Green panel explores Beduin’s role in solar energy

Rahat mayor to Eilat-Eilot conference: It could help residents enjoy greater employment and income.

Solar Panel field 311 AP (photo credit: AP)
Solar Panel field 311 AP
(photo credit: AP)
When it comes to solar energy, Negev Beduin “want to be treated as equals, and the state needs to realize that we have potential,” Rahat Mayor Faiz Abu Seheban said Thursday at the fourth annual Eilat-Eilot Renewable Energy Conference.
“Green energy is a very important subject, and it is something positive for the Beduin of the Negev,” he said.
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Speaking during a panel discussion entitled “Historic Decision on Justice for Beduin on Land Issues – The Solar Aspect,” Abu Seheban noted his city’s high unemployment, which he said had reached 56.7 percent, and the fact that the average age of residents was 14. Abu Seheban said solar energy could help residents of Rahat “enjoy greater employment and income... We have potential here, and it needs to be increased – and we need help from the state.”
During his speech, Abu Seheban also called on the state to set aside 1,000 megawatts worth of solar energy development for the Beduin sector, which he said would present wide-ranging social and economic benefits.
Since 2006, the Arava Power company has signed agreements with five Beduin families in the Negev to enable the construction of solar energy fields capable of producing 25 MW of power on land totaling 540 dunams.
However, the plan’s advancement has been scuttled by the fact that to gain licenses to build solar energy-producing fields, the families must present documents proving land ownership recognized by the state.
Yosef Abramowitz, president of Arava Power, said that shortly after the firm was founded in 2006, it had begun exploring the idea of solar power as an opportunity for the Beduin of the Negev – in his words, partly out of a social justice need, and partly to please the shareholders.
“In a democratic country, you can’t have 99.9% of the solar benefits go only to Jews,” he explained. “In 2009, the government decided that by 2020, 10% of Israel’s energy must come from renewable energy. That same decision declares the entire Negev and Arava a special renewable energy zone. Our position is that this is also a matter of social economic justice, and that all residents of the Negev can and should be part of the solar revolution.”
Abramowitz said that while the state was pushing for more investment in solar energy, legal issues involving Beduin made their incorporation into the plans especially complicated.
“One of the reasons the Beduin are at a disadvantage to take part in the solar revolution is because you can’t file an application for a solar license without proving that you have rights to the land,” he said. “Because of the 25,000 legal battles going on between the state and the Beduin over land, it means the Beduin community is effectively shut out.”
According to Abramowitz, another issue affecting not only the Beduin, but also a number of moshavim and kibbutzim, is that the state has so far only given out licenses to facilities that would produce a total of 300 MW of power. Since 2009, the state has received applications from solar power production facilities that in total would raise that amount to over 1,200 MW of power.
The Arava Power co-founder said that “no Beduin will receive a solar license in the state of Israel, period, unless the state raises the cap on the medium-size tariff [for solar energy facilities] to 1,200 MW. This should be done immediately – not only for the Beduin, but also to enable Israel to reach the goal of having 5% renewable energy by 2014.”
Calling the government’s failure to do so “bean-counting non-strategic economics,” Abramowitz added that enabling these solar fields to go into construction would have immediate economic and social effects.
“It would help Israel meet its 10% renewable goal by 2020, which is 4,000 MW. It would attract billions of dollars into the poorest communities in the State of Israel, and provide thousands of green jobs. It would be an economic engine and bring economic and social development of the Beduin for the next generation,” he said.
He added that it could also potentially change the Negev Beduin’s relationship with the state, in that it would be an incentive for many to reconcile with the state over land issues so as to have the ability to use the land for economically and socially beneficial green energy projects.
“For 63 years, there’s been a standoff between the Beduin and the state over the land and who has the rights to the land. It’s been very painful on a human basis and on a policy basis. What the state realized is that they can’t do any major infrastructure projects in the South – railroads, army bases, highways, gas pipelines – without finally settling the Beduin land rights issue on a comprehensive basis. So it’s in the strategic interests of the state,” he explained.
Abramowitz also expressed his hope that solar energy programs in Beduin communities would get greater support when the cabinet voted next month on whether to adopt the conclusions of the Goldberg Commission, which was founded in 2007 to find solutions to the Beduin issue – particularly the matter of unrecognized villages.
The commission’s rulings, which were published in November 2008, stated that the government should recognize most of the villages, allow most of the homes to go through a legalization process, and form a committee to hear and settle traditional land claims.
Dudu Cohen, a former head of the Southern District at the Interior Ministry who currently works as a consultant for Arava Power, said during the panel discussion Thursday that helping Beduin take part in the development of solar power in Israel “is an additional tool that would help find a solution to issues of land issues, residence, and [Beduin] assimilation in society.”
Former interior minister Ophir Pines-Paz told the panel that “the integration of solar energy is something that has not taken place until now. Throughout the world, solar revolutions have begun on the local level. Mayors are the ones who created this revolution.”
He stressed that “an environmental revolution needs to come from the local leadership.”
Pines-Paz added that government regulators “need to allow local authorities to advance these initiatives, especially poorer local authorities. The environmental revolution will take place in these authorities, and the government won’t need to be bothered.”