By Khaled Al Sabawi
In 2007, I first arrived on my simple quest to bring green energy to Palestine. I am the son of Palestinian refugees who were fortunate enough to immigrate to Canada; and I was raised on the imperative that we Palestinians – who were lucky to grow up in one of the most progressive societies in the world and receive an education in some of the best institutions in the world – must return to Palestine to help out. If we don’t, who will?

Thus upon graduating from university in Canada, I travelled to Palestine and immediately recognised a very troubling reality. Palestine currently has one of the world’s highest population densities – higher than any country of similar geographic size and significantly higher than most countries around the world. In 2020, Palestine’s population density will increase dramatically due to Palestine’s extremely high population growth rate. In 2050 it expected to surpass Bangladesh. To make matters worse, energy prices in Palestine are among the highest in the entire Middle East and North Africa region. Energy in Palestine has become unaffordable for Palestinians. This is a situation that is unsustainable.

The high population growth rate in Palestine will require hundreds of thousands of new homes to be built. More building means more energy will be demanded, as buildings account for the majority of the energy consumed in Palestine. Buildings consume lots of energy for lighting, appliances, and mainly, for heating and cooling. Considering that Palestine imports 93 percent of its energy and is highly dependent upon Israel for supply, we have no choice but to think outside the box and look to alternative forms of energy to meet the demands of Palestinians, while at the same time attempting to build more efficiently and sustainably. Where shall we look? How about down?

Who would have thought that simply two metres below our very feet there lies a clean, renewable energy known as geothermal energy, which can provide a source of heating and cooling for any type of building? Because the earth naturally absorbs 50 percent of the sun’s energy and stores it as clean renewable energy, the temperature in the earth, simply two metres and below, remains constant throughout the entire year.

How can we access the energy in the earth? Well, a glass of water has heat energy. If we were to look at a glass of water at a temperature of say 20º C and we lower the temperature of the water from 20º C to 15º C while keeping the amount of water the same, what are you removing from the water? You got it, energy.

The same concept applies to a geothermal system. In Ramallah, we discovered that the temperature in the earth is at a constant 17º C throughout the entire year. In the winter, the constant 17º ground temperature is warmer than the 4º outside air. Thus by pumping water into a pipe system installed deep in the earth, we can absorb heat from the warmer ground and channel it to an electrically powered geothermal heat pump, which takes the heat, compresses it, and outputs it to the building at 45º C. In the summer the same system is simply reversed. The 17º constant temperature in the ground is now cooler than the 36º C hot air outside; thus we take the building’s heat, return chilled water to the building, and redirect the building’s heat down to the cooler earth.

Although geothermal technology presents enormous potential, we have had to face the daunting challenge of creating a real-life, affordable, and replicable geothermal system – the first of its kind in the Middle East and North Africa, including Israel – keeping in mind that no matter how attractive a green technology is, if it’s not affordable, nobody can use it.

Thus, we constantly worked on ways to reduce the cost of a geothermal system and make it more affordable to Palestinians. Such persistence led us to discover that we could use limestone powder, a free by-product of the local limestone-cutting industry in Palestine, as a grout to fill our geothermal boreholes. This improved the efficiency of our geothermal systems and reduced their cost by 15 percent, a discovery that we recently patented.

We have installed three geothermal systems in Ramallah: in a house, an apartment, and an office building, and they have been operating successfully for over two years. Each geothermal system saves 70 percent on energy consumption and has eliminated the carbon dioxide emissions that would have been produced by the standard fuel-burning heating systems used widely in Palestine.

We were driven by our belief that developing countries are, in fact, in a unique position to incorporate renewable energy in their new constructions and actually build right. Our vision of building right was finally realised on a massive scale when we were awarded the contract to install a 1.6 MW geothermal system at the University of Madaba in Jordan, the largest geothermal system in the region.

Once the Madaba project is complete, our geothermal systems will save a combined 300,000 kWh of electricity, 140,000 litres of diesel fuel, and 310,000 kg of carbon dioxide emissions every single year. This is the impact of a small green-energy company in the Palestinian territories. We are trying to keep Palestine cool, from the ground up. It seems to have worked, since a representative from the Israeli Ministry of National Infrastructure e-mailed us with the message: “I’m impressed, looks like we have a lot to learn from you.” In fact, Palestinian TV was also very excited as they referred to me as “The Inventor of Geothermal,” which, of course, is not true, but I appreciated the thought.

Although we dramatically reduced the cost of a geothermal system, we still faced the challenge of convincing builders to invest extra capital in a geothermal system. Builders in Palestine are always looking for the cheapest systems, regardless of the enormous amounts of energy they consume. Thus we took it even a step further. We were determined to find a way to make the use of geothermal widespread. A technology for the people. The only way to do this was to offer geothermal at no extra capital investment. How?

We’re currently completing a cutting-edge study in which district or central geothermal plants can provide heating and cooling to an entire housing community. In such a model, investors who seek a financial return can invest capital in a geothermal plant and sell thermal energy to the nearby buildings at prices 15 percent lower than current energy prices. Thus homeowners can use geothermal energy for heating and cooling and save 15 percent on their energy bills at no extra capital cost. The investors make their return from the revenues generated from the sale of energy minus the minimal costs of operating a geothermal plant. Not only would this be a sustainable economic model, but it would also have a monumental impact on the environment. This has ground-breaking potential (no pun intended!).

Although Palestinians face many obstacles living under occupation, building our community in a sustainable way is not one of them. In spite of the obstacles that we have faced, we continue to install geothermal systems and work towards creating a more sustainable economy in Palestine. We are working towards our own solution for Palestine – not the two-state solution or the one-state solution – but the Green State Solution.

While we may have known that the will to build our communities right is in our own hands, I hope we now know that the energy to do so has always been under our feet. Welcome to the underground movement to create an Independent Geothermal Palestine.

Khaled Al Sabawi is the founder and president of MENA Geothermal, a Palestinian green-energy business. MENA Geothermal was awarded the National Energy Globe Award in 2008 and is currently installing the Middle East’s largest geothermal system in Jordan. Khaled was named “One of the World’s Top Energy Entrepreneurs” by Global Post and was a speaker at this year’s TEDxRamallah. Khaled is also the general manager of UCI, one of the largest real-estate development companies in Palestine.