I was told.
Call me crazy. I immediately went to see a lawyer at Kibbutz Lotan and incorporated the Arava Power Company.
Also that week there were two signs hanging on the bulletin board at the entrance of the dining room: one for an ulpan at nearby Kibbutz Yotvatah, and the other for a course in Eilat on renewable energy and regional development.
“You can only take one,” Susan insisted, since the relocation to Ketura was meant to increase family time.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
Dorit Benet from Kibbutz Grofit and Noam Ilan, who was living in a beautiful mud hut on Lotan, led the course, and we quickly began to dream: to have the Arava region be powered 100% during the day by the sun by 2020. The course was sponsored by the UJA Federation of Toronto, the Partnership 2000 community, in an effort to stimulate economic activity and attract young couples to move to the sunny, pristine region. (The region and effort were then led by Udi Gat.) The only problem was that in order to even build one field at Ketura, we would have to win about 100 regulatory, statutory and political battles to essentially create a market so that investors would come in.
Then-president Shimon Peres came down one day to visit the students, Arabs and Jews, at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, also located on Ketura. That’s when we had our “Obi-Wan Kenobi moment.” “You are the only one who can realize Ben-Gurion’s dream,” said the president. “And I will help you.”
Realizing early on that I would need partners, the Arava Power Company soon became a partnership with Kibbutz Ketura, through Ed Hofland, a kibbutz member and chairman of Arava Power, and David Rosenblatt, a brilliant business leader from New Jersey and Arava Power’s vice chairman. Orit Marom Albeck, a young environmental lawyer who joined the Shibolet & Co. Law Firm, took us on as the country’s first solar client.
When I went up to Jerusalem and knocked on what seemed like every government door, the answer was not only “No,” but in the case of the electricity regulator, “Never.” Despite that, I remember walking later into the regulator’s office and handing in the first solar license application for a modest 4.9 MW (megawatts) at Ketura. They didn’t know how to relate to it and didn’t get back to us for 14 months.
The road to the Arava achieving 100% daytime solar by 2020 seemed to get longer.
AS MUCH as I hate to admit it now, the regulator’s arguments at the time had merit. Solar then was more expensive than coal and gas. There wasn’t enough land, they claimed. There was no precedent in Israel for independent power producers. And to even dream of a completely solar Arava seemed like science fiction. Show us a grid in the world that at that time could handle more than 20% solar, they mocked us, and we couldn’t.
It didn’t help that, with some exceptions, the environmental movement in Israel was at best neutral but with prominent players actually being against, because they advocated rooftops should be covered first and they didn’t want to see “the entire Negev plastered in solar panels.”
With the Toronto Federation underwriting the region’s planning and advocacy efforts, we undertook four “Friends & Family” rounds with about 100 impact investors, and our solar development efforts soldiered on. And we kept winning. Then Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund invested, as did German multinational company Siemens, and five years into the struggle, the first solar field in Israel and the Middle East was launched on World Environment Day, June 5, 2011.
With the first one done, Arava Power built similar fields at Grofit, Yotvatah, Elifaz and in Negev kibbutzim, and then at Ketura a big 40 MW one with EDF Energy that itself supplied a third of Eilat’s energy needs during the day. Other investors followed and about $3 billion has been invested so far by the industry. Dorit, Ilan, Udi – the Eilat Eilot Renewable Energy group – and I could see that 100% was within reach.
What happened is that after a protracted political battle, we managed to shake loose a national quota of 300 MW of solar fields from the government and came to a shaky yet temporarily workable compromise with the environmental movement on issues of land and zoning. The amount of energy equaled only 2% of the country’s energy at the time, but at least it was a start.
The solar train was leaving the station, which left those environmentalists against solar fields with a choice: The Israel Electric Company was planning Station D, another monster coal plant in Ashkelon. We argued that true environmentalists should support the rezoning efforts for solar and make them as green as possible. However, if they scuttled our plans, those very same environmentalists would be responsible for another polluting coal plant.
Today, there’s 1,000 MW on the grid of solar – about 7% – and Station D was killed.
MY TEACHER Elie Wiesel taught that there is a fine line between the madman and the prophet. Another of my teachers, Rabbi Sara Cohen of Ketura, says that kibbutz living is not about what the individual can accomplish, but what an entire community can. The Arava region, essentially, is a string of 10 kibbutzim wrapped up in a pioneering local municipality that has made renewables a common cause.
It makes sense. With about only 4,000 residents (not including Eilat), it encompasses about 12% of the land of Israel where the agricultural limits have been reached because of the lack of water. Nearly endless flat lands lay baking in the sun every day, while the kibbutz communities seek sources of revenues and employment for their members.
When our kids attended the local school, the administration would ignore the national education strikes because they could. The combination of idealism, necessity and remoteness enabled the leadership of the region to quietly keep moving forward with the 100% solar plans, largely on fields hidden behind date palms. Peres came back to the region six years later, and Udi Gat, Dorit Benett and I were able to show him the fruits of our combined labors. The 15th installation is going up in Timna right now, which takes the region over the 100% mark.
And the Tel Aviv environmentalists, after the initial battles and compromises, left the region alone.
But now with the climate crisis front and center, and the fact that every signatory to the Paris Climate Accords has to legislate updated renewables goals prior to the next major United Nations Climate Conference, in December in Glasgow, the fight in Israel is on: the gas lobby vs. everyone, and then the climate environmentalists vs. the land environmentalists. The result of the strength of the gas lobby and the lack of unity among environmentalists is that Israeli consumers are friers, paying so much more for polluting power. And, with a split in the environmental movement on land use, the topic of green energy or overpaying for gas is not even on anyone’s radar for the March 2 elections.
The battle is being played out quietly in spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations, deftly orchestrated by Victor Weis, CEO of the Heschel Center for Sustainability, who has gathered the most impressive energy brain trust ever assembled in Israel. Land and climate environmentalists sit side by side with two extraordinary business leaders – Yoki Gil and Ram Amar – designing hour-by-hour for Israel’s energy between now and 2050. I have had the privilege to occasionally join some meetings and to also bring some learnings from the Arava, from the Bedouin sector and from rolling out solar in African markets (I received permission from Weis to write about it). The group has already made presentations to Udi Adiri, director-general of the Energy and Water Ministry, and to Assaf Eilat, head of the electricity regulator. The Heschel Plan, through the Environmental Protection Ministry, will be the basis for Israel’s energy master plan through 2050. Last week, Heschel invited representatives of the solar companies for a briefing, to give input and to enjoy a lavish vegetarian dinner at the Institute for a Beautiful Israel, in Tel Aviv. The presentation was impressive and in-depth and outlined how Israel can achieve 50% renewables by 2030, and 95%-plus by 2050.
Amar also outlined the benefits: a savings of NIS 20 billion a year since solar is much cheaper than natural gas today; energy independence in a more distributed network means that Hezbollah and Hamas missiles can’t take down the entire grid with a direct hit on a big fossil plant; a massive reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and the health benefits of that reduction; and an opportunity for Israel’s famed hi-tech sector to innovate around energy as another economic driver. The investment would also create so many more jobs than natural gas and attract about $30 billion, dwarfing the much-hyped gas investment.
The ambitious goals were going to be achieved by rolling out solar more creatively: over parking garages, rooftops, integrated panels on walls, in military bases, over roads, industrial parks, water reservoirs, public buildings, airports and more. The Heschel team, directed professionally by Dr. Shachar Dolev, a land environmentalist, mapped out all the sites and did the calculations.
In the plan, however, there are no more solar fields like the 4.9 MW one at Ketura that launched the industry, or the 40 MW one that supplies a third of Eilat’s energy. Instead, some agricultural land will be deemed dual-use, with massive pergolas above the planted fields holding panels. The land environmentalists, at this stage, have won the day – on paper.
I am currently developing my 12th solar field, this one in the African country of Burundi. That field will supply 15% of the country’s generation capacity. To see an Israeli plan that eliminates solar fields as the anchor of transitioning an economy from burning fossil fuels to green energy without utility-scale solar fields, in my mind, is to condemn humanity to burn more fossil fuels for a longer period. The argument being used in Israel is not that there is insufficient sun or good technology or economics, but not enough land.
THE COUNTER-ARGUMENT (in favor of solar fields) is quite simple. Of the 700 kibbutzim and moshavim in the country, each is allowed to rezone 25 hectares (62 acres) and together they would supply the daytime energy needs of the country through 2025. (Missing are enough electric grid lines.) If they could use up to 50 hectares on average, the country’s daytime energy needs would be met through 2035 and beyond.
The cost of solar from solar fields is a fraction of the cost of natural gas or solar on rooftops or dual-use structures. And there’s still plenty of other land, including opportunities for Bedouin to make land compromises in return for producing 3,000 MW, and rezoning large tracks of largely unused military zones in the Negev.
Achieving 100% daytime solar goals by 2030 can be done, as the Arava has demonstrated, without touching a millimeter of what is considered “open space,” so that all fields will fall into what is called the blue line of a community.
Sitting in the back of the hall during the Heschel industry briefing was Eitan Parness, head of the association of renewable energy companies, and someone who has fought the government for nearly a decade to increase solar and wind power in Israel. He was whispering comments under his breath throughout the presentation about the plan’s fatal flaw: no solar fields.
With a little bit of prodding, since he didn’t want to rain on the Heschel parade, he spoke up at the end.
“There’s no one in Israel who isn’t in favor of more renewable energy, except the oil and gas community. You can meet all of Israel’s energy needs on agricultural lands, which come with statutory supervision to meet criteria so that it doesn’t bother anyone. It bothers the Society for Protection of Nature in Israel, so what? If you are courageous enough, come, say the truth. Tomorrow morning you can power the entire country. But not having solar fields in your plan instills a lack of confidence by industry in this process. That is how it looks from the outside.
“Of course, the solar industry already loves to put solar on roofs, and they didn’t come tonight because they are out installing on rooftops. But the solar investors in fields didn’t come tonight because your messaging is anti-solar fields on land. If you don’t deal with it, the industry won’t have confidence in you. In the name of the industry, if you really want to advance green energies, not just by 2050, but tomorrow morning, you can’t run away from including solar fields.”
The Heschel leadership responded that they want to show they can reach 100% without solar fields, which I agree is a noble (but unrealistic) goal.
I proposed a compromise to the group: If by January 2022 the dual-use permissions and horizon on reaching 100% solar with their plan is not going to play out, have the Heschel plan incorporate an automatic fallback to roll out solar fields on kibbutzim, moshavim, Bedouin lands and more, so that the country will have enough time to still scale up to 100% by 2030, as we did in the Arava, where 90% of the solar energy is being provided by solar fields, in addition to the solar rooftops.
No one related to the compromise. The environmental movement is still split, and therefore gas will maintain its unchallenged expensive and polluting monopoly over the Israeli market for decades to come.
Weis, embarrassed, leaned into the microphone and announced that there was a communication mix-up and that the restaurant didn’t receive the order to serve dinner.
We went home hungry.
The writer is the winner of the Knesset’s Green Global Award, co-founder of solar industries in Israel and Africa, was named by CNN as one of the top six green pioneers on the planet, and serves as CEO of impact platform Energiya Global Capital. Follow him on Twitter at
@KaptainSunshine.