Harness the sun

Cloudy Germany exponentially outshines Israel in its ability to capture sunlight and turn it into usable fuel.

Arava Solar Field 311 (photo credit: Sharon Udasin)
Arava Solar Field 311
(photo credit: Sharon Udasin)
Germany, a country of clouds and notoriously rainy summers, exponentially outshines Israel in its ability to capture sunlight and turn it into usable fuel for the country’s households, schools and public institutions.
As one of the world’s leading solar energy producers, Germany has an installed capacity of 9,800 megawatts of solar panels and generates a total of 6.6 terawatt hours of electricity from them annually, bringing its total electricity consumption by photovoltaic panels to over 1%. Renewables as a whole account for 16.3% of the central European country’s national electric supply.
In sunny Israel, by contrast, renewables overall comprise only 1% of electricity consumption, and solar energy makes up just a fraction of that.
The Israel Electric Corporation needs only about 11,000 megawatts of installed energy capacity to power the entire country during peak hours, but thus far only about 100 megawatts of that total are powered by solar energy from rooftop panels (although there will soon be an additional 4.95 megawatts from the new Ketura Sun field launched last week by Arava Power Company).
A Spanish solar powerhouse last year alone installed 6,000 megawatts worth of photovoltaic panels, an amount equivalent to more than half of the Jewish state’s electricity needs. Countries in the European Union have pledged to supply 20% of their electricity supplies with solar energy by the year 2020. A bit more modest in its goals, the Israeli government has promised that 5% of the country’s electricity will be supplied by renewables in 2014, and 10% in 2020.
Israel possesses some of the strongest desert heat in the world – the Arava Desert, for example, is the world’s third most “extreme” desert, as described by Yosef Abramowitz, co-founder and CEO of Arava Power Company. Scientists at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, the Arava Institute of Environmental Studies and institutions around the country are pioneering the field of solar innovation and technologies. So why then, are we so far behind many other developed nations in terms of harnessing what is right in front of us?
At this stage, the government hasn’t taken the steps necessary to provide certainty to the solar energy market – to bestow confidence upon the scientists and entrepreneurs that their inventions and investments will really see the light of day. Bureaucracy is currently the only real stumbling block to increasing Israel’s solar power and the hundreds of thousands of green jobs that could be created in the process.
Medium-sized fields, like Arava Power’s Ketura Sun, still currently have a government-enforced cap of 300 megawatts total installed capacity, and the various authorities dawdle over approving the hundreds of applications waiting on their desks to fulfill that cap. For Arava Power, getting the permits to erect its field took five years, as forms circulated through 24 different government offices, according to the founders. Meanwhile, smaller scale rooftop panels have 2008-initiated caps of 15 megawatts for residential locations (there are currently three megawatts left to fill) and 35 megawatts for commercial areas (exhausted in 2010), both of which were increased in August 2010 for a limited time, according to the Renewable Energy Association of Israel.
Large fields – those that are between 12 and 60 megawatts and are fed into the Israel’s 160-kilovolt gridline – haven’t yet hit the ground due to government hesitancy. At Arava Power again, for example, the company recently received approval from the Interior Ministry’s National Planning and Building Council to construct a large, 40- megawatt solar field across the street from its current medium- sized field. While it also received prior approval from a string of other offices – such as the Agriculture, Environmental Protection and National Infrastructures ministries – its construction, like the construction of all other large fields that might follow, is still being blocked by a stubborn Finance Ministry.
The Treasury, stuck in the belief that natural gas prices will remain low forever, finds little incentive to approve something that is, admittedly, more expensive now, no matter what future benefits might be. But our natural gas supply, while abundant, will not be available forever, and prices will rise as we deplete our resources. And while it is hardly as polluting as jet fuel or diesel oil – the energy sources that currently fill the gaps when our at-home or Egyptian natural gas sources fail – it is still a fossil fuel.
Israel needs a clean, alternative source of energy that is stable enough to not only bridge holes during summer blackouts, but also to furnish a significant portion of the country’s electricity in the future. And what better way to fulfill that need than with a supply that will be available to us forever – or at least for the next five billion years – a source that has been shining down on our stretches of hot, seemingly endless desert since biblical times and beyond?