Foreign experts challenge Israeli energy dinosaurs

As outsiders look ahead to greener policies, local leaders cling to 20th century plans.

air pollution 224 88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
air pollution 224 88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
A striking contrast in approaches was in evidence at the National Energy Conference 2009 in Tel Aviv this week, as leading international energy experts laid out a 21st century energy plan while the CEOs of Israel's leading oil, gas and electric companies exhibited a distinctly 20th century mindset. Israel Electric Company (IEC) CEO Amos Lasker's presentation, for instance, was startling in its absence of any mention of renewable energy or energy efficiency, which was the focus of foreign presenters. The annual energy conference brings together the major players in Israel's traditional energy market - oil, gas, coal - for a day-long conference focusing on various aspects of the industry. International Energy Agency (IEA) deputy executive director and former US ambassador to Israel Richard Jones chose to speak about the organization's Clean Energy New Deal, which brings together proposals to drastically cut greenhouse gases by 2030 through renewable energy and concrete suggestions to encourage energy efficiency. Similarly, Nick Butler, recently appointed senior policy adviser to British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and chairman of the Cambridge Center for Energy Studies, focused his message on the dangers of global warming and the opportunities of renewable energy. Israel has not been idle regarding energy efficiency and cleaner energy. As Lasker noted, the IEC is moving toward clean coal and technologies that drastically reduce emissions. And the government has passed both renewable energy and energy efficiency decisions crafted by the National Infrastructures Ministry over the past year and a half. Also, tariffs for solar and wind power have either been enacted or are en route. Nevertheless, emissions in Israel are set to continue rising by more than 60% over the next 25 years unless industry's mindset changes, the Environmental Protection Ministry has said. Displaying a lack of such changes, Israeli industry leaders talked on Monday about providing a steady energy supply, the Black Sea as a gateway for oil to Israel, and the future of gas in this country. As one senior National Infrastructures Ministry official told The Jerusalem Post, "they're [the energy companies] not there yet, but if the CEOs want to keep their jobs over the next 10 years, then they'll have to get there. Butler knows what he's talking about and he's absolutely right." With OECD countries well on their way to improved energy efficiency, other countries will account for 97% of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, Jones said, pointing especially to China, India and the Middle East. If business continues as usual, the rate of carbon in the air will increase to 1,000 parts per million (ppm) and contribute to a six-degree global increase in temperature - an unsustainable level, he said. The IEA had therefore come up with 550 ppm and 450 ppm plans, but both require investing in cleaner energy now, he said. The current carbon rate is 385 ppm and is expected to reach 400 ppm within the next five years. In fact, Jones characterized the steps necessary to reach the 450 mark as nothing short of a "revolution." Emissions would have to be cut in half, and even then the temperature would still rise two degrees over the next 20 years, "which is the best we believe we can do at this point," he said. While Jones talked of $10 trillion in investment in power plants and efficiency over the next 20 years, he pointed out that figure represents "only 60 cents for every 100 dollars of global GDP. I think we can handle that, don't you?" Jones mentioned that the IEA recently compiled a list of 25 concrete suggestions which would save 8.3 gigatons of carbon dioxide - more than the emissions of the US and Japan combined. In addition, he contended that, with the right incentives, 5 million electric or plug-in hybrid cars could be on the roads by 2030. He singled out Israeli entrepreneur Shai Agassi's Better Place project as a significant player in the world electric car infrastructure market. While the gas companies dismissed electric cars as a distant threat, at the same time, they noted that gas stations were merely platforms. "Gas stations are real estate close to highways. They are platforms to fill up cars. We don't care what they fill up with - whether it is gasoline, bio-fuel or anything else," Delek CEO Eyal Lapidot said. Both Jones and Butler acknowledged that fossil fuels would still play a major role in the global energy market of the next 50 to 100 years, but said that oil production would likely drop by tens of millions of barrels per day over the next several years. Butler noted that coal would become an increasingly important source of fuel in the next century, just as it was in the 19th century. The IEC's Lasker, in an otherwise conventional presentation, mentioned plans for a new coal-fired power plant, Project E, in 2019-2020. Project D, another coal power plant set to be completed in 2013-14, has drawn widespread criticism from activists. However, outgoing National Infrastructures Ministry Director-General Hezi Kugler said that by the time Project E was built, it would have to be built using newer, cleaner technology instead of what was available today. Butler noted that Israel was currently 20% less efficient than the EU and more than 40% less efficient than Japan. Noting Lasker's mention of clean coal, he opined that Israel might be forced to adopt ever tighter standards in order to maintain its trade relations with Europe. "I don't believe Europe would just strive to increase efficiency and reduce emissions itself without placing an obligation on its trading partners," he said. While stressing the need for diversity of energy sources such as oil, coal, natural gas and liquid natural gas (LNG), Butler chose to devote a large portion of his talk to dissecting the Israeli renewable energy sector. "I've visited lots of renewable energy companies here over the last year and their contribution could be much greater. The sector is fragmented and there are lots of opportunities. For instance, all countries produce waste and it could be converted to energy. You could redesign the grids so the base load is cleverly distributed over time. "Israel could invest in batteries," he continued. "Batteries provide the storage that renewable energy needs. Materials science is also taking off. Carbon capture and storage could be developed, as could offshore wind farms." Butler also noted that renewable energy comprised only 3 percent of the energy market and suggested a mix of public policy and private initiatives to boost that figure. He suggested tax relief for all profits from renewables for a 10-year period, for example. To reduce investors' risk, he suggested creating cumulative funds in which investors would invest in a collection of companies rather than just one. "There will be a great prize for whoever can lead the world to a 21st century energy economy, which is why I focused on renewables. I and the world have been looking for the next Google to seize the renewable energy market, and I don't see why it shouldn't be here in Israel," he concluded.