How to bring green energy to Israeli Arabs - opinion

In the democratic state of Israel, it is hard to explain why only one solar field – rather than 20% of them to match Israel’s Arab population – is in the Arab community.

Climate change activists take part in a demonstration of the Fridays for Future movement in Lausanne, Switzerland January 17, 2020 (photo credit: REUTERS/PIERRE ALBOUY)
Climate change activists take part in a demonstration of the Fridays for Future movement in Lausanne, Switzerland January 17, 2020
(photo credit: REUTERS/PIERRE ALBOUY)

The Israeli delegation is nervous going into the UN Climate Conference-COP 26 – not only because Israeli government energy policy is vastly out of step with our major allies on serious climate action, but also because the country has not fixed the systemic discrimination in green energy for its Arab minorities.

The fixes are easy to make.

Yair Lapid, the foreign minister and alternative prime minister, is politically most vulnerable, since his Yesh Atid party controls the Energy Ministry; and he also seeks to improve relations with US Democrats, whose leader has prioritized climate justice and Israel has essentially spit in the face of the Biden-Harris Administration on this burning (and often, racial) issue.

In the democratic state of Israel, it is hard to explain why only one solar field – rather than 20% of them to match Israel’s Arab population – is in the Arab community: a 10 MW solar field in the recognized village of Tarabin in the Negev. All other solar fields are on Jewish-owned land, which also means the economic benefits brought by solar have favored kibbutzim and moshavim and have systematically excluded Bedouin and other minorities. The poor get poorer and the rich get richer.

I know this from experience. I have worked with the Bedouin community for over a dozen years to bring the blessings of solar power to their largely impoverished communities. Even those Bedouin who made painful compromises on land with the state have been stymied from realizing economic benefit from the land, especially in renewables, because of a labyrinth of regulations and pseudo secret plans, like future train tracks or future forests that are not disclosed in the compromise process.

Israel’s energy policy is deliberately meant to slow down renewables so that it can ramp up dependence on gas, install even more gas pipelines throughout the country, and justify granting licenses for more oil and gas exploration at a time when the civilized world is fast turning to renewables. 

Part of the collateral damage of the Finance Ministry nixing additional solar quotas a decade ago were six Bedouin families who were trying to develop their land for solar, and no solution has yet been put forward to have them complete the task. And by the electricity regulator (PUA) switching from licenses with set tariff amounts – with lower risks to developers – to winner-takes-all low-cost tenders, investors are severely disincentivized to work with complicated Arab land-rights issues. Time is money and it takes an extra three to eight years to navigate a solar field on Arab lands than on Jewish ones and there is still no guarantee of success. 

ONE QUICK government decision can change all this – and hopefully before Israel’s leadership steps on the climate justice political land mine at Glasgow at the UN climate conference the first two weeks of November.

Above our modest renewable energy goals, Israel must allocate an additional 5,000 MW through 2030 of renewable energy for its Arab minorities, who have been essentially locked out of the solar enterprise - and the economic benefits it brings – over the past decade. This will help bring down electricity costs for all customers – as utility-scale solar is cheaper than gas power – bring significant economic and social development to Israel’s poorest communities and help Israel become a better climate actor in the world.

An enlightened government decision would accomplish four goals:  First, grant immediate dual-use land zoning for Bedouin who compromise with the state for agro-voltaics, meaning agriculture plus green energy to reinforce food and energy security. 

Second, give Arab-related projects priority interconnection to the grid, since the Jewish landowners had a decade to fill the packed Negev grid with their projects with higher tariff fields. 

Third, an allocation of an extra 5,000 dunam of Negev land for women-led agricultural cooperatives that can also utilize agro-voltaic technology – an idea advanced by Dr. Mohammed Al-Nabari, the former mayor of Hura and CEO of the non-profit Yanabia. And to provide an exemption for Arab homes and institutions to produce a Form 4, which the electric company requires before they connect any solar rooftop. Nearly all Jewish homes and institutions have them, but Arab villages within Israel are regularly denied building permits as part of the failure of the state to plan with equal resources and creativity in the Arab sector.

For those Jewish Israelis who believe it is important to develop the Negev, they should embrace solar-powered land compromises and an allocation of additional lands to cooperatives so that rationale and sustainable development can progress for all sectors. Yet a 5,000 MW solar quota for minorities, which would attract $5 billion in private sector investments, is not on the agenda of the ministers who would be responsible for such a government decision: Agriculture Minister Oded Forer, Labor and Social Affairs Minister Meir Cohen, Environment Minister Tamar Zanberg, Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman and Energy Minister Karin Elharrar.

When Knesset member Saeed Alharomi from Ra’am was appointed to chair the Knesset Interior and Environmental Committee, hope was in the air, as Alharomi was going to advance the above government decision. And then he died of a heart attack. A fitting tribute of this government to his climate justice vision would be to approve immediately this government decision bearing his name.

The writer is Israel’s climate nominee for the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize, to be announced October 8. He can be followed @Kaptainsunshine