West Bank solar industry could fuel Palestinian energy independence

"Putting forward a solar vision for the Palestinians is consistent with the stated Likud-government’s policy of two states for two peoples," says CEO in solar sector.

Solar panels (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Solar panels
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
The international community should support the construction of 1,000 megawatts worth of solar energy facilities in the West Bank within the next three years – a step that could lead the territory toward energy independence, according to a founder of Israel's solar industry.   
Connecting 1,000 megawatts of solar now and an additional 1,000 megawatts in a later phase could "make the West Bank the greenest solar territory on the planet," according to Yosef Abramowitz, CEO of Energyia Global and a co-founder of both Israel and East Africa's solar sectors. Abramowitz drafted a detailed plan for future Palestinian solar infrastructure, which will be published next week in the Palestine-Israel Journal, in an article titled "Blair’s Missing Peace: Solar Power for (Energy) Independence." The Jerusalem Post exclusively obtained the article prior to the issue's October 21 launch.
"Putting forward a solar vision for the Palestinians is consistent with the stated Likud-government’s policy of two states for two peoples," Abramowitz told the Post, prior to the journal's publication. "I am not making a political statement on the conflict, rather an environmental statement that all peoples need to quickly switch their energy economies from burning fossil fuels to renewables." 
Abramowitz begins his report by describing how the region in general – Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority and Egypt – far from lives up to its potential regarding solar energy exploitation. While Germany alone produces nearly half the planet's total commercial solar energy, the solar radiation in this region blazes at a strength twice that of Germany. Harnessing that light in this region could be "the key to regional stability, Israeli-Palestinian relations and energy independence," Abramowitz argues in the report.
"The impact from harnessing this energy could be huge," Abramowitz writes. "Jordan could be a solar superpower, even exporting a surplus. The Palestinian Authority (PA) could be energy independent from both the Israelis and the Jordanians. Israel could be the first major economy powered by the sun. Egypt, the most populous Arab country, could be strengthened by new abundant power sources rather than continuing to wilt as it is now doing under a debilitating energy deficit and blackouts."
Looking at the West Bank in particular, Abramowitz finds that the region needs an installed capacity of 860 megawatts of power, a number that is expected to grow to 1,310 megawatts by 2020. At the moment, the region receives 95 percent of its power from the Israel Electric Company, and the rest from an energy-starved Jordan.
Gaza, meanwhile, used about 210 megawatts of power prior to the summer conflict, operating a diesel plant and relying on electricity from 10 Israeli power lines – both of which proved vulnerable during the fighting.
Plans presented by Middle East Quartet representative and former British prime minister Tony Blair for regional infrastructural upgrade have been "lackluster" regarding renewable energy, Abramowitz argues. Meanwhile, although US Secretary of State John Kerry has been a staunch advocate of renewables, he was unable to coordinate sufficiently between his peace process and climate teams, the author explains.
"The main reason Israel has to build another fossil fuel burning power plant is to meet the growing energy needs of the Palestinians," Abramowitz told the Post. "We should kill the plans for the new power plant in Ashkelon by promoting large-scale solar power for the Palestinians."
The first 1,000 megawatts of West Bank solar energy facilitates can be built on Palestinian governed Area A lands entirely, as long as the responsible planning authorities cooperate with zoning and building permits, according to Abramowitz. International support for these megawatts should include an understanding that the PA can rely on Israel for day-time backup for its base load on cloudy days and for nighttime use. Once grid-level storage becomes economical, mostly through Israeli innovations, an additional 1,000 megawatts can be developed, Abramowitz writes.
The $2 billion necessary to invest in West Bank solar projects would ideally come from the United States government, pension funds and the international community, the author says. Financing sources would need to have modest expectations for their rate of return, with 7% on equity and 3.5% on debt, in order for the Palestinian Authority government to approve a 25-year power purchase agreement without requiring subsidy, Abramowitz cautions.
An overwhelming challenge to realizing this plan is acquiring the money necessary. While only $20 million to $30 million is needed in the immediate pre-development grants phase for solar developers in the West Bank, Abramowitz explains that "there are zero dollars available today" from agencies like the United States Agency for International Development, the Quartet and the European Union. That sum of money, however, would lead to $2 billion of equity and debt solar financing within the next three to five years, Abramowitz argues.
Although battling bureaucracy also represents a significant challenge, Abramowitz writes that Palestinian Energy Minister Dr. Omar Kittaneh has been quietly putting together a regulatory framework to accommodate solar power, with the encouragement of the US Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), among others. Despite international donors pushing Kittaneh to rely on natural gas and construct a planned 200-megawatt facility in Jenin, Abramowitz argues that it will be many years before Israeli gas actually flows to Palestinian turbines. Solar plans, on the other hand, could be completed within just a few years, he writes.
"Neither Kerry nor Blair consulted with frontier solar developers about what it would take to create a transformative solar program for the Palestinians," he continues. "The answer is: not much."
Once Hamas is disempowered in Gaza, Abramowitz argues that this territory too can become "a green bastion," by employing offshore wind stations, rebuilding the Gaza power plant to operate on gas from the offshore Gaza Marine field and leasing tracts of land from Sinai through which to import solar power.
Abramowitz concludes the report by expressing hopes that instead of an arms race in the Middle East, the region's players can take part in a "renewables race" fueled by Palestinian solar energy development.
"Solar energy is the energy of peace, for the sun knows no borders," he adds.