In run-up to Earth Day, Energy Ministry publishes road map for cutting emissions

Aiming at 27% decrease in energy sector’s production of greenhouse gases by 2030, minister Steinitz reveals early-stage talks with Arab neighbors on Israel buying solar energy

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

View of the Ashalim solar power station in the Negev desert, southern Israel, on August 21, 2020 (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)
View of the Ashalim solar power station in the Negev desert, southern Israel, on August 21, 2020 (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)

The Energy Ministry on Sunday unveiled a 136-page roadmap which, it said, would enable the energy sector to dramatically cut greenhouse gases in the coming decades.

The announcement, which targets a cut of 23% in the energy sector and of 30% in the electricity sector by 2030, with respective cuts of 80% and up to 85% by 2050, comes just days before Earth Day on Thursday and US President Biden’s two-day virtual climate summit, to be attended by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu,

This is the first time that the ministry has spoken about its plans for emissions reductions by the end of the decade, though the cuts of 80% and up to 85% by 2050 were first announced in December at the Eli Hurvitz Conference on Economy and Society. However, these fall way below the commitments of many countries to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, and sometimes earlier.

At a press briefing, Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz also revealed that he is in early talks with neighboring countries about the potential for Israel to buy solar energy.

This kind of cross-border cooperation, mooted by environmental groups for some time, could help tiny Israel — which is roughly the size of New Jersey, has little land to spare for solar fields and has no other sources of renewable energy — to reach its green energy targets. Neighbors such as Jordan and Egypt have vast tracts of land that could be used for large-scale solar farms.

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

“I’ve had initial talks with the United Arab Emirates and some neighbors,” Steinitz said, without giving names. “We’re very much at the start of the process, but we must develop this,” he went on, adding that these contacts were “best not reported” on at this stage.

Ensuring energy security

Steinitz noted that power breakdowns in California during wildfires and extreme heat last summer, and in Texas during a cold snap in February, had underlined the importance of ensuring round-the-clock energy security for Israel in all climatic conditions.

People wait in line to fill propane tanks in Houston, Texas, Feb. 17, 2021. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

After a year’s intensive work, and the running of some 2,000 scenarios by a model that combines technical and economic data, the ministry had arrived at its targets in line with what was “realistic for Israel,” he said. This took into account “economic realities,” a 2.8 percent annual increase in electricity demand, shortages of land, and other factors such as Israel’s current inability to hook up to its neighbors’ electricity grids when the need arose.

But reaching the targets would depend largely on the ability of other sectors, such as industry, transportation and housing, to reach their goals, Steinitz stressed.

The roadmap (in Hebrew), which is available for public comment, sets out the main challenges to be negotiated along the way.

One regards the ability to store solar energy for use during the night or during overcast days. At present, Israel is able to store just 300 MegaWatts of solar energy — enough to power Eilat and the Arava desert communities in southern Israel for about three hours at night. In the future, storage will need to rise to between 150 and 250 GigaWatts and the grid will have to be extended substantially to carry solar energy from the point at which it is produced to its users.

Achieving the goals will also mean more than quadrupling the output of solar panels from just over 4,000 GigaWatts this year to 16,375 GW by 2030, the roadmap says. Regulations will also need to be enacted — mainly by ministries other than energy — to ensure that implementation can progress smoothly.

Given the changing nature of technology, the ministry will nevertheless maintain flexibility and review its targets every five years, the briefing was told. This will allow for new developments to be taken into account in fields such as hydrogen, the capture and storage of carbon and increasing output of solar panels.

The Orot Rabin Power Station in Hadera, seen from the ruins of ancient Caesarea, Israel, July 24, 2015. (Garrett Mills/Flash 90)

Thanks mainly to the policy of phasing out of coal, which is to disappear totally from the Israeli economy by 2025, the ministry has managed to cut carbon dioxide emissions from electricity by just under four tons per capita, which is way more than the 2.4 tons per capita reduction it pledged as part of the 2015 Paris Climate Accord, according to a presentation made at the press briefing.

The Paris accord commits 195 countries and other signatories to come up with goals to cap global warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6˚F), and preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7˚F), compared to pre-industrial levels.

The weaning off of coal has also substantially reduced air pollution, cutting nitrogen and sulphur oxides, with the latter predicted to reach zero by 2030, and the former to reach 12,000 tons, compared with 69,000 in 2015.

Asked why the Energy Ministry had failed to reach its own target of ten percent renewables by 2020, Ehud (Udi) Adiri, the Energy Ministry’s Director-General,  blamed the coronavirus. The Israel Electric Company had agreed to extend contracts for the installation of new solar energy projects, he said, predicting that this goal would be reached during the coming year.

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