The Energy Ministry has announced an ambitious NIS 25 billion investment and development plan in the shadow of the corona crisis. This is a welcome step. Yet when it comes down to details, it turns out that Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz pulled a plan out of the government drawer from the 20th century and not the 21st.
One of the most prominent elements of the plan is to build a gas pipeline to Eilat. While it sounds impressive on paper, a pipeline is completely unnecessary. It only serves the interests of the gas tycoons and not the taxpayers or the environmentally minded residents of the region.
Eilat and the Arava are about to become 100% solar-powered by day with the completion soon of the field at Timna. Instead of investing in a pump storage station for night-time energy, or other storage solutions to expand the clean renewable energy infrastructure in the country's sunniest region, the plan calls for a more expensive, dangerous and polluting alternative.
In Israel 2020, solar energy is cheaper than natural gas, especially in the Arava and Eilat. Instead of wasting so much money on a tycoon-serving gas line, the funds should be invested in finally upgrading the grid lines and substations from the sunny South to the center of the country.
The communities in the Arava will oppose a gas line going through their territory. In 2014, the worst pipeline leak in Israel’s history occurred in Evrona National Park, near Eilat, when a KAZA pipe was breached and five million liters of crude oil covered large parts of its territory. Cleaning the reserve cost NIS 281 million, severely damaging the ecosystem. And building a gas pipeline in the area - an earthquake zone - is simply a corrupt idea.
What is true of the Arava is also true of the entire State of Israel. Just as the Arava will be 100% solar powered during the day by the end of this year, so, too, could the entire State of Israel be by 2030. This would be win-win for the economy, creating thousands of green jobs. Our neighbor Jordan, with the same sun, will reach the 100% daytime solar goal by 2030.
The Energy Ministry does include an additional 3,000 megawatts of solar energy in their investment plan. This symbolic green-wash to mask the gas program will ensure that a 75% monopoly on Israel’s production will still be held by the more expensive and polluting gas companies.
THE PRICE of solar power is now 15 agorot (about four cents) or less per kilowatt hour, depending on the size of the field. The proposed additional 3,000 MW is by old-school tendering, for which only a handful of companies could qualify.
Switching energy procurement to licenses at 15 agorot for medium fields and 10 agorot for large ones would incentivize the private sector to invest NIS 25 billion for 10,000 MW and would provide thousands of jobs, particularly in the periphery. The market would open up to dozens of players instead of the current five big companies. (When the regulator switched from licenses to tendering five years ago, the industry lost more than 1,000 jobs and most solar companies went bankrupt.)
The logic behind launching an acceleration investment plan for the Israeli economy in the energy sector makes sense as a catalyst for creating jobs and building a smart infrastructure for the future. Israel can quickly lead the world in implementing an intelligent version of the Green New Deal that will reduce the price of electricity, pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. We could reserve an additional 3,000 MW quota for the Bedouin community, which would serve as an engine of economic development and bring much-needed historic land compromises to the South.
The government needs to invest citizens' tax money in green growth; in storage, transmission and in mandating that every rooftop be retrofitted for solar. No new building permits should be issued without a solar plan, as well as a shade plan. So many of the homes in Israel are multi-unit. The regulations for roof-top solar are antiquated and do not include storage, stunting the growth of widespread adoption as well as undermining energy security for its citizens.
The Israeli government’s economic plan must not include a single shekel for any gas company or gas project, since it locks in higher prices and pollution for an entire generation. My teacher, Rabbi Jennie Rosenn of the new American Jewish climate organization Dayenu, teaches that the corona pandemic is a fire drill for the coming impact of climate change.
Minister Steinitz, follow the path of the Arava toward 100% solar rather than bulldoze through the pristine region and the state budget, and giving yet another gift to the gas industry using taxpayer funds.
The writer pioneered the solar energy industries in Israel and Africa and serves as CEO of EnergiyaGlobal. He can be followed @KaptainSunshine.