Energy Ministry finalizing revolutionary plan for Gaza border area energy independence

As March 18 deadline nears, officials discussing with other stakeholders what to include in Tekuma Administration Gaza Envelope rehabilitation

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

Firefighters try to put out a blaze on an electricity pylon in central Israel after it was hit by a rocket fired from Gaza, October 26, 2023. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)
Firefighters try to put out a blaze on an electricity pylon in central Israel after it was hit by a rocket fired from Gaza, October 26, 2023. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

The Energy Ministry is finalizing a potentially revolutionary plan, to be submitted to the government by March 18, to turn the newly renamed Tekuma region along the Gaza border into a flagship for energy independence and renewable energy.

The NIS 3 billion ($836 million) initiative focuses on harnessing solar energy to produce a massive five gigawatts of power, the ministry announced at last week’s Eilat Eilot Renewable Energy conference in the Red Sea city.

Most of the renewable energy would be earmarked for the center of the country, where the majority of the population lives.

The plan, if approved, would eventually enable each home, community, and even some local authorities in the Tekuma region, to manage their electricity supply and demand in an emergency, potentially setting a precedent for electricity decentralization in this and other areas of the country in the future.

It would also help Israel reach its 2030 goal of generating 30 percent of power from renewable sources. By the end of last year, it had only installed 5.5 gigawatts of a planned 17 gigawatts nationwide by the end of the decade.

The late head of the Sha’ar Hanegev Regional Council, Ofir Libstein, photographed in Ashkelon, southern Israel, on November 27, 2018. (Flash90)

Among local proponents of a decentralized system was the late head of the Sha’ar Hanegev Regional Council, Ofir Libstein, who was killed on October 7 while fighting Hamas terrorists.

Under the plan, half the power would come from expanding the electricity grid, and the other half from solar panels and solar energy storage.

Just under 300 megawatts of renewable energy are installed in the area so far.

Illustration from the Energy and Water Ministry’s plan for Tekuma. (Energy and Water Ministry)

Tal Avishai, the Energy Ministry’s director of long-term policy and the strategic projects division, is coordinating the plan with a myriad of bodies.

These include the Tekuma Administration, government ministries, planners, local authorities and green groups, as well as residents.

Tal Avishai, the Energy Ministry’s director of long-term policy and the strategic projects division. (Shiran Urich)

Avishai explained at the conference last week that there will be a section on energy within the Tekuma Administration’s report to the Prime Minister. She said, “We’re in discussions with the administration and the other partners to agree on what will be included in [our] program, mainly in light of budget limitations.”

Avishai told The Times of Israel that while providing housing and dealing with physical and mental health issues were uppermost in people’s minds concerning the Gaza border communities, energy was the infrastructure that would enable the region to bounce back.

The long-term plan would enable a home, community or even some local authorities to manage their electricity systems independently while remaining connected to the national grid.

Green planning from the start

The ministry wants to ensure that the massive rebuilding effort would immediately incorporate what was necessary for renewable energy and subterranean infrastructure, Avishai explained. This ranged from constructing energy-efficient buildings based on green building codes and installing charging stations for electric cars to placing agro-voltaic solar panels in the fields. These follow the sun and assist crop growth, while also generating power, and are currently being piloted all over Israel with different crops and in different conditions.

But she stressed that there was no intention of forcing the plans on the Tekuma region. “We want to enable, to remove obstacles, to incentivize,” she said.

Dr. Jenia Gutman, of the Environmental Protection Ministry, who lives in a Negev kibbutz, warned against sacrificing agricultural land — the heart of the region — for solar farms.

Likewise, Iris Berkowitz, of the Southern Region Planning Authority, said at the conference that it was crucial to listen to the residents because energy development would have visual, environmental and other implications.

Fighting decentralization

The bodies that operate Israel’s centralized electricity infrastructure have resisted growing calls over the years to decentralize electricity management.

Their plans to expand the current grid (separate, independent grids are illegal) include generating solar energy in massive fields in the relatively sparsely-populated north and south of Israel, and sending the power to central Israel, where most people live.

This requires building billions of shekels of new infrastructure, changing regulations and contending with bureaucracy. Progress is so slow that many of those wanting to install solar panels are being told there is no room available on the grid.

A wake-up call came on October 7, the date on which Hamas terrorists unleashed hell on Gaza border communities. Since then, calls have only increased to strengthen energy resilience by diversifying the power supply through thousands of separately owned solar panels and reducing Israel’s dependence on just three natural gas wells in the Mediterranean Sea.

The Tamar platform, close to the southern coastal port of Ashkelon, was closed during the initial stage of Israel’s ongoing war against Hamas, for fear of rocket attack, and the other two would be particularly exposed should full-scale war break out with the Iran-backed Hezbollah on the Lebanese border.

The Tamar natural gas field, off the coast of Israel. (Courtesy)

Furthermore, since October 7 — when Hamas sent hails of rockets into Gaza border communities and thousands of Hamas terrorists invaded communities, where they murdered 1,200 people in grisly circumstances and from where they kidnapped 253 to the Gaza Strip — power lines have been destroyed and the disadvantages of a centralized system have been further exposed.

It took time for electricians from the Israel Electric Company to come and carry out repairs.

As Moshe Shitrit, responsible for licenses at the Israel Electric Authority (the regulatory body), told last week’s conference in Eilat, electricity in some places was not restored for two months.

But many area kibbutzim were able to get the switches working much faster than others because they enjoyed recognition as “historic distributors.”

This is a track open to kibbutzim, a few universities and some Druze towns.  It enables a kibbutz, for example, to be recognized as a single customer by the Israel Electric Company, much like a private home. The IEC supplies power to the kibbutz, which then decides how to allocate it, and has electricians managing it.

Today, 15 out of 24 Gaza border kibbutzim have the status. Two more are in the process of acquiring it.

A soldier walks through Kfar Aza, October 16, 2023. (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

In Kibbutz Kfar Aza, for example, which suffered one of the worst Hamas onslaughts on October 7, the kibbutz electrician was able to carry out a wiring bypass to return electricity to a neighborhood where the grid had fallen because he understood how the system worked.

Historic distributors have the added advantage of being able to install generators and solar panels, up to a certain ceiling of electricity, without having to secure permits.

Most Popular
read more: