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Government seeks to nix half of planned gas power stations as renewables rise

In move welcomed by environmentalists, Energy Ministry says advances in technology will enable it to reach 30% renewables by 2030, but notes it will still need natural gas backup

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

Power lines next to Moshav Bnei Re'em in central Israel, April 26, 2010. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Power lines next to Moshav Bnei Re'em in central Israel, April 26, 2010. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

The Energy Ministry on Sunday asked the National Planning and Building Council to slash its plans for new gas-fired power stations by more than half in a move welcomed by both the Environmental Protection Ministry and civilian campaigners for more renewable energy.

The ministry asked the planners to strike off four projects being designed, with a combined output of 4,860 Megawatts (MW).

Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said these could be taken off the agenda, because with advances in technology, Israel is now in a position to increase its targets for renewable energy, mainly via solar power.

With plans to add more than 12,000 MW of capacity from renewable sources to the energy system — plus 2,200 MW of storage — by 2030, the planners need to ensure that 4,000 MW can potentially be made available via new gas-fired power plants, with the aim that only 1,400 MW will actually be needed, the ministry said.

Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz at the Knesset Interior and Environmental Protection Committee, July 22, 2020. (Adina Velman, Knesset spokesperson)

In June, Steinitz increased targets for the percentage of Israel’s electricity that is to be produced from renewable sources from 17 percent to 30% by the end of the decade, with the remaining 70% to come from natural gas.

The four planned stations to be taken off the list are Mevo’ot Gilboa (Gilboa Foothills) south of the northern city of Afula, Sagi 2000, west of Afula, Zvaim near Beit She’an in the northern Jordan Valley, and Hartuv in the Beit Shemesh area, northwest of Jerusalem.

The ministry also intends to freeze planning of new stations for areas not yet zoned appropriately and will give preference to new plants to be built close to existing infrastructure.

Still in the running are plans for several gas-fired stations, among them an extension of the Dalia power plant east of Kiryat Malachi in the south and the Sorek station, a 40 minute drive to the south of Tel Aviv, both of which have been approved by the planning authorities with a total envisaged output of 1,525 MW.

Local authorities and residents are waging a battle against plans for the private Kesem power plant near Rosh HaAyin in central Israel, worried that it will cause air pollution and contaminate the important Yarkon-Taninim (or Western Mountain) Aquifer, which provides 30% of the country’s drinking water.

Udi Adiri, director-general of the Israeli Energy Ministry (YouTube screenshot)

In a video conference on Sunday, Energy ministry Director-General Udi Adiri told journalists that if it proves possible to generate more than 30% of electricity from sustainable sources, he and the Energy Minister will back this.

Adiri said that even if gas-fired power stations were built and could supply the needed energy on their own, they would not be used if renewable sources were able to supply the demand.

By means of comparison, he noted that coal factories had been ordered to install filters on their chimneys at enormous cost, but that when natural gas came online, Steinitz had not balked at moving to shut all coal-fired plants down by 2025.

The Hadera coastline, featuring the largely coal-fired Orot Rabin power plant, April 16, 2013. (Flash90)

Adiri said that in any event, solar energy plants will be a first priority, because they have very low operating costs. When they cannot produce, electricity is generated by new gas-powered stations, which are more efficient and less polluting than old ones. Older stations, such as the Eshkol power plant in Ashdod on the southern coast, Gezer near Ramle in the center, and Tsafit, southeast of Tel Aviv, will be used only as a third option. “That’s how the market works,” Adiri said.

But many obstacles still remain along the path to renewables, not least of which are public objections to wind farms and to solar panels on features such as lakes and reservoirs.

Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel, who has been fighting to halt construction of any new power plants based on fossil fuels on the grounds that they are more polluting and expensive than renewable energy, nevertheless welcomed the move. Gamliel said that building fewer stations powered by natural gas, while not zero, still meant the Energy Ministry had adopted her own ministry’s view and made a “180 degree turn,” which was “better late than never.”

Environmental not-for-profit groups also praised Steinitz for the decision, but like Gamliel, urged him to cancel all plans for new gas-powered plants.

Gamliel’s ministry has carried out its own research and concluded that Israel could reach 47% renewable energy by 2030 without touching open landscapes, mainly by placing additional solar panels in existing constructed environments — such as the roofs of buildings in Israeli cities and sun-exposed parking lots. It has sought to persuade the Energy Ministry to increase the 30% renewables target to 40%.

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