At green energy confab, industry doubts Israel will reach renewable targets

Many of the more than 700 participants at Renewable Energy Conference in Eilat grumble over government’s slow pace, centralization and red tape

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

Solar panels. (lovelyday12, iStock at Getty Images)
Solar panels. (lovelyday12, iStock at Getty Images)

At this year’s Eilat-Eilot Renewable Energy Conference, industry insiders and green energy advocates highlighted the main concern limiting the push for a more sustainable future: The government is moving too slowly, with too much bureaucracy, for it to possibly reach its goal of generating 30 percent of Israel’s energy from renewable sources by 2030 and attaining net-zero carbon emissions by mid-century.

By last year’s end, Israel was supposed to be generating 10% of its energy from renewables. But as speaker after speaker noted, that goal was missed. By the end of 2021, Israel will just be scraping 9%.

It was the ninth conference to be organized by the Eilat-Eilot Renewable Energy Initiative, which is leading the fight to advance solar energy.

Thanks to the initiative and its leader, Dorit Banet, the city of Eilat and the Arava region in southern Israel now rely fully on solar energy in the daytime. and will do so around the clock within the next two years.

But at the Dan Hotel in Eilat, where the confab took place, attracting more than 700 participants from industry and government, the atmosphere was less than bullish.

There, speaker after speaker from the private industry called for less red tape and a less centralized, more open, energy market.

Dorit Banet. (Noah Perry)

The first to speak up was Banet herself, who said that while the Arava currently enjoys 190 megawatts of solar energy, it could be producing more than twice as much, even within current regulations and land zoning, was it not for bureaucratic obstacles.

“There is no justification for the fact that in two years, we haven’t managed to add a single watt in the south,” she said.

Chen Herzog, partner and chief economist of BDO Consulting Israel, proposed setting up a fast track for the approval of clean energy projects that would mirror a separate government program, known as Tama 38, devised to speed residential construction in the face of galloping population growth.

The Ashalim solar field in the Negev desert, southern Israel, on December 22. 2016. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

“People say that there’s no room on the [electricity] grid, but green energy should be the first choice,” Herzog said.

Herzog criticized the centralized control over the electricity sector, where the Israel Electric Corporation runs the grid from day-to-day, while the Electricity Authority, based within the Energy Ministry, determines regulations and financial incentives and a third body — Noga: The Israel Independent System Operator Ltd — undertakes infrastructure planning.

Doubting Israel would reach its 30% goal by 2030, Herzog outlined some of the steps needed to make sure that it does. These included more competition in the green energy field, bilateral supply deals between industrial consumers and green energy companies, more intensive efforts to expand the grid and make energy use more efficient, and an accelerated push toward electrified transport.

Most of Israel’s cars still have combustion engines. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

“Let’s release the market and take away monopoly over the sun,” he said, adding, “Just as we can move from [communications company] Cellcom to Partner, in Europe, consumers can move between electricity providers.”

Tal Mond, CEO and partner at BL Energy, commented that Israel’s regulatory set-up was suited to the old fossil fuel-dominated market. An open market would drive more innovation and bring prices down, he said.

He also said that the Israel Lands Authority, which helps to determine where energy facilities can be built and are much maligned by renewable energy companies for not determining uniform land prices, was “not accountable in any way.”

Mond further noted that there was no demand response in Israel — a mechanism now common in the developed world that balances supply and demand by allowing consumers to reduce their electricity use at peak periods when power prices are high and helps the system to work more efficiently overall.

A new solar field in Timna, southern Israel, was built by EDF Renewables Israel and formally opened on December 15, 2021. (EDF Renewables Israel)

Ayalon Vaniche, head of EDF Renewables Israel, which on Wednesday opened its 22nd solar field in Israel, said it took his company two years just to connect to the grid.

Vaniche said he feared that the government was making a mistake by seeking ever-lower solar energy tariffs via tenders. The lowest bid price currently stands at 17.05 agorot (five cents), a figure too low to reflect the costs of erecting facilities that also require construction, such as solar panels in cemeteries or over outdoor parking lots.

Clean energy campaigner and former Knesset member Yael Cohen Paran pointed out that no solar panels had been installed on the roofs of residential apartment blocks yet, despite the expectation that these would provide the main reserve of roofs for renewable energy.

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