The politics of solar power

One unintended result of the West Bank settlement construction freeze was that for months residents were prevented from installing photovoltaic systems on their roofs.

November 12, 2010 12:25
Photovoltaic panels installed in Gush Etzion

311_solar panels. (photo credit: Courtesy of Friendly Energy)

What countries would you suppose would be the world champions in producing electricity from the sun? Well, countries with hot, sunny climates – places like Spain and Italy, for sure. And places like California, where there is a high level of concern and awareness about environmental issues. And, of course, countries with a high level of technological development – like Israel. In fact, with its hi-tech prowess and seemingly endless sunshine, Israel should by rights be the world champion in solar electricity.

It isn’t.In fact, the honor of top producer of energy from the sun belongs not to Israel, and not even to Spain or California but, believe it or not, to Germany. Which is rather counter-intuitive, considering that Germany has an average of 1,738 hours of sunlight a year, working out to an average of just 4.8 hours each day. Compare that to Spain, with its average of 2,910 hours a year (8.0 a day) – or Israel’s 3,468 hours a year, coming to an average of a whopping 9.5 hours a day. Despite its being solar-challenged, Germany produces some 12 percent of the electricity it uses annually from the sun. And Israel? Let’s just say that in a recent poll by Global Green USA, Israel got a D- for its solar electricity production efforts – compared to Germany’s A- and California’s B.

Why Israel, with its surfeit of sunshine, can’t outdo or even match Germany – or Japan, Italy, France, Spain or any of the countries that utilize their sunshine more effectively – is clearly a matter of proper implementation of policy, as opposed to climatology. It took a while to organize policies that let businesses and homeowners set up, install and produce electricity from solar sources. And of course, this being Israel, politics were a major factor in the decision-making – especially for homeowners in Judea and Samaria. There, more than anywhere, residents are at the mercy of often-unthinking bureaucrats, and the story of photovoltaic systems in the West Bank is an example of what can happen when policy is carried out with bureaucratic rote – not only for settlers, but for all.

SUN IS SUN, and electricity is electricity – or should be, says MK Uri Orbach (Habayit Hayehudi) who was instrumental in enabling residents of the West Bank to join a program that benefits the state, the environment and those installing the system.

“For months, residents of Judea and Samaria were prevented from installing the systems,” he says, “and it was clearly because of politics. It was an unintended result of the building freeze, and it took some effort to convince the powers that be that adding a photovoltaic system to a rooftop is not the same as constructing a new building. Every little bit of electricity produced by these systems has a positive impact on the environment, and to prevent installation of systems on structures that are already built just because of technical, bureaucratic rules, or fear of what the left or the Americans will say, is absurd.”

The MK is right when he says that “every little bit” helps; more electricity produced by the sun means less burning of fossil fuels. It’s a zerosum, one-for-one exchange; to produce a kilowatt of electricity, you need X amount of coal or natural gas, and Y amount of sun power.

There are a number of technologies available to turn solar power into viable energy. Harnessed fully, solar energy could provide all the electricity humans need, and then some; the 89 petawatts (a petawatt is one quadrillion watts) of sunlight reaching the Earth’s surface is plentiful – almost 6,000 times more than the 15 terawatts equivalent of average power consumed by humans. For electricity production, the preferred method to take advantage of sun power is through photovoltaic technology, which converts solar radiation into direct current electricity. Systems include an array of cells containing a photovoltaic material placed in an open area – in most cases a rooftop.

Photovoltaic conversion systems for homes, schools and businesses have been legal here since 2009, with the installations first authorized for businesses. Later in the year the law was expanded to include private households, where installations that can generate up to four kilowatts at a time can be installed. The systems are hooked up into Israel Electric Corporation main lines, and the electricity generated is transferred to IEC substations.

The households that provide the electricity receive credit for their production, and at the end of the month, the IEC determines how much power the household used and how much it produced – and they get a check for the money owed them. How much? “The average household gets a check for NIS 1,200 to NIS 1,300 from the IEC each month, plus all the electricity it can use,” says Meir Steiner, one of the gadflies who helped expand the program to the West Bank.

Steiner was among the first to take interest in the program, but because of his address – he lives in Elkana, just over the Green Line, he couldn’t get approval for the installation. When the program was first authorized, says Steiner, “no one said it wouldn’t apply to Judea and Samaria.”

BUT APPARENTLY there was a problem; Steiner hit a bureaucratic wall, unable to find the person or people who could authorize installation of the system. “The people who sold the systems weren’t aware of any problems, but when I tried to register for the program, IEC said that the Civil Administration had not signed off on it, and therefore it could not legally install the system and the meters to allow me to get paid.”

IEC sent Steiner to the Civil Administration, which said that its hands were tied – and that it was the Defense Ministry that was in charge of the issue.

But Steiner was not to be put off; the deal IEC was offering was too good to pass up. “Electricity purchased from IEC costs about half a shekel per kilowatt, but any power manufactured by a photovoltaic system gets sold to the state for NIS 2.04, meaning that someone installing the system could use four times the electricity he generates and not have to pay for power,” says Danny Denan, chairman of Friendly Energy, which installed Steiner’s system and has since gotten orders for dozens more from residents of the West Bank.

The subsidy seems high, but it comes in place of government grants and loans common elsewhere for those installing photovoltaic systems; here, homeowners pay for the system and enter into a 20-year contract with IEC.

Depending on the cost of the system – it can range between NIS 50,000 and NIS 100,000 – and the amount of power used, the break-even point, where the cost of the system is paid off, is between six and 10 years. After that, any power a household produces over its consumption is converted into IEC cash, remitted to the owner of the system monthly.

So where was the holdup? Inside the Green Line, installation of photovoltaic systems is within the purview of the National Planning and Building Council, which was enthusiastic about giving blanket permission for the program and said it hoped to see photovoltaic systems on as many rooftops as possible (the council is holding hearings on approving construction of wide-scale photovoltaic systems in open areas of the Negev, which is opposed by environmental groups).

Like everything else in the West Bank, though, approval of installation of photovoltaic systems is provided by the Civil Administration – in this case, its electricity unit. Building a regular building in Judea and Samaria is complicated enough during “normal” times – but as it happened, the entire home photovoltaic program came “online” just as the building freeze got under way.

BUREAUCRATIC LOGIC followed through to its natural conclusion: Since installation of the systems in Israel proper was dealt with by the National Planning and Building Council, it was a matter of “construction,” and now that construction in the West Bank was frozen, all requests for installation of photovoltaic systems were immediately turned down.

That’s how it went, at least according to Orbach’s theory. “The truth is, no one knows for sure. I tried explaining to the Civil Administration that this was not a matter of construction, but of environmental responsibility. Everyone seemed to understand that the issue was not construction – after all, the roof where the system gets installed is there already – but no one could say why there was a ban.”

The mystery apparently went all the way up to the Defense Ministry; Orbach posed a Knesset query to Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilna’i, who said that the issue was being “examined.” But if Vilna’i knew of a specific reason why the ministry would be opposed to such systems, he gave no clue, said Orbach. “Maybe they were afraid of negative publicity by the Left or the United States,” he said.

Interestingly, though, no representative of the anti-settlement groups, who are generally quick to criticize any new initiatives in the West Bank, would condemn the project. A spokesperson for B’Tselem said she was not familiar with the issue, and that the organization had much more important issues to deal with. A Peace Now official said she wasn’t familiar with the issue either, and that she had no comment. “We don’t have to comment on every little thing that happens in the settlements,” she said, referring the question to Peace Now chief spokesman Yariv Oppenheimer.

Even Oppenheimer, usually eloquent on any issue regarding the settlements, was a bit confounded on how to handle the question. “Obviously we have nothing against solar energy, and in fact many of our members would be in favor of photovoltaic- produced electricity,” he said. “But the settlements are the wrong place for this, because if they do evacuate a settlement, this will be just one more item for the settlers to demand compensation for.”

Not exactly a stinging condemnation – and not an issue Peace Now has even brought up in the past, before or after permission to install the photovoltaic systems was granted.

If even Peace Now and other likeminded groups were content to leave the issue alone, what was the Civil Administration’s problem? “Let’s say it’s one part bureaucracy and one part ‘Chelmism,’” says Denan of Friendly Energy, referring to the legendary shtetl of Chelm where the right hand often didn’t know what the left was doing. “And there are unknown factors as well.”

While Denan has been very active in pushing for installation of photovoltaic systems in the West Bank, his company has also worked extensively in Israel proper and abroad, recently closing a contract to supply photovoltaic panels for a huge solar “farm” in Italy, where he said, “it is a pleasure to work, seeing that they have definitive and clear policies on solar energy development, which Israel does not.”

Indeed, he says, the bureaucracyrun- amok in the case of photovoltaic installations in Judea and Samaria – where “the clerks heard the word ‘freeze’ and packed up for 10 months, without taking into account the reality that the roofs where the systems were to be installed already were in existence” – is reflected in the lack of government policy on solar energy.

“At a recent OECD conference, Shimon Peres said that Israel’s goal is to produce 20% of its power from solar sources by 2020, but at the rate we’re going, we’ll never get there.”

PART OF THE PROBLEM is a limit of 200 megawatts that the Electricity Board, which administers the photovoltaic program, has placed on the program. At any given moment, Israelis are using about 7,000 megawatts of power, and 10,000 plus MW on very hot or cold days. The 200 MW represents the amount of power IEC can contract for from the private sector as part of the “small system installation program,” which covers businesses and institutions, which can install systems that generate up to 50 kW, and households which can install systems that can generate up to 4 kW). That 200 MW limit was determined by the Electricity Board, representatives of several ministries and IEC officials.

The 200 MW limit is supposed to serve the country’s needs until 2014, but according to Denan, “the way installations are gaining in popularity, I have no doubt that we will reach full production capacity by next summer.

But the limit is supposed to remain in effect until 2014, so unless they increase the limit before then, many businesses and householders are going to be left out of the program. It’s unclear how they plan to get to 20% capacity within a decade, if by the middle of the decade we are barely at 2% of the goal.”

But Denan has nothing to worry about, says an official of the Electricity Board. “So far, we have received requests for installations that would cover a total of 46 MW, so there is plenty left in the current allocation.

And if there is a sudden spate of interest, we have various other ‘backups’ that we can use – for example, we have 300 MW reserved for large installations that we can reallocate to small systems.”

The official added that the agency works with companies that seek to generate electricity by other alternative energy efforts, such as wind power. And, he said, a large solar farm is planned for the Negev as well (that project is strongly opposed by environmental activists, and it is not clear when, or even if, construction will begin).

But depending on “just in case” scenarios, as opposed to knowing what to expect and when, is exactly the problem, Denan says. “People look at the figures and fear their installation is not going to be approved, and I don’t know what to tell them, because the policy is so unclear. It makes it much harder to work with international partners. So much could be accomplished, because this is such a sunny country.

If there were less uncertainty and more clarity – if the bureaucracy could somehow be brought under control – there’s no telling how much we could accomplish.”

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