As war with Hezbollah looms, concerns over vulnerability of power grid generate unease

Experts say Israel’s energy supply is susceptible to attack; with nation ill-prepared for long blackouts, many are rushing for diesel generators, though sunnier options exist

Sue Surkes

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

A worker from the Israel Electric Corporation seen repairing a power line, August 29, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/FLASH90)
A worker from the Israel Electric Corporation seen repairing a power line, August 29, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/FLASH90)

Last week, Shaul Goldstein, a senior state electricity official, warned that a war with Hezbollah could severely disrupt Israel’s power infrastructure. Within three days of the power going down, he predicted — earning backlash — Israel would become unlivable.

“We cannot promise electricity if there is a war in the north [of Israel],” he said at a conference in the southern city of Sderot. “After 72 hours without electricity, it will be impossible to live here. We are not prepared for a real war.”

His statement, highlighting the potential for prolonged power outages, sparked concern among officials and the public, given the increasing tensions on Israel’s northern border.

Energy Minister Eli Cohen and Israel Electric Corporation CEO Meir Spiegler quickly criticized the remarks. The organization of which Goldstein is CEO, Independent System Operator Ltd, known by its Hebrew acronym NOGA, distanced itself from his comments.

According to Yoram Laredo, director of the National Emergency Management Authority, the issue isn’t NOGA, which manages the infrastructure for Israel’s power grid, or the Israel Electric Corporation, which runs the power through the grid.

Rather, the problem is that the infrastructure for Israel’s high-quality, reliable electricity system “is in the enemy’s bank of targets and… Israel is not prepared for prolonged blackouts,” he told an Institute for National Security Studies conference on energy in a time of war two weeks ago.

Shaul Goldstein seen on December 6, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Hezbollah has been attacking Israel on a near-daily basis for the better part of a year, purportedly in support of Gaza’s Hamas terror group, following the October 7 attack, in which some 1,200 people were killed and 251 abducted in an unprecedented onslaught on areas of southern Israel adjacent to the Palestinian enclave. Israel launched a full-scale invasion of the Gaza Strip on October 27.

Earlier this month the Iran-backed Hezbollah released a video it said had been captured by a drone that managed to breach Israeli airspace and film sensitive military sites and infrastructure near Haifa.

The IDF describes Hezbollah as the world’s “most powerful non-state actor,” with a vast arsenal capable of reaching deep into Israeli territory that includes hundreds of precision-guided missiles and tens of thousands of rockets.

Rockets leave smoke trails behind as they are launched from southern Lebanon toward Israel on May 16, 2024, amid ongoing cross-border clashes between Israeli troops and Hezbollah. (Photo by AFP)

The US recently expressed concerns over whether Israel’s highly advanced air defense systems could cope with a Hezbollah onslaught.

A professional paper on energy security published on June 2  (in Hebrew) suggested that those air defense systems could face 4,000 missiles per day during the initial weeks of fighting and that priority would likely immediately be given to protecting military assets rather than infrastructure such as electricity for civilians.

It said that “prolonged local power outages” were likely.

Why Israel’s power grid is so vulnerable

Israel’s heavy dependence on electricity impacts nearly every aspect of daily life, including transportation, water supply (drinking water comes mainly from a handful of coastal desalination plants), communications, banking, commerce, and food refrigeration.

In the case of war, Hezbollah could cause damage to the pipelines, ports, power plants and offshore gas rigs that make energy production possible in Israel. It could also hit vital infrastructure underpinning the electric grid, like substations and high-tension towers, making distribution of the power impossible.

An energy island, the country cannot rely on neighboring grids for emergency supplies of electricity.

An Israeli Navy Sa’ar 6-class corvette guards the Energean floating production, storage and offloading vessel at the Tamar gas field, in an image published by the military on April 23, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

Most of the country’s electricity comes from fossil fuel gas, which it has in abundance offshore. The gas used for Israel’s power plants is supplied by just three wells in the Mediterranean Sea, each with its own processing platform and terrestrial supply reception plant.

Natural gas is expected to provide 75% of the country’s power this year, using just a couple of dozen large power stations and other substations, many of which can easily be found with Google Maps.

The southernmost rig, Tamar, was temporarily shut down after Hamas’s invasion of Israel on October 7 due to fears of Hamas rocket damage. In a potential war with Hezbollah, all three rigs could be preemptively closed, halting gas flow within 1.5 hours after shutdown (there are no gas reserves) and forcing a switch to diesel or coal.

File: Silhouette of the Ashkelon power station at sunset, October 17, 2007 (Edi Israel/Flash90)

Most of Israel’s gas-operated power stations have been built to switch to diesel in an emergency. However, diesel and coal reserves are limited and affected by supply chain issues. War could negatively impact shipments, especially if Iran-backed attacks on tankers in the Red Sea expand to the Mediterranean, as threatened.

Sami Turjeman, a former IDF general who today chairs NOGA’s board, told the INSS conference on June 5 that fossil fuel power stations were a “weak point” and that dependence on coal and diesel reserves – still not sufficiently full  — was Israel’s Achilles heel.

View from inside the control room at the Israel Electric Corporation power station in Hadera, central Israel. August 11, 2011. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

The country needs more fossil fuel power generation stations, he said, but he noted also that at least 30% of Israel’s energy mix needs to come from renewable sources, in line with commitments to the UN and for its own energy security.

Thanks to the country’s years-long focus on developing natural gas, renewables — mainly solar — accounted for just 12% of that mix in December.

Preparing for blackouts

The length, location, and duration of blackouts would depend on the nature of Hezbollah’s attacks.

Efforts are currently underway to increase diesel and coal reserves, enhance defenses around critical power infrastructure, and prepare to be able to swiftly repair damage.

An Israeli family sits in the darkness of their home during a power outage, near the city of Netanya, on October 26, 2015. (Chen Leopold/FLASH90)

According to Laredo, NIS 2 billion ($530 million) has been spent on increasing energy reserves since October 7.

Spiegler, from the Israel Electric Corporation, said that his team was working with the Communications Ministry to plan for cellular reception issues and with the Health Ministry to ensure life-saving machines have electricity to keep running.

He added that the corporation was also stocking up on spare parts and conducting drills in northern Israel using kits and mobile substitutes for damaged substations.

But Ariel Heimann, a senior researcher at the INSS and an expert on earthquakes, noted that there is still no single body or individual responsible for coordinating the response to widespread power system damage, just as there is nobody with overall responsibility for managing a major seismic event.

More sun, less centralization

In the long term, planners see a move to heavier use of renewable energy and the development of a diffuse grid as key to protecting Israel’s electric infrastructure.

It would be harder for an enemy to bring the country to a standstill if millions had solar panels, solar storage, and hybrid inverters, allowing their electricity supply to seamlessly disconnect from the grid.

But despite having plenty of sunshine, the renewable energy space has largely been stymied until now by poor regulation and a massive bureaucracy.

Illustrative: Solar panels in the desert near Eilat, southern Israel. (Moshe Shai/FLASH90)

Nurit Gal, a former senior official at the Electricity Authority, which regulates Israel’s power sector, told the INSS confab that Israel already had 48,775 renewable energy producers, ranging from single-family homes to large solar fields.

According to Gilad Yavetz, co-founder and head of Enlight Renewable Energy, a missile attack on a large solar field with an array of panels would leave 98 percent or more of the installation intact and producing clean power.

According to Ron Eifer, head of the Energy Ministry’s Sustainable Energy Division, officials are also trying to move ahead with decentralized management — something the environmental lobby has pushed for years but which the once monopolistic IEC has traditionally opposed as a threat to its control.

Firefighters try to extinguish a burning electricity pole at the scene where a rocket fired from Gaza landed in an open area in central Israel, October 26, 2023. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Due to the centralized nature of Israel’s electric grid, localized damage to power lines in Israel’s south on October 7 caused blackouts over wide areas, and it took up to two months for the IEC to complete repairs. Similar issues have plagued the north and four linemen have lost their lives since October 7 working on restoring electricity.

Recognizing the benefits of allowing areas to disconnect from the national grid and give residents electric independence in an emergency, the Energy Ministry has proposed moving toward decentralization via so-called microgrids as part of the Tekuma administration’s rehabilitation plan along the Gaza border.

Power to the people

In the short term, Israelis are reportedly flocking to buy diesel generators to weather any outages, a trend thought partly fueled by Goldstein’s warning.

But Israeli companies such as Solax Israel and Inter Plus, both of which presented at the INSS conference, say they offer cleaner and more reliable microgrid alternatives.

Eitan Parnass, CEO of the Association of Green Energy Companies in Israel, told conference participants that solar panels on the roof of a home, a storage battery, and an electric car capable of providing supplementary power could provide optimum protection against blackouts.

Noting that most university campuses and factories had some kind of energy backup, Ruby Davidson, a deputy CEO at an Inter Plus subsidiary, said that the company could integrate hybrid microgrids into all new energy systems or upgrade existing ones.

“The solution is under our noses,” he said.

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