The use of alternatives to petroleum and coal-based energy could save Israel from dependence on Arab oil, increasing air pollution and worries over finite energy sources. So why isn’t the government offering more support?
By Neta Ahituv Sep.14, 2012

On the outskirts of Kibbutz Ma’aleh Gilboa stands one of the few wind turbines in Israel. It has been there since 1996, and aside from a few isolated periods of activity, most of the time the turbine has stood silent. Its sad state of disuse essentially symbolizes the state of renewable energy in Israel. The desire is there, and so are the technological capability, the natural resources, financial budgets and keen developers. But an array of obstacles that together form a daunting burden are inhibiting the renewable energy industry and preventing it from putting Israel on the path to a greener and more progressive future.

An amazing thing happened at the UN Conference on Climate Change in Copenhagen in December 2009: Israeli President Shimon Peres pledged before the whole world that Israel would reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent by 2020.

“There was a lot of opposition from various parties in Israel to the president’s declaration. The Prime Minister’s Office called, and they were furious,” says an Israeli who was present at the conference. “But what’s done cannot be undone.”

When the delegation returned to Israel, the Environmental Protection Ministry sent a letter to the UN stating that Israel was indeed committed to meeting the goal announced by the president. At the same time, McKinsey & Company, the world’s largest strategic consulting firm, was tasked with assessing the Israeli economy’s ability to fulfill this promise. Following its recommendations, the emissions reduction plan was designed to include support for pollution reduction at factories, support for local authorities in this area, increased energy efficiency ‏(by replacing refrigerators, for example‏) and a transition to manufacturing electricity via renewable energy sources. The year 2014 was set as an interim target, by which time Israel would produce 5 percent ‏(1,150 megawatts‏) of its electricity from renewable energy sources. The year 2020 was set as a target for the production of 10 percent ‏(2,760 megawatts‏) of clean electricity.

At present, in mid-2012, not long before the first target date arrives, the percentage of electricity produced in Israel from renewable energy stands at just 0.44 percent ‏(225 megawatts‏). This statistic tells the whole story: The target remains just as far away as peace in the Middle East.

But before we take a gloomy look at what is happening in Israel, let’s see what’s happening around the world. In many European countries, including Germany, Italy and Britain, an energy revolution has been under way in the past few years. The electricity system is shifting to smart networks that can maneuver among several energy sources. Many countries are striving for total energy independence, which they call “energy security.” Perhaps the word “security,” of which Israel is so fond, will succeed where other terms have failed in getting the renewable energy message through to the decision makers?

Or maybe facts will work even better than slogans: The world’s population has more than doubled in the past 50 years, but energy consumption has increased eightfold in that time. Before long, the attempt to make wiser use of energy may be beside the point. Some international studies show there is only enough coal for the next 165 years, gas for 65 years and oil for 40 years. All these resources come with an expiration date.

Not scary enough? As the various types of fuel dwindle, producing them will become more difficult and more expensive, and potentially lead to bloody conflicts. The world, and Israel in particular, faces another obstacle: Most of the world’s oil reserves are currently found in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Iraq, Iran and other Arab and Muslim countries. Israel’s independence from Middle East oil or Russian gas could bring about a strong economy and international diplomacy unlinked to energy interests − “energy security,” in other words.

“I would expect a Likud government headed by Benjamin Netanyahu to attach the greatest importance to the subject of energy security,” says Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan. “Every solar panel reduces our dependence on Arab oil. We’ve grown accustomed to living in a world in which only one billion people, out of seven billion, live in Western style. The average American consumes 30 times more energy than the average Chinese. But in 10 to 15 years, there will be three billion people in China, India and Brazil who consume energy like Americans. The world will need tremendous amounts of oil, and Israel is not a major client, relatively speaking, so it will find itself last in line. An industry that will make us less dependent on others’ resources is where our future lies.”

Kafkaesque process

Clearly, then, renewable energy is vital for Israel, so how to begin? It’s not easy. The starting point is the maximum quotas the Electricity Authority – an independent agency that supervises the price of electricity in Israel – publishes for renewable energy projects. Anyone who manufactures electricity privately, using a solar device, wind turbine or other means, cannot simply use the electricity, but must “sell” the energy to the Israel Electric Corporation for payment.

The first production quotas went on the market in January 2009 and included, for example, 50 megawatts for solar energy ‏(35 megawatts for large plants and 15 megawatts for roofs and small plants‏) and 30 megawatts for wind energy. Naturally, the IEC has no interest in seeing the quotas increase, since it is competing for this market. Aside from advertising the quotas, the Electricity Authority also publishes the rate it will pay for each kWh ‏(kilowatt-hour‏) of clean energy that is put into the system by private manufacturers.

Payment for green energy does not come out of the state coffers, but from the public’s pocket in the form of higher electricity bills. So there is a need to strike a proper balance between developing this important industry and placing too large a burden on Israeli citizens. Each time new production quotas are issued, developers begin submitting applications to establish projects, often in cooperation with the locale where the project is slated to be built.

A drive from the south to the north of the country reveals new sights: roofs of chicken coops, cattle sheds and warehouses covered with layers of solar panels. Most are the result of cooperation between a developer and local residents. Demand outpaces supply: For each megawatt offered by the Electricity Authority, there is demand for five megawatts. In other words, the field could easily grow five-fold if only there were more generous quotas on offer.

To get renewable energy projects approved, developers must follow two parallel tracks. One has to do with the planning bodies − building permits, land use permits, and so on. The second involves dealing with the Electricity Authority and the IEC to obtain permits to operate the plant once it is built.

Both these tracks are tortuously slow and difficult to contend with, but the challenge doesn’t end there. There are all sorts of mini-regulatory procedures involved in the process, which lend a Kafkaesque dimension to the whole thing. One must also deal with the Energy and Water Resources Ministry, the Defense Ministry, the Health Ministry, the Standards Institute of Israel, green organizations and more. And, of course, these various bodies do not work in coordination with one another, which forces the developer to take on the task of being the link between them all.

“It’s a very dynamic market, and the government ministries are unable to keep pace with it, especially when called upon to cooperate in the matter,” says Dorit Banet, head of the environmental unit of the Eilat-Eilot renewable energy group.

The cost of air pollution

The delay in getting projects under way partially derives from this thinking, which is common in the Finance Ministry as well as among part of the Israeli public − that electricity from renewable energy is more expensive than electricity derived from coal or oil, and certainly more than electricity produced from gas. Thus, as the Finance Ministry says, “Producing electricity from renewable energy sources is still more expensive and less stable than production using conventional technologies.”

Will this always be the case? Clean-tech advocates say that as the technology and potential for mass production improve, and fuel prices rise, it is possible that within just two years we will arrive at a situation in which a solar kWh costs exactly the same, if not less, that a coal kWh. This calculation also takes into account the benefits from green electricity − less damage to public health, reduction of air pollution, less dependence on limited resources ‏(oil, coal, gas‏) and more.

Minister Erdan, for one, is an enthusiastic supporter: “In a narrow economic view, it’s true that today, a kilowatt of coal energy costs less than a kilowatt of solar energy. But what about all the days of hospitalization, the inhalers for asthmatics, the many jobs the field would bring to outlying areas of the country and the environmental concerns? The Finance Ministry does not excel at long-term thinking, but acts like a treasurer managing a small coffer for the short-term. The coal station in Ashkelon, for example, is supposed to cost $10 billion and supply 1,200 megawatts. For the same budget, you could supply the same amount of solar energy without polluting the air. Because of narrow interests we could miss the boat in this incredible area.”

Electricity prices to the consumer in Israel are among the lowest in the world, and the IEC has a NIS 70 billion deficit. Bear in mind that out of the overall price for standard electricity, only 40 percent is for production. The other 60 percent is for transfer of electricity from place to place. A simple calculation shows that if the electricity could be produced in the same place it is consumed, that would yield a 60-percent saving on the cost. The good news: Solar energy can be produced anywhere it is consumed without the need for transport ‏(it can come from the roof, the yard, even the windowsill‏). In most of the world the expectation is that within just a few years, technology will make it possible for many more homes to manage their electricity autonomously.

“We are certain it is possible to bring the technology to the point where the costs balance out, and so the field must be pushed forward,” explains Shuli Nezer, the Environmental Protection Ministry’s deputy director general for industries and licensing. “The main thing that is making clean electricity expensive is the bureaucratic labyrinth attached to it. Each body demands its share. If there were a single authority that united all the procedures under one roof, the costs would plummet.”

In March this year, Yaron Zelekha, former Israeli accountant general and now dean of the business administration faculty and head of the accounting department at Ono Academic College, published an analysis of the economic viability of solar panels. The report was commissioned by the SBY solar panel installation company. Zelekha’s calculations took into account air pollution, environmental damage and more to compare the cost of producing standard electricity with the cost of producing it by alternative means.

“If you disregard these elements in calculating the cost of coal-based electricity, it’s simply misleading,” he explains with the intensity that gained him the admiration of social-justice protesters in the summer of 2011. Zelekha’s report found that the real cost of coal-based electricity is 88.30 agorot per kWh. The public pays just 49.52 agorot per kWh, meaning that the IEC collects nearly 40 agorot less than the actual cost on each kWh of electricity.

SBY founder Tamir Kaplinsky adds: “We are essentially consuming coal-based electricity at the expense of the next generation, because in the end someone is going to have to cover the IEC’s deficit. It’s like keeping a running tab at the grocery store with the idea that one day your child will pay the bill.”

When tycoons rule

Zelekha tosses another explanation into the pot, one that links the Finance Ministry with the snail’s pace at which renewable energy in Israel seems to be progressing − lack of competition in the market. “As in other areas, in the field of renewable energy there is a monopoly that depresses competition. This is the Israel Electric Corporation. Granted, it’s a government company and not a private one, but the IEC’s workers union operates like tycoons do. Then you have a small number of tycoons who control the gas, for whom conventional electricity is good, because they are the main supplier of energy for running the conventional power stations. A shift to a renewable energy market would deprive them of their monopoly status. It’s not a matter of corruption, but of a dynamic that’s bad for the market.”

Another bottleneck for clean electricity in Israel is the lack of stability. Decisions regarding the field are frequently changed, as are the prices the state pays to private producers of renewable energy. This makes it difficult for entrepreneurs to follow a set business plan.

SBY is one example. The company was founded in 2008 and since then has become the largest player in solar panel installation on rooftops. By 2011, it had a staff of 130, including electrical engineers, construction workers, inspectors, architects, salespeople and more. But in May 2011 the Electricity Authority set no new quotas for solar system installations, and the company had to let half its employees go. “When you lay off somebody in an outlying area, it’s not like there are tons of other jobs waiting for him,” says Kaplinsky.

One way of dealing with this instability can be found in the business model of Enlight-Aviram Renewable Energy, which has installed 150 solar energy systems in Israel and Europe. The company maintains just 15 permanent employees, and uses outside subcontractors on most of its projects. “Aside from the main problem of the multitude of regulators and the slow bureaucracy, there is also the problem of the rules of the game being changed mid-stream,” says Enlight CEO Gilad Yaabetz.

“For developers, the most important thing is to have certainty, and so the limitations need to be known from the start. It takes five to six years to erect a wind turbine, for example, during which time a lot of money is invested. We progress in accordance with a precalculated plan, but then the rules keep changing as we go. Even if the changes are meant to protect the public interest, the industry still needs to be able to progress like a stable ship, and not like a little dinghy tossed about on the waves.”

Another hurdle comes from this lack of balance: A license for four kilowatts is inspected by the same criteria and in the same manner as an 800-megawatt license. So a large power station like that planned by Dalia Power Energies at Tzafit, which in the coming years will be producing 870 megawatts of energy from natural gas, is inspected in the same way as a small solar panel installed by an individual on the roof of his house. This means that the Electricity Authority has to allocate manpower and overtime.

So why do we hear that the clean-tech industry in Israel is thriving? This statement is correct, but only when applied to other fields, such as water desalinization and wastewater treatment. But when it comes to energy, Israel lags far behind.

Oded Distel, director of the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry’s investment promotion department, attributes this gap to the near-impossibility of building an experimental solar field to test the new technology. “There’s a shortage of seed money, a dearth of investors, very few players, and it’s hard to raise funds for the projects themselves. The economic uncertainty of the past few years is also causing an excess of caution in the industry. We’re working in cooperation with international financial institutions to create a mechanism to encourage investment, and we’re trying to provide companies with a platform for initial installations.”

Signs of hope

Kibbutz Ketura lies 50 kilometers north of Eilat. Amid the vast desert spaces, the kibbutz looks like a square green island that seems to have landed here from another planet. In 2000, five entrepreneurs met in one of the kibbutz’s abandoned chicken coops and founded a company called Arava Power. Today, 40 percent of the company is owned by Siemens of Germany; 14 months ago it launched the largest ground solar project in Israel − a 600-dunam solar farm that produces five megawatts of electricity ‏(enough to cover a third of Eilat’s peak electricity consumption‏).

The difference between the surrounding reddish-yellow mountains and the blue-gray silicon panels of the solar farm makes a powerful impression. The stark contrast is echoed in the encounter between the buttoned-down business types from Arava Power and the laid-back kibbutzniks. Most of the 600-dunam farm is covered by a carpet of panels tilted toward the sun, like industrial sunflowers. In the center of this carpet is a small building that houses the control room and the maintenance section.

The doorway to the control building is on a human scale, a pleasant reminder that this is an earthly undertaking, after all. At present, this is the only solar farm in Israel that produces electricity in such quantities.

“The farm was built in the industrial area of the kibbutz, and so we were spared a tremendous amount of bureaucracy,” explains Eilat-Eilot’s Banet.

Interviewed last week, Arava Power CEO Jon Cohen expressed anger at the Electricity Authority, which in early August lowered the fee paid by the IEC for solar electricity produced by large plants. According to the new rate, instead of 89 agorot per kWh for green electricity, the IEC now pays only 65 agorot. “The rate doesn’t make economic sense for entrepreneurs,” he says. “We’re not greedy pigs asking for more than a 14 percent yield, but for a minimal yield that will persuade investors to give us funds. But with this rate it’s not possible to get solar projects going. We understand that there’s a tension between the need for initial subsidization in order to establish green industries and the need to protect the public that is paying for it, but the Electricity Authority seems to have lost sight of the balance.”

According to Arava Power’s calculations, the switch from the 89 agorot per kWh rate to 65 agorot per kWh saves Israelis only a shekel or two on their electricity bills, but deprives entrepreneurs of the possibility of producing solar power.

In recent months there have been some new signs of hope from the work of an interministerial committee headed by Prof. Eugene Kandel, tasked with evaluating the economic benefits of alternative energy. The committee is due to determine once and for all the cost of green electricity and electricity from nonrenewable sources. All the relevant parties are eagerly awaiting the results, which are due to be publicized this month. They hope the findings will serve as a springboard for the industry, since the rates will finally be clear to all and take into account all the benefits ‏(environmental, security, employment‏) and all the costs ‏(production, transport, distribution‏).

“If the Kandel committee’s recommendations include the benefits to the economy, we’ll become the first country to set clean electricity rates on a basis of economic benefits and not on the basis of input,” says Nezer of the Environmental Protection Ministry excitedly. “It’s pure environmental economics.”

Despite the excitement, the Kandel committee has also come in for criticism, directed first of all at Kandel himself. He also heads the committee examining the management of state income from natural resources, including gas of course. In this role, he recommended the establishment of a national fund for taking in the gas profits, and proposed it be headed by the finance minister. Another criticism from the renewable energy industry cites the absence of the Health Ministry from the committee. Its presence could have contributed to calculating the health costs and benefits of the various types of energy ‏(See box for responses‏).

Among the benefits being examined by the Kandel committee is that of employment. A private producer of solar energy in an outlying area of the country can function as a small business in a place where no other small business would arise. The kibbutzim in the Arava Desert are a good example of this. In addition to yellow peppers, currently the most profitable endeavor for southern farmers, it is now possible to make money from the sun. SBY founder Kaplinsky seconds this, saying that 85 to 90 percent of the installations made by his company are in outlying areas − for private homes, industrial zones and farm areas. A drive among the Arava communities lends visual reinforcement to these figures. The shiny solar panels to be seen there produce 13 megawatts, or 10 percent of electricity consumption during daylight hours‏. Solar electricity either replaces or supplements agricultural income, and this happens mainly in the south and north of the country, where selling solar power to the IEC brings in extra money each month.

“For a private home that cost a million shekels in an outlying area, a monthly payment of NIS 3,000 for solar electricity production is significant,” says Kaplinsky, who has installed 700 solar electricity systems so far. He says he got into the business “largely out of Zionism. I believe that installing a solar panel for a private individual is akin to carrying out social justice. If electricity production in the country is privatized, it could be privatized to one person − a tycoon, generally − or it can be privatized to the whole nation.”

‘Not taken seriously’

The Renewable Energy Association of Israel is a public initiative that began four years ago with the aim of promoting the industry in Israel. The organization has 76 member companies that believe emulating the model of an industrialists association can help those in the field deal with the government and with general issues. “It’s a very highly developed area in the world, but is underdeveloped in Israel,” says association founder and director Eitan Parnass. To underscore his point, he says there is no one in the Energy and Water Resources Ministry whose job is to deal with the field of renewable energy, which is worth billions of shekels to the Israeli economy and directly involves the ministry’s jurisdiction.

“This just goes to show how the field is not taken seriously,” he says. Smadar Bat-Adam, bureau chief for the minister of energy and water resources, responds: “This is a broad issue that involves the electricity administration, the chief scientist’s office, the planning unit, the economics unit, the legal unit, the director general’s office and the minister’s office. Clearly, the ministry has a shortage of positions. We continue to fight to obtain more manpower for the ministry, and until then we are working with what we have. The obstacles to the renewable energy market are not coming from the Energy and Water Resources Ministry. The opposite is true. Every entrepreneur knows he can come to us and receive a response and aid in removing obstacles.”

One of these is SolarEdge Technologies, a company that manufactures systems to make the production of solar energy more efficient. Founded in 2006, the company’s offices are located in the high-tech park in Hod Hasharon. It has 200 employees there, plus another 180 who work at the manufacturing plant in Migdal Ha’emek. SolarEdge sells its systems in 36 countries and has 80 registered patents. Waiting to see company founder Guy Sella, I sit on a bar stool in the reception area. On the wall is a sign with the SolarEdge motto − “SolarEdge: Architects of Energy” − alongside photos of company employees at various events. The people wandering the halls appear cheerful and exude a feeling that is rare to find in workplaces: joy in what they do.

“Almost every country in the world has copied the successful German model of clean electricity,” Sella explains in his office, which is crammed with books and charts and pictures. “The model says the government will pay, for 20 years, anyone who manufactures clean electricity, according to a descending rate. So that every few years, the rate that is paid goes down. This offers an economic advantage to early adapters, and is also logical for whoever comes in later and pays less for the technology. This model has worked extremely well in many places in the world, and by 2008 there were already some large companies that were able to make installations at the same cost as a classic power station, if you take grid parity into account.

“In Israel, there are two problems with this model: The first is that it was adopted too little and too late. The second is that the state subsidizes regular electricity and therefore makes it difficult for solar electricity to be cheaper. This could be solved by raising the price of electricity while giving a direct subsidy to those hurt by this increase, and at the same time relaxing the regulations on solar installations. When that happens, we’ll have clean electricity here at an equal or lower price than regular electricity.”

Tilting at windmills

While skillfully navigating the roads he knows so well to the communities in the Gilboa area, Nadav Saad, founding partner and director of business development for Aviram ‏(the wind section of Enlight-Aviram‏), elaborates on the many advantages of wind energy. In 2002, 31,300 megawatts of electricity were produced around the world through wind energy. The forecast for 2020 is 120,000 megawatts ‏(in the United States alone, wind energy is projected to produce 20 percent of total electricity‏). Saad says wind energy is more efficient than solar energy; for a smaller investment it produces more energy and takes up less space than solar energy plants. One turbine farm in the Golan Heights could supply enough electricity for 80,000 families, he says with enthusiasm.

But potential is one thing and reality another. For two years, Aviram has been trying to demonstrate to decision makers the advantages of wind turbines by operating the Ma’aleh Gilboa turbine as a pilot project. Since it already had a building permit, all that was needed was to replace the engine and push the button.

“But the different authorities blocked us from doing this,” says Saad in frustration. “If any of the decision makers would bother to make the trip from Jerusalem to Kibbutz Ma’aleh Gilboa, they would see there is excellent potential here for an experimental pilot project that would show what wind energy in Israel could be from a community point of view.”

Another wind energy group that has despaired of the authorities is the Israeli Cooperative for Renewable Energy. The idea is based on a European model in which a group of people come together to build renewable energy projects. Each member invests money by purchasing stock and receives a share of the profits. In Europe several such cooperatives are operating successfully. One of the largest is in Copenhagen, Denmark, with 10,000 members who each invested 500 euros in stocks and built, together with the local electricity company, 20 wind turbines on the seashore.

In Israel, this is the only cooperative, and members include environmentalists, academics and social activists. It may sound like an odd idea for a group of people to band together around an environmental business project, but when one sees what kind of change such cooperatives have been able to effect in the world and hears of the success of their first project in Israel, their virtues become clear.

The group already has one successful energy efficiency project to its credit, which began in 2009 and earned profits for the members. Two years ago, they decided to start a second project, this time to produce energy from a wind turbine. They found land in the north, signed a 20-year lease with the landowner and plunged into the red tape. But they recently concluded that the project will never get off the ground. The long wait and tortuous path involved in getting plans submitted and approved is just too daunting.

“We’re trying to invest mainly in places that other developers are not investing in. We thought that wind energy was just the thing, but now we’re giving up,” says Kedem Levy, the co-op’s community and foreign liaison. Like many in the renewable energy field, Levy regards Germany with envy: “More than 75 percent of the clean electricity produced today in Germany comes from projects that are locally owned − cooperatives, communities and local developers. This means that the bulk of the success isn’t coming from the big companies but from smaller, local groupings.”

Another interesting model the co-op is currently trying to promote is communities that get 100 percent of their energy from renewable sources. That is, disregarding the national target of 5 percent and defining an independent target for that particular community. “It can be done by combining energy efficiency, the use of bio-gas, wind turbines, solar electricity and more,” explains Levy. “We calculated that five megawatts is enough for an entire community, and that is certainly a feasible target.” Levy says they are currently exploring the idea with a local council in the south of the country.

Government planning and construction authorities are currently working on a national master plan for wind energy. When the plan is published, it will finally be clear just where it is permitted and where it is forbidden to install wind turbines in Israel. But here, too, there is an added delay: In order to install a wind turbine, a measurement pole must first be installed to check the direction and strength of the wind. And banks only approve loans for a wind project on the basis of clear results from the measurement poles. Such tests take at least a year and a half, after which the pole is removed.

The wind energy master plan should be complete in another year, but meanwhile, the wind companies are not being permitted to install the temporary measurement poles. “Every solar company that decides to install a permanent antenna obtains immediate approval in a quick procedure, but these temporary measurement poles don’t receive any approval,” complains a member of Kibbutz Ma’aleh Gilboa at a meeting beneath the non-functioning turbine − which stands near the kibbutz cattle sheds, all of which have solar roof panels, evidence of the small kibbutz’s environmental initiative. “A pole is temporary. There is no reason to obstruct its installation,” say Yisrael and Asael Gilad, father and son who jointly founded a company that advises renewable energy firms on land issues.

Banet adds that, at the very least, permission should be given for turbines to be installed on the roofs of urban buildings. As an example, she cites her own district, where a small turbine was installed on the roof of the Queen of Sheba Hilton in Eilat and supplies the hotel’s electricity needs.

The Interior Ministry responds: “The ministry supports the master plan for alternative wind-based energy. The master plan is expected to be published in the coming months. Installing measurement poles before the master plan is approved is possible in accordance with the planning and building law, pending approval from the planning institutions.”

The wind energy master plan is meant, for one thing, to appease some of the most vocal opponents of wind turbines, including, surprisingly, the green organizations. They argue that despite their energy benefits, these turbines cause a great deal of harm to birds. A position paper on the subject from the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel says that studies in the United States have shown that wind turbines cause approximately 33,000 bird deaths per year.

“I don’t mean to disparage the attitude of the green organizations. Their motives are genuine,” says renewable energy adviser Yisrael Gilad. “But on the other hand, there’s a tendency toward extremism here. When you go around Europe you see turbines that are also located in forest and park areas. It’s a question of proportion. There is a legitimate conflict between the need we all have for renewable and nonpolluting energy, and environmental elements of harm to birds. And as in any instance when vectors collide, there has to be compromise, and each particular case must be examined.”

Another objection to the wind turbines comes from the Defense Ministry, which is opposed to them because of helicopter flights and radar operations. “We launched the wind farm idea a decade ago. After a lengthy process, we obtained building permits for turbines, a deal with the Israel Lands Administration and all the other necessary permits. We were ready to begin construction when suddenly Israel Defense Forces representatives who had been present at all the meetings and committees for a decade remembered that the turbines would actually disturb the army, and so they couldn’t be approved. The project has been stuck now for months,” recounts Dubi Miller, chairman of the Kibbutz Ma’aleh Gilboa financial administration.

The conversation with Miller takes place in an old, rickety building on Kibbutz Maoz Haim, near Beit She’an. Miller provides financial management services to this kibbutz and others in the area. He looks tired and frustrated. It’s a brutally hot day, and the vision of giant turbines spinning in the wind, their elegant movements powering the home air-conditioners, seems like a lovely fantasy.

Another bit of absurdity attached to the Ma’aleh Gilboa project is that, since it began 10 years ago, it is based on technology from the previous decade. But technology has made great strides since then, to the extent that where the original plan called for 16 turbines, that output could now be achieved with just four. But in order to obtain approval for the more advanced turbines, the whole process has to be started over again from the beginning. Miller and his weary partners in the project cannot conceive of that, and so they are continuing with the original plan for 16 older-model turbines.

“When we finally do have a turbine farm, it will only realize part of the existing potential,” Miller says sadly. “We’ve become a joke, the ones who buy turbines from the junkyard.”

Meeting the target

These Kafkaesque stories hurt Israel in two ways − by preventing Israelis from enjoying clean energy and by causing investments to flee abroad. Enlight-Aviram says that because of local foot-dragging, 60 percent of the company’s activity takes place in Italy and Britain, where their products are welcomed with open arms.

“Unfortunately, we are doing there what we would prefer to be doing here,” says Saad. “There, things work in a very orderly fashion, so you always know exactly what you need to submit, to whom and when. In Britain, for example, the process is not short, but it’s clear and you know when to start and how it will finish.”

Various entrepreneurs and government officials say it’s obvious there’s no chance of meeting the 2014 target. “There are developers available who have gone through all the red tape, but they are still being delayed because of a lot of different government bodies,” says Zafrir Yoeli, deputy director general of business development at Enlight-Aviram.

But there are also some who express optimism, at least as far as the 2020 target goes. These are the people from the Energy and Water Resources Ministry, who believe there is a good chance that after the initial learning curve, the field will balance out and develop rapidly. The environment minister echoes this sentiment: “I am confident that we will reach the 2020 target because I see the decline in prices and I know that the treasury cannot stop the flood. It won’t be linear growth, but growth that occurs in a geometric progression.”

Renewable energy in Israel

Electricity can be produced from various sources of renewable energy. These are the main types of energy in use in Israel.

Solar energy absorbed by panels that focus the radiation using optical devices ‏(usually parabolic mirrors‏). The tremendous heat that is created produces steam that propels a turbine, which spins a generator that creates electrical energy. The most advanced country in the field: China, which produces 2.4 percent of its energy in this way. In Israel, the first photovoltaic plant is currently being built in Ashalim and is expected to supply 250 megawatts of electricity.

Created from the fermentation of organic matter, usually wastewater, with the aid of bacteria inside reactors to produce methane gas. After the gas undergoes a cleaning process, it powers a turbine to produce electricity. The most advanced country in the field: the United States, which produces 4.1 percent of its electricity in this way. In Israel, the field is not highly developed, since there is no efficient waste separation and therefore no regular infusion of organic matter. There are just a few systems in operation and their contribution amounts to 0.055 percent of total electricity.

Converts the kinetic energy of the wind into electricity. The wind moves the blades of turbines, causing a rotor to spin, and producing electrical energy by means of a generator. The most advanced country in the field: China, which supplies 9.1 percent of its energy in this way. In Israel, the prevailing view is that there is not much wind potential, but calculations and measurements by different organizations have shown that the wind in certain locations in Israel ‏(the Golan Heights, Gilboa and some places in the south of the country‏) could produce up to 1,000 megawatts of electricity. Today, just six megawatts are produced, or 0.001 percent of total electricity.

Produced by absorbing electromagnetic rays from the sun and converting them to electrical energy ‏(or thermal energy, in the case of a solar hot water boiler, for example‏). The most advanced country in the field: Germany, which produces 3 percent of its energy in this way. This is the most advanced type of renewable energy in Israel, but it supplies just 197 megawatts to the network, or 0.38 percent of total electricity consumption.


Finance Ministry: “The Israeli government has promoted the use of renewable energy to produce electricity by means of allocating production quotas, and by means of the Ashalim tender to manufacture electricity at an output of 250 megawatts [a tender to build solar stations and thermo-solar stations at Ashalim in the Negev. Four large companies submitted bids − N. A.].

“However, the manufacture of electricity from renewable energy sources is still more expensive and less stable than that which is produced by conventional technologies. This is mostly due to the type of equipment, its cost, and the lands needed to manufacture electricity this way. In addition, solar technology only allows for electricity to be produced during the hours of sunlight, so that this system does not fully do away with the need to build other stations that can produce electricity 24 hours a day ‏(in winter, demand is highest in the hours when there is no light‏). The Finance Ministry is working in coordination with the other government ministries to enable the production via renewable energy in a way that will balance the benefit of emissions-free production with the costs to consumers.”

Israel Electric Corporation: “The IEC’s activity in the field of renewable energy is focused on a number of areas: research and experiments in the field, funding for those in the industry to develop potential ideas to advance the field in Israel, conducting dozens of surveys for connection to the network by private green energy manufacturers, creating optimal conditions for those who wish to build a small photovoltaic plant for personal consumption and channeling surplus into the network − preparing detailed explanations of the process, designing uniform forms, letters and agreements to be used by all, removing obstacles of various types that have come up over the years, issuing technical guidelines and approving different types of equipment even before the Standards Institute has set certain standards. In addition, the IEC has set terms with the banks to make it easier to fund these plants.”

Electricity Authority: “In regard to the claim that licenses for power stations big and small are examined by the same criteria, the Electricity Authority does not examine large power stations in the same way it inspects small solar panels. Each technology is tested in accordance with its unique criteria and on a different timetable. Also, a delay in the examination of a large power station has no bearing whatsoever on the examination of a small solar plant.

“As for the claim that the most recent rate decrease does not give developers financial incentive due to declines in regular costs, we chose to bring the rate in line with countries that recently updated their rates for large solar plants.”

Kandel committee: “Regarding the claim of a conflict of interest on the Kandel committee: It is hard to understand why there is a potential conflict of interest here. The head of such a committee [which deals with gas − N. A.] has no interest in increasing or decreasing the state’s income from gas, but is dealing with its proper management from a macroeconomic perspective.

“Regarding the lack of Health Ministry representation on the committee: Responsibility for assessing the effects of air pollution belongs to the Environmental Protection Ministry and not the Health Ministry. The composition of the committee was determined at a cabinet meeting and the Health Ministry did not express a desire to be involved in the matter.”