A simmering dispute between the energy and environmental protection ministries over the need for new natural gas-fired power plants erupted Wednesday, when Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz accused a senior Environment Ministry official of populist behavior. That prompted Steinitz’s director general to suggest that the Environment Ministry worry about its failure to meet targets on reducing waste-related pollution rather than criticize policy on renewable energy.
The spat took place after Gil Proaktor, head of climate change policy at the Environment Ministry, told the Knesset Internal Affairs and Environment Committee that if the government were to treat climate change with the same urgency as the coronavirus, it would stop building “white elephant” power stations based on gas — a fossil fuel — that would still be operating in 2050, by which time much of the developed world will have already moved to producing all of its electricity from renewable sources.
“Nobody intends to establish a single [gas] power station that’s not needed, but show me one country in the world that depends for 40% of its energy on the sun, even 30%,” shouted Steinitz, who is aiming for 30% renewables by the end of the decade. “We’re taking a huge risk here. You should be ashamed of yourself. A government has to be responsible, not populist.”
Responding to criticism of the fact that large numbers of gas-fired power stations were going through the planning process — 19, according to an Environment Ministry report issued last month — Steinitz said there was no guarantee they would all be built. “Nobody will invest billions if he doesn’t have certainty that the power will be needed,” he said.
Without saying how much it would cost to build new gas power plants, he added that moving to 30% renewables would cost NIS 81 ($24) billion.
The minister, who envisages that gas will provide 70% of Israel’s energy needs by 2030, alongside 30% from renewables, claimed that it was only because progress on renewable energy was so far ahead that Israel was on course to meet its international pledge to reduce global warming gases by 10% this year. Carbon dioxide emissions from transportation had not decreased (and still hovered around two tons per capita per year) and plans to cut pollution from landfill waste sites were also behind target.
Many obstacles still had to be overcome, he went on, such as protests by local communities against the building of high-voltage, above-ground power lines because of fears of electromagnetic radiation. The ministry is also trying to reach an agreement with the Israel Lands Authority on the way land for renewable power plants is valued.
The director general of the Energy Ministry, Udi Adiri, said that reaching the 30% renewables target would involve providing 12,000 megawatts (MW) from solar energy panels (including the 4,000 MW to be available by the end of this year), plus 2,200 MW from stored solar energy, 800 MW from other renewable sources (mainly wind) and anywhere from 1,400 to 4,000 MW from conventional sources (mainly gas).
“Most of our money and efforts will be directed toward renewable energy, and no gas-fired power station will work an hour longer if renewables can provide [the same], but you must understand that there is no full solution without natural gas,” he stressed.
Proaktor, the Environment Ministry official, said that more than 50% of countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) were aiming for 100% dependency on renewable energy between 2045 and 2050. By 2030, more than half had goals of 30%, 40% and even 60% renewables, including Germany (60%) and the US state of Hawaii (40%; like Israel, it cannot buy electricity from its neighbors and therefore has to be self sufficient).
Israel had to present a clear vision for 2050 “because a gas-fired power station that is built today will still be with us in 2050,” he said. “Every power station, all the pipes, any projects involving [highly polluting] oil shale, will be with us in another 30 years and will prevent us from reaching this [100% renewables] point.”
Proaktor said that Israel could already reach 47% solar energy without touching open landscape, just by erecting additional panels within the built-up environment. This, he continued, is why the Environment Ministry had recommended a 40% target for 2030. But in order to get to that milestone and reach 100% renewables by 2050, Israel needed a detailed plan to show where in built-up areas solar panels could be erected. It also needed to further cut energy consumption.
To strengthen his ministry’s findings that solar energy is now cheaper than fossil fuels, Proaktor cited the Electricity Authority’s first tender for solar energy with storage, the results of which were announced last week. Three companies won the tender to provide 168 MW of energy and four hours of storage for just 19.9 agorot (six cents) per kilowatt-hour of energy. (One kilowatt-hour is the amount of energy used to keep a 1,000-watt appliance running for an hour). Up until recently, the main obstacle to solar energy was ensuring power during the night or on days when the sun does not shine.
Based on the NIS 19.9 tariff, Israel could store 13 hours of energy in batteries and build enough solar panels to create 4.8 hours of electricity, on average, each day, he insisted, forestalling the need for any new gas-fired plants.
Last month, the Environment Ministry announced that investing in solar energy rather than gas to produce 4,000 MW would save the country NIS 9 ($2.6) billion.
Proaktor said that the Electricity Authority should allow companies providing solar panels with storage to routinely compete against gas-fired plants in all electricity tenders, saying there was no doubt that the former would provide the “knockout prices.”