30/03/2010 23:33

NGO pushes for “virtual power stations” – the ones you can avoid building by cutting electricity use.

Practical environmentalism might be a good way to describe what the Israel Energy Forum does. The two-year-old nongovernmental organization “aims to develop energy policy from a full-picture perspective. We start from the viewpoint of sustainability, but look at the real world,” Director Yael Cohen Paran explained to The Jerusalem Post during a recent interview.

According to Cohen Paran, two years ago there was a real dearth of academic and policy study of the energy market outside of the Israel Electric Corporation. “There were very few academic experts, or consultants,” she said.

A former head of Green Course, the national student environmental organization, Cohen Paran felt there was a lack of vision and of action.

“First, we forged connections with academics. We formed a public council of experts. Our goal was to stay abreast of all of the research,” she explained.

One of the most formative elements in creating the organization’s action plan was a study tour to the US in 2008, she said.

“We met experts, government officials and utility company officials. We went to California, where they are the leaders in energy efficiency,” she recalled.

Using the knowledge and contacts from that tour, the Israel Energy Forum (IEF) began to put together policy papers based in part on what they had gleaned abroad.

The IEF looks to build bridges and coalitions rather than start fights, for the most part, said Cohen Paran. It initiated a roundtable discussion between the environmental organizations and the IEC to figure out what they could agree upon. They eventually added the National Infrastructures Ministry to that roundtable.

After their research and study tour, Cohen Paran and her colleagues Dr. Shahar Dolev and Noam Segal decided that the most effective strategy for Israel would be to focus on energy efficiency.

The basis of energy efficiency is investing in technology and practices to reduce electricity use – sometimes drastically. Practices like green building use a lot of techniques to increase efficiency, such as proper insulation, taking advantage of sunlight and using energy-efficient lighting. Other options include sensors to shut off lights, computers and air conditioning systems, as well as more efficient appliances.

“The major stumbling block right now is knowledge and awareness. The second one is funding,” according to Cohen Paran.

When IEF began two-and-a-half years ago, energy efficiency was not part of the discourse in the energy market. Now, the National Infrastructures Ministry is keen on it, as is the IEC. Nevertheless, there is much more to be done to encourage efficiency, she said.

The IEF isn’t afraid to go up against other environmental interests to try and establish priorities either. It recently released a report claiming that massive investment in current photovoltaic solar technologies, as opposed to solar thermal or concentrated PV, was a massive waste of public funds.

Cohen Paran stands by her report.

“The government is talking about investing billions of shekels in PV and it won’t even cover the annual rise in demand,” she declared. Clarifying that IEF was not opposed to renewable energy by any means, she said they were merely advocating a strategy that made the most out of the available funds.

“If they invest everything in inefficient PV, then there won’t be anything left to invest in energy efficiency,” she warned.

The government ought to be offering incentives and differentiated electricity tariffs to encourage conservation, Cohen Paran recommended. Israel’s electricity reserves are at 3 percent. If too many people switch on their air conditioners or heaters at once, then blackouts are a distinct possibility, she said. The IEC has been operating under an emergency plan since 2007 to build many more power plants, and Cohen Paran said the plan, coupled with the economic downturn in 2009, were the only things that prevented serious blackouts last year. She did not rule out the possibility that such blackouts would occur this year.

“Instead of building a new power plant, the government should pay for everyone to switch their lights to more efficient ones. It would be cheaper to do that than build a new coal-fired power plant,” she said.

“While no one is going to recycle an old, energy-guzzling refrigerator that is in fine working order, they might be more willing to if the government offered them NIS 2,000 toward a new one,” she added.

Cohen Paran is also fond of talking about the “virtual power station” – the one you don’t have to build if you achieve sufficient energy efficiency.

Regarding tariffs, Cohen Paran said that while the IEC and the Public Utilities Authority – Electricity were not in favor of differential rates, the government was. She said they were slowly convincing the Treasury to support this as well. There is a differentiated tariff for water already, according to which residents pay more for water after a certain basic number of cubic meters. She said having people pay more for electricity would encourage conservation.

“Our society is wasteful. Energy is cheap and no one thinks twice about a computer and a TV for every child,” she declared.

Their study tour showed that the best organization to lead energy efficiency campaigns was the utility company. Therefore, they were in favor of giving the IEC the task.

“The IEC are professionals who know how to get things done,” she said.

She also raised the idea of a systems benefit charge on consumer. Out of a 5% charge in the US, 20% went to fund renewable energy, 20% to R&D and 60% to energy efficiency, she said.

Regarding the Better Place initiative to introduce electric cars, Cohen Paran said the whole picture had to be taken into account.

“If they raise demand, then they are contributing to pollution and it’s not a good solution. Moreover, from an environmental perspective, the right approach is to encourage public transportation, not the personal car culture,” she said.