By Rebecca Collard, July 15, 2011, The Christian Science Monitor

Ramallah, West Bank

Outside Khaled Sabawi’s West Bank office it is a sweltering summer day, but inside it is a balmy 73 degrees Fahrenheit – without the use of conventional air-conditioning.

By powering this building with cool air piped from deep below the earth’s surface, Mr. Sabawi’s company, MENA Geothermal, is part of a budding green energy movement that could save millions of dollars for the heavily aid-reliant Palestinian Authority (PA), according to Sabawi. In the process, it could reduce emissions and diversify the PA’s energy sources, making it less dependent on Israel and increasing Palestinian autonomy.

“No diesel enters this building,” says Sabawi. “We are saving around 65 percent on our energy bill.”

Despite summer highs in the nineties and winter temperatures that dip below freezing, the temperature is a constant 63 degrees Fahrenheit a few hundred feet below the ground in Ramallah. By tapping the steady sub-surface temperature, the building uses about half the electricity of a conventional cooling and heating system and reduces carbon dioxide emission by 30 percent.

But it’s not just concern for the environment that is sparking the quest for renewable energy here. Power in the Palestinian territories is scarce and expensive, and nearly all of it comes from Israel.

This situation gives Palestinians virtually no energy security – a precarious position in a region with so much political uncertainty, particularly with energy demand growing by as much as 10 percent per year.

“We have no choice but to think outside the box,” says Sabawi, who is part of a small coterie of individuals and organizations hoping to spur a larger movement for independent and sustainable energy in the Palestinian Territories.

Even conventional energy out of reach

The Palestinian territories import more than 95 percent of their electricity and fuel, mainly from Israel with small amounts from Jordan and Egypt. The Palestinians’ only independently produced electricity is generated by a power plant in Gaza City that depends on imported fuel. The Palestinian territories have no conventional energy sources, aside from an untouched gas reserve off the coast of Gaza that was discovered in 2000.

In Gaza, scheduled power outages leave residents without electricity for up to eight hours each day. Though in the West Bank most communities have 24-hour access to power, population growth and economic development are pushing energy demand up by 7 to 10 percent per year.

Palestinians pay about 15 percent more per kilowatt-hour than their Israeli counterparts and as much as double the rates in the US while earning significantly less. The diesel fuel typically required to heat a Palestinian home remains out of financial reach for many who live here.

“Palestine is facing enormous energy problems,” says Sabawi. “We have one of the highest population densities in the world […] and we are paying among the highest energy prices in the entire Middle East and North Africa.”

These geothermal systems do not increase overall power output. Instead they cut the amount of energy needed for cooling and heating, which account for up to 60 percent of the power consumed by buildings. But they requires an upfront investment that Sawabi says foreign donors, the PA, and private developers have been hesitant to provide. However, investment in renewable energy infrastructure now will help to decrease reliance on foreign aid in the future.

“No matter how attractive a green technology is, if it’s not affordable, nobody will use it,” says Sabawi.

While renewable energy systems cost substantially more than conventional systems, due to the Palestinian territories’ high energy costs it takes less time to start generating saving on the initial investment.

‘Energy we can control’

Geothermal technology is just one of several additional energy sources Palestinians are investigating for fueling their burgeoning economy.

“You can build a house, but if there is no electricity no one will come and rent it,” says Jamal Abu Ghosh, Director of the Program Monitoring Unit at the Palestinian Energy Authority. “A shortage in electricity will cause problems for the economy, for the water sector, for everything. So the development of the electricity must always be faster.”

The PA has plans to build two conventional power plants in the West Bank to meet rapidly growing demand, but those will still require imported fuel to generate electricity.

For resource-impoverished Palestinians, the only way to improve energy security is through renewable sources, according Afif Akel Hasan, Dean of the Faculty of Engineering at Birzeit University near Ramallah. Solar is already used to heat water and a wind turbine planned for Hebron will provide the city’s main hospital with about 40 percent of its electricity.

“We have high solar potential,” he says, adding that the university alone has an annual electric bill of nearly a half million dollars. With virtually no rain and few cloudy days between May and September, harnessing solar energy could produce millions of watts per year here.

“We need a source of energy we can control to some extent,” says Dr. Hasan, who is a member of Palestinian Solar and Sustainable Energy Society, a coalition of academics, business leaders and politicians promoting renewable energy. “We need to make people here aware of the importance of green energy,” he adds.

Aside from a couple of small organizations and a handful of projects, few here have boarded the green energy bandwagon. However, Mr. Abu Ghosh says his department is now completing a study of power options for a future state, which includes renewable energy.

“We aim to have more than one supply, but not to be completely disconnected from Israel,” says Abu Ghosh, who stresses the importance of diversifying to improve energy security. In the coming weeks his office will release the report outlining the energy alternatives for the Palestinians. He says biofuels, wind, and solar are all on the list of possible sources for a future state. But the use of these technologies is still rare as there are few incentives and no legislation favoring green energy in Palestine.

Despite the challenges, Sabawi is convinced green energy is crucial to an independent power supply for Palestine. “We really have no choice. We’re not in a position […] to continue building and depending on other countries for energy,” says Sabawi. “That really compromises the security of an aspiring nation state.”

Green energy proponents hope to convince Palestinians that renewables can give them greater autonomy from Israel and is more affordable in the long run.