05/04/2011 02:15

Project, to be built on 600 dunams at Kibbutz Ketura, still faces objections from Finance Ministry.
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Construction of a 40-megawatt photovoltaic power plant in Kibbutz Ketura – the first large solar field in the country – was approved by the National Planning and Building Council on Wednesday morning.

The plant is part of a nationwide effort to promote energy production through solar sources, the council announced later in the day.

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The field will be built by the Arava Power Company on a 600-dunam (60 hectare) plot and will produce 2,200 hours of electricity per year, during daylight hours only, according to the council, which is a division of the Interior Ministry under the leadership of Dr. Shuki Armani.

The council said that nature and agricultural areas would not be harmed in the building process.

The electricity produced at the Arava’s photovoltaic field will pass through a transport line onto the Israel Electric Company’s national grid, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and shortening the electricity transport time to the city of Eilat, the council said.

“The large field in Ketura constitutes a historical landmark in the local solar industry and will turn Israel into a country that benefits from a significant production of electricity from solar energy,” Jon Cohen, the CEO of Arava, said in a statement.

“We expect and believe that the Israeli government will act quickly to deploy the resolution for large fields, which will enable the beginning of electricity production in the large field in Ketura,” he said.

“This is the biggest victory yet in our efforts to get Israel to go solar,” the company’s president and founder, Yosef Abramowitz, told The Jerusalem Post.

Arava Power is currently installing the country’s first medium-sized photovoltaic solar field of 4.95 megawatts, also located in Ketura, and slated to be launched on June 5 and interconnected to the grid sometime this summer.

During Wednesday’s session, the council also approved the extension of natural gas lines to a future 250- megawatt solar-thermal industrial power plant in Ashalim, 35 km. south of Beersheba, a project that has been delayed for years.

Once this project is built and operational, 30 km. of underground pipeline alongside Roads 40 and 21 will deliver natural gas to the facility from Ramat Hovav, which can serve as a backup to the system in case of emergency, according to the council’s decision.

The gas could also be channeled in the more distant future to the planned Ir Habahadim “city” of IDF training bases to be created in the desert, the council added.

But both plans – the Arava field and the industrial solar-thermal plant – now will be reviewed by the district planning councils, giving the public the opportunity to review the campaigns, the council said.

“This is very important because until today, when you wanted to construct such a solar plant, you needed to go all the way to the National Planning and Building Council,” Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan, who was involved in advancing this plan, told the Post. “Now this can be discussed on a district level, which is much faster.”

In addition to hiding the large Arava plant from Road 90 behind a date orchard, the council has said it has ensured that reflections emanating from the panels will neither blind drivers nor aircraft pilots passing through the area. He added that Arava will take the necessary precautions to stabilize the structure properly in a region that is susceptible to earthquakes.

According to the company, the 40- megawatt field will be capable of providing one-third of Eilat’s power needs.

“It will not only enable the flow of clean electricity to the city of Eilat, but it will eliminate the need to burn expensive and polluting gases in order to satisfy the demands of electricity there,” Abramowitz said in a statement. “Clean electricity will cost about half the price of polluting electricity in Eilat.”

Just because the plan has been approved by the Interior Ministry doesn’t mean the spades will be hitting the ground anytime soon. While the plan has the approval of a ream of ministries – including the Agriculture, Environmental Protection and National Infrastructures ministries – it faces the opposition of the Finance Ministry.

“Now that the national planning board has approved Israel’s largest solar field… all eyes go back to the Treasury and whether it will continue to hold up the process,” Abramowitz said.

The Finance Ministry, Abramowitz contends, erroneously believes that solar power will make electricity more expensive when in fact it shaves expenses at peak hours and has no effect on electricity prices.

Erdan agreed that this is going to be a difficult fight and added that the vote on Wednesday does not necessarily “mean anything, because the budget still has to pass,” but said that Prime Minister Binymain Netanyahu has instructed Eugene Kendal, the head of the National Economic Council inside the Prime Minister’s Office, mediate between the solar advocates and the Finance Ministry.

“If the Treasury unfroze the program and the regulator [the Public Utility Authority] approved the provisional license, then we would start building on January 1, 2012,” Abramowitz said, adding that the plant would take about a year to complete once work began.

“We’d love to interconnect the launch with Hanukka, the festival of lights, in 2012. If they come through we can do it,” he said.