Israeli governments may not have a history of lasting very long, but at least the operation of the Knesset building itself is becoming more and more sustainable. By undertaking measures that any environmentally friendly homeowner would take, the home of Israeli politics has recently become the greenest parliament in the world.
On March 29, the Knesset unveiled a 4,560-square-meter (50,000 square feet) solar field on its roof and those of surrounding buildings. Although the 1,500 solar panels are the highlight and the most obvious aspect of the greening of the Knesset, they are by far not the only way in which the Knesset is conserving energy. The Green Knesset Project, launched in January 2014, involves 13 different ecologically conscious projects at a cost of NIS 7 million ($1.8 million).
“Today is the closure of a circle. Eight years ago, we had a dream of making the Knesset a green parliament,” MK Dov Khenin of the Joint Arab List, chair of the Knesset environmental caucus, told a group of reporters he met in a Knesset hallway on his way to the solar-field unveiling ceremony.
The 450 KW-producing solar field, which is larger than its closest competitors at the German Reichstag in Berlin and the Australian Parliament House in Canberra, will generate 10 percent of the electricity used at the Knesset — worth NIS 300,000, annually. By comparison, only 2 percent of Israel’s electricity is currently generated from renewable energy sources.
Together with additional energy-saving measures, the solar array is expected to help meet one-third of the Knesset’s energy needs. The field has a NIS 2.4-million price tag, and the savings it will generate are expected to cover the cost of its construction within eight years.
The lighting in the hall Khenin was walking down had been changed to the energy-saving light-emitting diode (LED) variety, as has the lighting throughout the building.
Alterations like these have been necessary mainly in the older part of the Knesset building, which was inaugurated in 1966. The newer section of the structure, inaugurated in 2008, was built according to more up-to-date standards.
For instance, the older glass surrounding the famous hall containing tapestries by the artist Marc Chagall in the original building have been recently switched out with thermally insulating double-paned windows. On the other hand, the newer building was designed to make use of natural light and sun radiation to provide heat during the winter, and has awning-type structures above windows that keep the building interior cool during other times of the year by blocking the intense summer sun.
‘We are entering an era of sustainability, but it’s not just about the building. It’s also about influencing the staff and the MKs’
Despite Israel’s reputation as the Start-Up Nation and being known for developing and exporting cutting-edge technology — including solar technology — to the rest of the world, bringing progressive environmental solutions to the Knesset surprisingly took some effort, mainly in terms of reeducating not only members of Knesset, but also the Knesset staff.
“It’s a matter of changing organizational culture,” said Ronen Plot, director general of the Knesset. “During the preelection recess [January through mid-March 2015], we offered an in-depth course on sustainability for 35 employees from different departments.”
This week-long advanced course — on subjects such as environmental ethics, environmental law, and environmental economics — followed sustainability workshops that were compulsory for all Knesset employees.
“We are entering an era of sustainability, but it’s not just about the building. It’s also about influencing the staff and the MKs. Everyone needs to be on board if we are to act as an example to other parliaments around the world,” said Dr. Samuel Chayen, sustainability coordinator for the Green Knesset Project.
According to Plot, not all the MKs are happy about the changes. It seems it will just take some time for them to get with the program, which includes everything from individual plastic water bottles being replaced by glass pitchers of water in committee rooms to the installation of toilet flushing systems with two volumes — three liters for liquid waste, and six liters for solid waste (the old toilets used a standard nine-liter volume).
All lighting and air conditioning turns off automatically when a room becomes empty. Even computers left on, but not in use, are remotely turned off after a warning is given. At this point, 80 percent off all paper used in the Knesset comes from recycled sources, and all printing is double-sided.
‘We will invest every shekel saved in phase one into phase two. We expect to recoup our total investment in five years’
More significantly, paper is being replaced by electronic information delivery systems. MKs have been given electronic tablets to use, and the computer screens at each seat in the Knesset plenum hall are being upgraded. It used to be that the only thing an MK could do with the screen was vote on proposed laws. Now, they will be able to get all kinds of information about bills and other parliamentary business on those screens, as well.
“Some MKs may prefer paper, but they are not going to get the huge annual budget in printed form anymore,” said Plot, as he spread his arms about a foot apart to show how thick the document usually is.
“It’s going to be distributed on a flash drive they can plug in to their computer,” he said.
The Green Knesset Project will also include optimization of the irrigation of the gardens on the extensive Knesset grounds and the possible replacement of the pumps in the building’s air-conditioning system. Experts from Haifa University are looking into establishing a green roof (a roof covered with vegetation) on the Knesset roof after the shmita (Sabbatical) year is over. It would be for research purposes and could also boost the Knesset’s power savings.
While diners at the Knesset cafeterias have been required to separate their recyclables into separate bins, soon they may be asked to deposit the organic waste from their meals into special containers. Knesset representatives are currently working with the Jerusalem Municipality on a plan to transfer organic waste from the Knesset kitchens to a treatment site where it will be used for making compost — rather than being sent to a landfill.
‘If the Knesset remains the sole green building, then we will not have achieved our goal’
“We finished phase one of the project nine months early, and we plan on starting phase two in half a year from now,” said Plot.
“We will invest every shekel saved in phase one into phase two. We expect to recoup our total investment in five years,” he added.
The Knesset has signed cooperation agreements in the area of green research with the parliaments of a number of other countries in Eastern Europe and Africa.
“If the Knesset remains the sole green building, then we will not have achieved our goal,” said Khenin.
“Our status is among the most advanced in the world. We hope that government ministries, private businesses and other parliaments will follow our example,” he added.