Seeking the Sun (Extract)

Belatedly, Israel is putting together a plan for a national renewable energy infrastructure

25sun224 (photo credit: APC)
(photo credit: APC)
Extract from an article in Issue 25, March 30, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. Even in the late winter months, the sun can shine so brightly in the Arava, the desert plain that stretches between the Dead Sea and Eilat, that it is easy to understand why a man might take one look around him and imagine he has discovered a gold mine in these days of awareness of the potential of solar energy. Yosef Abramowitz did just that. Just three years after he arrived from Boston to settle in Kibbutz Ketura, about 50 kilometers north of Eilat, a firm that Abramowitz established has been awarded the first commercial license issued to a completely private company to produce solar-powered electricity to be fed into Israel's electricity grid. The installation is expected to be the largest photo-voltaic solar energy field in the world. Located in one of the world's most sun-drenched areas, Israel was an early pioneer in the field of solar energy, but it has been lagging behind for years now. It has only recently and somewhat tentatively begun putting together a comprehensive national plan for constructing a renewable energy infrastructure, leaving the country behind the curve of many other nations. "So far, we've been our own worst enemy," says Abramowitz, 44, who endured two years of a seemingly regulatory obstacle course before obtaining the license for his Arava Power Company (APC). "The fact that Israeli solar companies choose to work in California and Spain and not in Israel says something about the regulatory, statutory and political environment in the State of Israel." This is Abramowitz's first venture in the energy business -- or indeed, in any business at all. Back in Boston, he ran a large Jewish publishing non-profit organization and was involved in a variety of Jewish communal activities - even running for the Knesset in 2006, while still living in the United States. (He has been an Israeli citizen since 1969, when his family made aliya to Israel from Brooklyn; in 1972, when he was 8 years old, the family moved back to the United States). Charismatic, energetic and fond of the expression "thinking out of the box," Abramowitz is undaunted by the bureaucracy. "I thought I would build a solar energy field in Israel," he quips, "and instead I ended up working on building the field of solar energy in Israel." The first investors in APC were Abramowitz himself and Kibbutz Ketura. After a year of operation, he had raised nearly $1 million from friends and family. APC is formally registered as a subsidiary of Global Sun Partners, a British Virgin Islands corporation. Kibbutz Ketura is in a way the quintessential location in Israel for a project with a mix of environmental idealism and an American-style can-do entrepreneurial attitude. Founded in 1973, two-thirds of its 130 members are immigrants, most from North America. It has pioneered ecologically oriented projects, and its main industrial plant, Algatech, extracts materials from algae for use as fish food and pigments in cosmetics. Ketura is also the home of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, which conducts research in desert ecology and renewable energy. A close relationship has developed between the Arava Institute and APC's solar power project. Israel's now-diminished prestige in the solar energy world was due in no small part to the locally-invented solar water heater, which became such a fixture, installed in over 90 percent of Israeli homes, that an estimated 3 percent of the country's national energy consumption is solar generated. But in an era of international carbon capping and global-warming concerns, with renewable energy rapidly emerging as one of the major industries of the early 21st century, that figure is increasingly less impressive. A government decision, adopted in January 2009, provides for 5 percent of Israel's energy to come from renewable sources by 2014 and 10 percent by 2020, which translates into about 1.5 gigawatts per year from solar energy. But Europe is well on the way towards a goal of 20 percent renewable energy by 2020, and Spain alone already produces 1.6 gigawatts of solar energy. Falling behind global standards in this field, say many analysts, is not something Israel can afford to do, given the country's extreme dependence on foreign energy sources, its status as an "electricity island" unable to draw on electricity from its neighbors if necessary, and the increasing importance of renewable-energy technology in the world. The recent discovery of vast natural gas fields off of Israel's shores may reduce its dependence on outside sources, but natural gas is not a renewable source of energy. In addition, when Israel graduates from its current developing nation status under the Kyoto Protocol in 2013 to developed nation status, it will be required to reduce its carbon footprint or purchase expensive offsetting carbon credits. "Infrastructure planning in Israel in general is too fragmented, and this is also true in particular with respect to renewable energy. There are too many different bodies involved," says David Miron-Wapner, executive director of the U.S. - Israel Science and Technology Commission, who has studied the issue. "Several centers for clean technology have been established, which is good, but there is need for better coordination, especially in order to enable entrepreneurs to be able to plug renewable energy power plants into the electricity grid." The good news is that the country has recently shifted into higher gear in moving towards greater renewable energy production. In July 2008, the Public Utilities Administration (PUA) introduced a tariff of 2.01 shekels per kilowatt hour (kWh) paid to small solar-power generating sources feeding electricity into the national grid, capped at 15 kW capacity in residential sites and 50 kW in commercial sources. It has also announced plans to offer a feed-in tariff of 1.5 shekels per kWh later this year for medium-sized suppliers, with capacities of between 50 kW to 5 MW. The Israel Lands Administration (ILA), which owns 90 percent of the land in the country, introduced a series of new regulations in October 2008 to govern the allocation of land for solar fields and the economic cabinet in Israel's government, in January, finally approved a comprehensive Renewable Energy Act that designated the Arava and Negev areas as renewable energy zones, granting these areas a range of tax benefits intended to spark renewable energy generation. In addition, last summer the state issued a tender for the construction of a 250 MW solar park in Ashalim, a Negev settlement about 35 km south of Beersheba, a project that had been delayed for several years due to bureaucratic red tape. The winner of the tender is scheduled to be announced in April, and the project is expected to supply 2.5 percent of Israel's power needs, at an estimated investment cost of $700 million. And then there's the Ketura project. On March 2, Infrastructure Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer formally granted APC its initial license for constructing what is expected to be an 80 MW photovoltaic field, which would make it the largest PV solar energy field in the world. APC hopes eventually to develop a network of solar fields generating 500 to 1,000 MW. There are currently three main types of industrial-strength solar-energy generation technologies. The solar-tower method and parabolic-trough system both ultimately generate electricity thermally by heating liquids in order to run turbines - the latter method by shining sunlight onto liquids pumped through pipes located between parabolic mirrors, and the former by concentrating sunlight directly onto one focal point by spreading a large field of flat mirrors surrounding a large tower. The photovoltaic (PV) method works on entirely different principles. PV cells, usually placed in flat panels turned towards the sun, convert sunlight directly to electricity using the photoelectric effect, which was first explained by Albert Einstein and for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1921. PVs have significant advantages over the thermal methods. No large-scale turbines need to be constructed for PV cells. PV light collectors needn't be located on level ground, and can work in rugged landscapes. They do not require raising large sums of money up front for plants yielding 1,000 megawatts or more. One can begin with small individual PV cells and add them modularly as needed. PVs, however, are overall less economical under current technological conditions than thermal solar-power generators, and even expert researchers in photovoltaic technology such as David Faiman, director of the Ben-Gurion National Solar Energy Center, recommend basing large-scale electricity generating plants at present on thermal technologies. The poor economics of PVs are partly explained by the fact that silicon is an expensive material for light collection, and currently it takes nearly a year for the sunlight collected by 1 square meter of a PV cell to produce the same energy as that of one barrel of oil. Most advancements in PV technology in coming years - and these are definitely on the way, based on cutting-edge laboratory research - will focus on switching to cheaper materials and producing more energy per cell. All three of the main solar-power generating methods are present in Israel. The large Ashalim project, with a projected capacity of 250 MW, will contain both a parabolic trough thermal field and a photovoltaic station, and a solar-tower field is in operation in the Rotem Industrial complex outside Dimona. But the Rotem field is not connected to the electricity grid; Luz II, which runs the site, is using it as a test bed for technologies it will apply in solar plants it will build in California and Europe. The Ashalim park has been a source of disappointment and frustration for solar power advocates in Israel - due to regulatory hurdles and bickering between various administrative bodies overseeing the project, it has been stuck in the planning stages for nearly six years and is not expected to produce power before 2013 at the earliest. The Negev, for all its seeming open, empty vistas, is crowded - with military bases, national parks, nature reserves, Beduin, and areas ear-marked for new settlements, making the identification of readily available, significantly large areas for large solar fields a difficult task. And the bid process for mega-plants is inherently slow, involving a search for appropriate and available land, soliciting bids from companies, and installing extensive new infrastructure in previously empty areas. Infrastructure Ministry assistant spokesman Elazar Nevo tells The Report that to achieve its 10 percent renewable energy goal by 2020 the Ministry's efforts will focus on tenders for licenses granted to companies constructing large and concentrated solar-power plants in the Negev and Arava. "We intend on adding 250 megawatts of renewable energy capacity a year from 2010 to 2020," he says. "We are mapping appropriate areas for the establishment of wind and solar power plants. Open land for solar-power plants will be granted on the basis of tenders, in association with the Israel Lands Authority and the Interior Ministry." Abramowitz, however, is convinced that relying solely on build and operate tenders is a wrong approach, and advocates instead for a significant portion of Israel's solar-generated electricity to come not only from new mega-plants built on huge tracts of open land, but from a network of small, private PV-based generating stations inside existing kibbutzim and other settlements in the Negev and Arava. He puts forward an intriguing argument: Instead of looking for open, virgin territory, use underused land already owned by kibbutzim that can easily be rezoned and house solar-power generating plants filled with PV cells with relatively small infrastructure investment, in a win-win situation that will benefit both the kibbutzim and the country. Extract from an article in Issue 25, March 30, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.