Clean Power in Israel
A Brief Overview
Erin Solaro, all rights reserved, 2012.
Table of Contents
A Brief Overview of Israel’s Clean Power Situation
Israel is a high-tech powerhouse. According to the Israeli Advanced Technology Industries website, “In 2006 Israel had close to 8,000 people working in R&D per each million people of its population. Asia’s number was little more than 7,000 and Europe’s 4,500…Israel ranks among the leading countries in patent applications per capita.”
Unfortunately, Israel’s use of clean power, i.e., renewable energy, does not match its high-tech prowess. According to the Israeli Electric Corporation (IEC), as of 2011, coal generates 61.5 percent of Israel’s electricity, natural gas 31.9 percent, diesel oil 4.8 percent, and fuel oil 0.9 percent. Israel purchases all of these fuels directly or indirectly foreign sources, except for natural gas, which Israel purchases from the Tethys Sea Group. (American and Israeli companies jointly own Tethys.)
At the UN Conference on Climate Change in 2009, President Shimon Peres committed Israel to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent by 2020. As an interim goal, Israel has a target of producing 5 percent of its electricity, or 1,150 megawatts, from clean sources such as solar power by 2014. The 2020 goal is 10 percent or 2,750 megawatts (this number includes estimated increased demand) from clean sources. As of September 2012, Israel produces just 0.44 percent its electricity from clean sources, a ridiculously small proportion.
The Advantages of Clean Energy
Transitioning Israel to clean energy has several advantages.
- Clean energy can reduce and eventually eliminate Israel’s dependence upon imported foreign fossil fuels.
- Clean energy, of which household and small business solar- and wind-power generation should be an important component, can decentralize and disperse Israeli power production. This will be critically important in any future war.
- Clean energy production can increase employment options in the periphery of Israel.
- Clean energy can reduce the health costs of pollution, such as asthma and pneumonia.
- Transitioning to clean energy will help Israeli do its share to slow and perhaps reverse global warming.
Why So Little Clean Energy?
Israel’s regulatory environment is very unfriendly to the development of clean energy. Private entities that generate energy privately, such as a homeowner who installs solar cells on the roof, or a kibbutz that installs a biodigester, cannot simply use the energy. Instead, they must sell the energy back to the IEC.
The IEC distorts the market in the following ways.
- Compared to the 2014 goal of 1,150 megawatts of clean power, the IEC sets ridiculously low quotas for clean power and resists increasing those quotas.
- 30 megawatts for wind power.
- 50 megawatts for solar power.
- 15 megawatts for rooftop and other small producers.
- 35 megawatts for large plants.
- If the IEC increased its clean power production quotas five-fold, producers could fill those increased quotas.
- The IEC sells power at 49.52 agorot per kWh when the actual cost of fossil-fueled electricity, including the environmental and human damage caused by those fuels, is 88.30 agorot per kWh.
- In order to encourage the production of clean energy, Israel subsidizes clean energy producers. However, the rates are unstable and inadequate. The IEC just reduced its payments for solar electricity from 89 to 65 agorot per kWh. Because solar power is such a small share of Israel’s electrical production, this subsidy reduction saves the individual consumer only a few shekels. However, such a steep and rapid subsidy reduction makes institutional investment in solar production nearly impossible.
Finally, obtaining regulatory approval for clean projects is lengthy, cumbersome and opaque. The rules change frequently, making it impossible for entrepreneurs to follow their business plans. In addition, small home-based power generation projects which involve the use of relatively safe natural resources such as the sun and wind, “are inspected by the same criteria and in the same manner” as stations that are expected to generate hundreds of megawatts from combustible resources, such as natural gas.
In the simplest terms, the IEC, which the State of Israel owns almost completely, is a government monopoly. The IEC has a stake in maintaining the status quo of fossil-fueled electricity and centralized power production for as long as possible. This is a shortsighted attitude: at best, it funnels Israeli money out of the country, often into the treasuries of nations that are not Israel’s friends. It is far preferable to pay Israeli workers than to ship millions of shekels abroad, including to Arab countries who are our enemies. It also forces Israeli entrepreneurs to sell their products abroad, even when they wish to do this work for their country.
Alternatives to Fossil Fuel Power Generation
Thirty years ago, most reasonable people considered nuclear power to be the only reliable alternative to coal-, oil- and perhaps natural gas-fired power generation. However, the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island of 1979 and the Chernobyl catastrophe of 1986 significantly retarded the development of new nuclear plants. The Fukushima catastrophe of 2011 will probably further delay the development of modern, safe nuclear reactors.
According to the World Nuclear Association (WNA), of which Israel is not currently member, Israel is projected to generate a maximum of three gigawatts of nuclear-powered electricity by 2030. However, although the WNA’s figures are undated, they apparently predate the Japanese reaction to Fukushima. (Japan currently plans to phase out nuclear power generation by 2040.)
The slow development of nuclear power in a time of increased global warning, when there is a clear need to develop clean electricity, has opened up fields that were once very small niches. The result, should Israel pursue it, is both greater energy independence and a vibrant export market for domestically produced technologies.
Like wind power, solar power is free. A photovoltaic plant currently under construction at Ashalim will supply 30 megawatts. Together with two nearby 110-megawatt thermosolar power stations, the Ashalim station will contribute 250 megawatts, or 2 percent, of Israel’s current electric production. These 250 megawatts are more than three times the entire current IEC quota for clean energy. They are also less than a quarter of the interim goal of 5 percent of clean energy that Israel is expected to produce by 2014.
Once, tidal power was practically science fiction. However, Rance Power station has operated in France since 1966. It produces 240 megawatts. Tidal power is far more predictable than either solar or wind energy is and it is extremely clean. Due to the low profiles and far-from-shore sites of most turbines, tidal turbines do not produce the aesthetic complaints that wind turbines do. While the turbines can kill fish, fish, like birds, can and do learn to avoid dangerous areas. Tidal power is also very cheap to produce and for human purposes, it is inexhaustible. Also of note is the fact that as of 2003, half of the world’s population lives within 200 kilometers of a coast and this proportion will probably increase. All of Israel lives well within approximately 100 kilometers of its 273-kilometer coastline.
The Israeli company SDE claims to have “letters of intent and orders from foreign state leaders and electric companies in an approximate amount of $3 billion dollars.” It also holds an Israeli concession to produce and sell 50 megawatts of electricity for 20 years. The quota for tidal power should be raised substantially.
Humans have made use of windmills and wind-powered vessels for centuries. Currently, China is the world leader in wind power generation, increasing its wind power generating capacity from 2,000 megawatts to 52,580 megawatts in just six years. According to the State Grid Corporation, Chinas largest utility company, in 2011, wind power generated 70.6 terawatt hours for Chinese users. China’s wind power capacity is expected to nearly double to 100,000 MW in 2015 then nearly double again, to 200,000 MW in 2020. The Chinese experience indicates that the growth potential of wind power is limited only by the availability of wind.
In contrast, Israel may well be capable of producing up to 1000 megawatts of wind-generated electricity but it currently produces only 6 megawatts of wind-generated electricity. One of the chief complaints about wind towers is that they kill birds. However, the newer wind turbines have slower blades and are less attractive nesting areas for birds, reducing fatalities. In comparison to other sources of bird mortality, most notably cats, wind towers are probably not a significant source of bird deaths. The other complaint about wind towers is that they can be dangerous to low-flying aircraft, particularly helicopters, which fly lower and slower than fixed-wing aircraft. However, conventional electric transmission towers and power lines are in the same height range as wind towers and they are also very dangerous to low-flying aircraft.
Biogas and “Syngas”
Solar, tide and wind power have “clean” images. Two important and underutilized clean energy sources do not have clean images. These sources are biogas and “syngas” (synthetic gas) derived from agricultural waste and municipal solid waste. Utilizing both these sources will improve the environment.
Biogas is produced by fermenting manure and other agricultural waste in sealed anaerobic tanks, or biodigesters, to produce methane, which is then used to generate electricity. Israel’s largest biogas plant went into operation on 10 September 2012 in Be’er Tuviya, where it produces enough energy to power approximately 6,000 homes. As a by-product, this biogas plant will produce fertilizer from the solid-waste residue. It will also greatly reduce the odor and ground water contamination caused by traditional manure management. Biodigestion should probably become the standard future method of handling agricultural waste.
Plasma gasification is a way to convert municipal solid waste into electricity while reducing landfill. The waste is ground into very small pieces with an augur, then passed through a plasma arc that is itself the product of a 650-volt current passed between electrodes. The plasma arc creates two significant by-products: slag and “syngas.” The slag can be used for tiles and high-strength asphalt; other construction applications may be possible. The “syngas” is actually hydrogen and carbon monoxide. Since syngas emerges from the plasma arc at about 2200⁰F, it can be used to drive steam-powered turbines that themselves generate electricity. Afterwards, syngas can be converted into fuels such as hydrogen and natural gas.
Plasma gasification not only produces cleaner electricity than fossil fuels, it produces a variety of usable residues and reduces the need for landfills. This makes plasma gasification an extremely important tool for managing land use.
Benefits of Clean Power
Israel should become not only a major inventor of clean energy technologies, but also a major user of them.
Doing so would provide several categories of benefits.
Adopting clean power technologies would provide Israelis with work: meaningful, dignified work that makes a difference in the world. This work would be authentically Zionist work, in the best sense of the word: it is the up-building of the land.
Adopting clean power technologies would give Israelis a chance to work with these technologies and thus broaden and deepen the knowledge base available to Israel’s research and development sector. The rapid improvement in clean energy technology means that there is a real possibility of spin-offs as well.
Israel should also strive for maximum possible energy autarchy. Adopting clean power technologies would improve Israel’s balance of payments. Israel would not be in the position of having to pay its enemies for much of its basic fuel. Additionally, adoption of clean power would enable Israel to conserve its natural gas reserves, selling them only when there was a high global demand for natural gas. While the market is currently glutted with natural gas, that will not always be the case. The domestic use of natural gas could gradually be reserved for large institutional consumers that require absolutely stable power, such as hospitals.
Embracing clean power technologies would decentralize and distribute Israel’s power grid. Should Israel choose to invest in tidal power, a coastline of over 250 kilometers alone would greatly dilute enemy targeting capacity. Every home, moshav and kibbutz that could feed electricity into the grid would be one more power generation point. These points could become capable of succoring neighbors whose homes were devastated. Each functioning point would be one less group of people the authorities would have to worry about while they restored access to such critical nodes as hospitals and communications facilities.
There is a further consideration. Smaller solar panels and wind power turbines, along with a multiplicity of tidal power turbines, are much easier to manufacture than the parts for large, centralized power plants. Those parts are built to order and often require long production lead-times. If one or another power plant is destroyed, it could be very difficult to bring it back into production.
Adopting clean power technologies in Israel would also attract foreign investment to Israeli companies, strengthening links between Israel and the rest of the world at a time when Israel faces increasing isolation. Currently, German industrial giant Siemens owns 40 percent of Arava Power, which inaugurated Israel’s first medium-sized solar field.
If Israel becomes a net exporter of clean energy and an expert in clean energy technologies, it can quietly make friends in Africa with technologies that will enrich the world.
Philosophically, the IEC and more largely the government of Israel should cease to focus on the short-term kilowatt-hour cost of coal vs. solar, to the long-term good of the country. The market price of fossil-fueled electricity is an inadequate measure of the environmental and human costs that these fuels also inflict.
Rather than fight clean power, the IEC should embrace clean power as the future, positioning itself as the countrywide, reliable supplier of small-scale green technologies, such as household solar- and wind- power generation kits.
The most important policy changes are two-fold.
Any company seeking approval to do business in Israel should face a unified, stable, transparent regulatory process. Companies should know that when they enter the permitting process, the process will not change except in extremely rare instances. Companies should also know that when those extremely rare instances occur, they will be notified directly and immediately, and then dealt with fairly. Furthermore, companies should not have to deal with multiple and conflicting bureaucracies. The government should create a clear, simple regulatory process housed in a single ministry. Cooperation with other ministries and municipalities should be handled by that ministry.
Individuals and Small Companies
Small-scale producers of clean power should not be regulated and permitted by the same standards as large-scale producers. Rather small producers should be judged by standards scaled to the appliances and buildings the power is intended to fuel. The wiring for a domestic home is simply not inspected in the same way as the wiring for a factory because home wiring, while still very dangerous when faulty, draws much less power and thus can kill fewer people. The same principle should be applied to small-scale power production, particularly solar and wind, which utilize inherently safe sources of fuel.
Finally, small-scale power producers should not have to sell their power to the IEC at whatever rate the IEC deigns to grant them. The IEC does not, after all, incur any costs in building the power production facilities, be they home roof-top solar panels and wind generators or a kibbutz’ bio-gas digester.
All producers should be able to use their power directly or receive construction and production subsidies generous enough to offset homeowner costs or attract institutional investment.
There are tremendous benefits in Israel’s pursuit of a gradual full-scale transition to clean power. Amongst other infrastructure investments, revenue from Israel’s offshore natural gas resources should be used to fund the building of biogas digesters, plasma gasification plants and tidal power turbines. The IEC currently monopolizes Israeli electricity production, thus preventing competition and inhibiting research and development in order to defend its investments and market share, but this attitude is not indefinitely sustainable. Solar and wind energy in particular lend themselves to autonomous home generation, while the cost of kits to generate such power is dropping.
The Israeli government should not to react to this situation by fighting these developments. Rather, the Israeli government should seek to direct development of Israeli clean power technology to:
- Meet Israel’s growing demand for electricity.
- Decentralize and distribute power production.
- Make Israel an energy autarchy.
- Add employment to Israel’s periphery.
- Reduce pollution in Israel.
 Israel Advanced Technology Industries. “The Israeli Success Story.” http://www.iati.co.il/high-tech-in-israel/the-israeli-success-story. Accessed 23 September 2012.
 Netta Ahituv, “Negative Energy,” Haaretz Magazine, September 14, 2012.
 All facts and the quote in this section are from Ahituv, “Negative Energy.”
 World Nuclear Association. “Nuclear Century Outlook Data.” http://www.world-nuclear.org/outlook/nuclear_century_outlook.html (accessed 23 September 2012).
 Globes, Israel’s Business Arena. “Danker, Sun Edison win Ashalim PV tender.” http://www.globes.co.il/serveen/globes/docview.asp?did=1000730809&fid=1725 (accessed 23 September 2012).
 Liz Creel. Population Reference Bureau. “Ripple Effects: Population and Coastal Regions.” http://www.prb.org/Publications/PolicyBriefs/RippleEffectsPopulationandCoastalRegions.aspx(accessed 23 September 2012).
 The World of Wind Energy. “China Beats U.S. to Become Number One In Installed Wind Power.” http://www.worldofwindenergy.com/wind_resources/research-and-analysis/china_beats_u_s_to_become_number_one_in_installed_wind_power.html (accessed 23 September 2012).
 Ahituv, “Negative Energy.”
 Sharon Udasin, The Jerusalem Post, “Nation’s Largest Biogas Plant Inaugurated,” http://www.jpost.com/Sci-Tech/Article.aspx?id=284893 (accessed 23 September 2012).