Ministers Landau, Erdan square off over coal plant

Ministers Landau, Erdan

environment coal plant protest 248 88 (photo credit: )
environment coal plant protest 248 88
(photo credit: )
National Infrastructures Minister Uzi Landau (Israel Beiteinu) has fired the latest salvo in what is shaping up as an interministerial battle over the necessity of another coal-fired power plant in Ashkelon. On one side, Landau and his ministry support the construction of Project D, and on the other, Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan (Likud) and his ministry oppose it. Landau sent a letter and a draft decision to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu at the end of September outlining exactly why Project D must be built, and built quickly. He was responding to an urgent request sent by Erdan to Netanyahu in mid-September pleading for a cabinet meeting to revisit the necessity of the project at all. The Infrastructures Ministry draft decision was released to the press on Sunday and represents the most complete explanation of the project's logic offered thus far by the current administration. According to the draft decision, there is no option but to rely on coal for 50 percent of electricity production. Given that necessity, Project D is critical for meeting that goal. Project D consists of two 630 MW turbines, which, if approved, would come online in 2014 and 2015. The Infrastructures Ministry argued that the only reliable and available sources of fuel in the long-term are coal and nuclear. Most countries rely on either hydroelectric, nuclear or coal power to ensure the continued supply of electricity. In Israel, hydro power is certainly not feasible, and there are no plans right now to build nuclear power plants. That leaves coal, the ministry argued. What about natural gas, which is sweeping the world as an alternative, less polluting fossil fuel? Didn't Israeli companies just discover huge potential fields off the coast of Haifa? While all that may be true, the ministry argued that natural gas has several inherent problems that render it unsuitable to become the main source of energy. First, despite the recent finds (about 200 billion cubic meters worth), taking into account increasing demand each year, the natural gas will only last for the next 20 years. After that, it's back to importing natural gas from countries not necessarily friendly to Israel. That's a very risky proposition from an energy security perspective, the ministry argued. Israel has already been on the receiving end of problematic supply from Egypt, which is supposed to provide 7 billion cubic meters per year according to an agreement reached in 2005. Furthermore, natural gas requires an entire pipe infrastructure, including deep sea pipes to bring it ashore from the offshore fields. If there's a malfunction, it could take too long to fix and leave the country exposed to costly blackouts. Coal, on the other hand, can be stored for months and does not require such potentially malfunctioning infrastructure, the ministry argued. The National Infrastructure Ministry said it was exploring the possibility of liquefied natural gas, but only as a backup. Both Erdan and Landau brought comparisons to natural gas use in countries around the world, but the numbers they quoted were wildly different. Erdan cited examples of countries that use natural gas to produce 60% of their electricity such as Italy and Ireland. Landau, on the other hand, cited an overall average of just 20% of production from natural gas with a goal of 25%. Israel currently produces 40% of its electricity from gas and that is where Landau would like to keep it. He also noted that over the past 10 years, the ministry has worked hard to phase out highly polluting fuels such as diesel fuel and fuel oil. Regarding the potential pollution problems of a new coal-fired plant, Erdan cited the increasing costs of emissions and new, cleaner technology that is expected to be available by 2020 as reasons to delay construction of the Ashkelon plant at the very least. Landau, on the other hand, noted that the plant would be built with technology that would produce less pollution than the current coal-fired plants do. In addition, pollution reduction technology would be installed both in the new plant and in existing plants over the next five to 10 years, according to the draft decision. Finally, Landau disputed Erdan and others' contentions that the new technology would be available relatively soon. Instead, Landau cited internal National Infrastructures reports that concluded the experimental technology was just that, and not likely to be mass produced until after 2020. Erdan charged that a cabinet decision from a year ago to reduce electricity usage by 20% by 2020 was not being implemented. Landau said they were working toward this goal, but that this would not obviate the need for Project D. However, he did note that if the energy efficiency program succeeded it might make certain future plants unnecessary. Landau dismissed alternative energy, mainly solar, as a possible mainstay of the electricity market, because of a lack of available land to erect enough solar fields, the high cost of building such fields, and the fact that the fields only produce electricity half of each day. He said that the goal of 10% of electricity coming from renewables by 2020 was sufficient. Meanwhile, the Israel Energy Forum said that Landau did not provide sufficiently convincing answers as to why energy efficiency could not do the job by itself. The forum also said that his plans made it very difficult to cut Israel's greenhouse gas emissions. Erdan said one of the reasons not to build the Ashkelon plant was the likely increasing costs to countries of emitting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The plans for the plant are currently being debated by the National Infrastructures planning committee. The panel has reached the phase of accepting public responses to the plan and has received thousands of petitions against the plant organized by environmental groups. It is now up to the prime minister to decide whether to bring the plan back to the cabinet for reconsideration, or to let it proceed in the planning committee.