Harnessing the sun for peace

Solar power may hold the key to regional stability

Solar power (photo credit: REUTERS)
Solar power
(photo credit: REUTERS)
THE PEOPLE’S Climate March, which recently attracted a record 400,000 people to the streets of New York City prior to the UN General Assembly, was remarkably free of divisive politics. Even the Muslim and Jewish contingents managed to march together in the multi-faith section and not one word was uttered about Israel or the recent war in Gaza.
Six thousand miles away, the Syrian-East African Rift Valley represents the planet’s largest fault zone and runs 6,000 kilometers along the flat indentation straddled by Israel, Jordan, the West Bank, Saudi Arabia and a host of East African countries all the way down to Lake Victoria.
When you overlay a solar irradiation map over this region, something extraordinary pops up that may ultimately hold the key to regional stability, Israeli-Palestinian relations and energy independence, while also rolling back extreme climate change.
Here are the extraordinary findings: Jordan could be a solar superpower, even ex - porting 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 regular blackouts.
In a three-year period, from February 2011 to February 2014, the natural gas pipeline from Egypt that crisscrosses the Sinai was sabotaged over a dozen times by anti-Israel forces. These same forces also objected to the Egyptian central government’s ignoring the economic needs of their region.
The explosions that blew up the pipelines forced the Israel Electric Corporation (IEC) to switch on its back-up generators, burning dirty and expensive heavy fuels, and racking up a 6 billion shekel deficit for which Israeli consumers are still paying.
This could have been better managed if the Israeli government, represented by the Public Utilities Authority (PUA), had green-lighted a rational solar policy early enough. Had the path been clear for investors to build the 6,000-8,000 megawatts (MW) of power that Israel needs to reach the European Union goal of 20 percent renewables by 2020, the IEC would have been able to rely more on cheaper solar than on more expensive diesel during those energy volatile days.
Israel, in fact, has only a modest goal of 10 percent renewables by 2020, which is scandalous, and the industry has been waiting for an agonizing two years for the next solar program to be approved.
Jordan, which needs about 4,500 MW of power, has the land assets not only to meet its energy needs with solar during the day, but also to export to Israel. Indeed, the 1994 peace treaty between Jordan and Israel stipulates the interconnection of their grids. Yet each time a Jordanian energy minister explored that option, it was vetoed by both the Syrian and Egyptian members of the Middle East grid.
In today’s new political alignment, with Syria a regional pariah in the midst of a bloody civil war and Egypt desperate for energy stability, the International Quartet, comprising the US, EU, UN and Russia, could quietly enable this key interconnection.
Jordan would be the major financial beneficiary. This could also incentivize the kingdom to greatly expand its modest renewables goal of 10 percent by 2020 so that solar could drive energy exports to all its neighbors – including the Palestinians.
The West Bank is a landlocked territory.
It receives roughly 95 percent of its energy as the IEC’s largest customer and the rest from an energy-starved Jordan. The West Bank currently needs 860 MW of power.
This number is expected to grow to 1310 MW by 2020.
ISRAEL’S NEED to build another conventional power station is largely fueled by its need to meet both peak demand in Israel while also reliably supplying the lion’s share of the West Bank’s energy.
Gaza, before the latest war, used about 210 MW of power, which constitutes only half of its total need. Unlike the West Bank, Gaza has historically operated its own lone diesel power plant. The plant has been polluting, is expensive and proved vulnerable to violence during Hamas-Israel wars and was hit during the latest hostilities. Israel and Egypt have historically supplied the rest of Gaza’s energy, but eight out of 10 power lines from Israel to Gaza were damaged during the latest round of fighting, mostly by errant Hamas missiles.
The Quartet projects an energy shortage for all Palestinians of about 1,000 MW, or a gigawatt, by 2020.
At a Knesset hearing earlier this year on regional cooperation, outgoing Quartet representative Mark Singleton listened to a critique of the energy plans for the West Bank by the international community. But he missed the main point, which is: There will never be political independence for the Palestinians without energy independence; and energy independence is only possible through renewables, with solar providing the lion’s share of the green energy.
When US Secretary of State John Kerry came to the World Economic Forum’s Middle East conference on the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea in May 2013, he promised $4 billion in American investment to help advance Palestinian economic development.
“It is time to put in place a new model of development... that is bigger and bolder than anything proposed since the Oslo Ac - cord [1993],” he said. “The intention is not just to make it transformative, but to make it different from anything ever seen before.”
The Quartet’s new plan for power over the next seven years is very professional, but, unfortunately, too conventional in its think - ing and type of energy envisaged. While it focuses on natural gas, upgrading infrastructure, pre-paid meters and more, there is only a very modest solar program. This is where the mismatch is between Kerry’s vision and former British prime minister Tony Blair’s Quartet team.
Blair’s record on renewables as prime minister was lackluster.
Kerry, on the other hand, was a staunch advocate of renewables and the fight against climate change in the US Senate. Yet, as secretary of state, he failed to coordinate adequately between his peace process and his climate teams.
THE INTERNATIONAL community should support building 1,000 MW of solar in the West Bank in the next three years to meet all its daytime needs. This support should include an understanding that the PA can rely on Israel for daytime backup base-load on cloudy days and nighttime use. Another 1,000 MW should be planned in a second phase, for when grid-level storage becomes economical, mostly through Israeli innovations in the field.
This would make the West Bank the greenest solar territory on the planet, with enough green power to fuel electric vehicles at a fraction of the cost of gasoline or diesel – providing additional economic benefit to the people. Palestinians are overall indus - trious and educated; once they learn how to ramp up solar and electric vehicles, they will be the drivers of renewables throughout the Arab world. They may even shame Israel into increasing its renewables goals.
Gaza, once Hamas is disempowered, could also be a green bastion. Combining offshore wind stations, rebuilding the Gaza power plant to work only on natural gas from the Gaza Marine offshore field, and leasing large tracts of Sinai land from Egypt from which to import solar power would be the centerpieces of an enlightened energy policy for the Strip. None of the above would be financeable under Gaza’s current leadership and climate, and verification systems would be needed to assure Egypt, Israel and the international community that power is not being used for tunnels or missile factories.
The PA’s cheapest and fastest route to gas-powered electricity for the West Bank is to purchase power from Israel, as it does today. It will take many, many years before Israeli gas could power Palestinian turbines.
In the meantime, 1,000 MW of solar could power the West Bank during the day within a relatively short space of time. This, coupled with interconnecting the West Bank to the Middle East grid for additional redundancy and base-load, and phasing in storage for nighttime and cloudy days would position the Palestinians much closer to energy independence through renewables.
Neither Kerry nor Blair consulted with frontier solar developers about what it would take to create a transformative solar program for the Palestinians. The answer is – not much. Just provide seed grant funding to reduce the risk during the first pre-development stage, extend OPIC (America’s Overseas Private Investment Corporation) and World Bank risk guarantees to equity investors, discount long-term financing through OPIC or development banks, and continue to upgrade the Palestinian grid.
And, finally, clear their calendars for ribbon-cutting ceremonies at Palestinian solar fields.