Israel Air Force has solar power in its sights

The IDF is leading Israel’s green revolution, looking to ensure all bases produce their own off-grid energy needs

A solar array at an Israel Air Force base (Courtesy)
A solar array at an Israel Air Force base (Courtesy)

There are a lot of arguments to be made for the adoption of solar energy for electricity production, but with Israel still far behind on the goals it set for itself, according to solar expert Danny Denan, it appears that those arguments have still not made much of an impact on policy makers in the country. But like so much else in Israel, it is security that could finally give solar its well-deserved day in the sun as a major source of power.

“Despite promises and commitments, the latest of which was made at the Paris climate conference last November, Israel still produces no more than a paltry 2.5% of its electricity from solar,” said Denan. “That the sun is free, or that at this point a kilowatt of electricity produced using solar technology is actually cheaper than a kilowatt from coal or gas, or that solar does not bring in its wake the pollution associated with fossil fuels has not been enough to turn away policy makers from their obsession with fossil fuels, especially gas.”

But the chairperson of Enerpoint Israel, the local division of the Italian solar giant, believes that even diehard fossil fuel fans in the government are ready to give solar a second look – and it’s all thanks to Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah.

“Last month, Nasrallah threatened to blow up the Haifa ammonia storage facility with his missiles, but the Hadera electricity plant, which is just a bit south of the ammonia facility, is just as vulnerable. If the terrorists hit that site, Israel could be without electricity for a long time,” said Denan.

Denan wasn’t the first person to think of that, however. Quietly, the IDF has been converting to green technologies – and within less than two decades, Israel’s army and air force bases, if all goes according to plan, will produce almost all their energy from solar sources, and institute a wide range of other environmental-friendly technologies.

The benefit to the army will be chiefly financial, but the country will benefit in other ways – with less pollution due to a lowered carbon footprint by the biggest “corporation” in Israel, to a diffusion of targets that Israel’s enemies would have to target in order to paralyze the IDF by destroying its sources of power.

Working in the business for well over a decade, Denan has seen decisions come and unfulfilled deadlines go – numerous times. In 2009, for example, the government set a goal whereby at least 5% of Israel’s electricity needs would be supplied by “green” technologies – specifically solar, wind and biomass (using trash and sewage) – with that goal rising to 10% by 2020.

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein (left) and Dir.-Gen. Ronen Flut are seen in front of a solar field outside the Knesset, on Sunday, March 29, 2015. (photo credit: Courtesy Knesset)
Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein (left) and Dir.-Gen. Ronen Flut are seen in front of a solar field outside the Knesset, on Sunday, March 29, 2015. (Courtesy Knesset)

But quotas and limitations on the use of photovoltaic systems have kept Israelis “in the dark” on solar electric production, said Denan. “Countries with far less sunshine, like Germany and Italy, have much more successful solar and alternative energy programs, because their policies make more sense.”

In fact, most of Europe is ahead of Israel in electricity production from solar energy and other alternative energies.

“The very popular program in which people installed photovoltaic arrays on their rooftops and sold the excess power they generated to the IEC was halted, and that was a big blow to the industry” — and to Denan himself, whose business is installing those PV systems on rooftops. “They replaced it with a much less attractive program, in which facilities with large rooftops could install PV systems, but not sell the excess electricity. It just goes to waste.”

The reason for these policy changes is unclear. At the November 2015 climate conference in Paris, the government again loudly proclaimed its commitment to alternative energy, naming a new goal – the production of 17% of the country’s energy use by 2030, a goal that is “substantially more ambitious than Israel’s current 10% target for 2020,” the government said in its Nationally Determined Contribution plan officially submitted to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

A solar panel at an IDF base (Courtesy)
A solar panel at an IDF base (Courtesy)

Denan believes that it’s the “gas elephant” in the room that is holding things up.

“Current Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz is a ‘gas man’ who believes that while solar is nice, it’s not ‘serious.’ He and Prime Minister Netanyahu have committed so much to the various gas deals that Israel is trying to negotiate that they are overlooking the fact that at this point, producing electricity from solar installations is about 20% cheaper than from gas or coal, according to our figures,” said Denan.

Steinitz’s office had no comment.

And, of course, there is the security argument – that a single entity providing electrical power to millions is far more vulnerable, and puts many more people at risk – than using millions of PV systems to supply electricity locally, to households, communities and cities.

“By diffusing the number of targets you ensure that that there is less chance that everyone is affected by a power outage due to an attack on the power generation station,” said Denan. “If every house is its own power generation station, it makes it much less likely that everyone will be affected by power outages if a major attack ensues.”

Actually, the IDF, at least, appears to have been thinking about this as well – and in January, the army announced that it was well on its way to installing a million square feet of solar panels for electricity generation on Israel Air Force bases.

“In 2014, we started to run a pilot project to examine alternative energy sources, with an emphasis on solar energy,” said Col. Oded Yackobovitz, a commander in the IDF Ground Forces. “It’s all about combining solar panels, hybrid generators for backup, batteries and electrical supervision.”

Danny Denan (Courtesy)
Danny Denan (Courtesy)

Originally seen as a way to cut its carbon footprint and save money, the “Blue Going Green” project (blue being the official color of the Air Force) “is so sweeping and systematic that it seeks a net-zero-energy air force by the year 2033,” said Major Asaf, Head of the Air Force Sustainability Initiative. The first solar-based air force facility to come online will be the Ramon Air Force Base in southern Israel, and it will feature a photovoltaic solar panel field that will produce some 8.5 million kilowatt-hours of power annually, valued at some 4.3 million shekels ($1.1 million).

But beyond saving money, said Asaf, the field will provide independence for the IAF if civilian energy fields are not operational in times of national emergency, his office said. The Nevatim air force base, for example, will be the site of the “first ever net-zero green building in Israel,” said Asaf. To be completed in July 2017, the 600 square meter (6,458 square foot) building, which will house engineering and planning offices, offers a number of groundbreaking environmental features.

“First off, the building will offer thermal isolation, keeping the building warm in the winter and cool in the summer,” said Asaf. The entire building will be computerized and equipped with smart sensors, and will also feature high-tech skylights and automated faucets. To top it off, a 50-kilowatt photovoltaic solar energy system on its roof will supply the building with virtually all its energy needs.”

The building thus fulfills the criteria set by the IDF in its green tech policy – minimizing carbon footprint, as well as minimizing dependence on the grid, to ensure that operations can continue uninterrupted during times of emergency.

Also on the IDF’s green agenda are smart water systems, aimed at cutting water consumption by at least a quarter, as well as shoring up underground fuel pipes to prevent leaks.

“When it comes to storing oil, corroded pipes are a major risk, as they can lead to leaks and ground contamination,” according to Sergeant Major Alex Krikun, who oversees infrastructure planning for the IAF. “It’s our responsibility to ensure that our storage facilities are as safe and secure as possible.”

Eventually, Denan believes, the solar message will filter down to other organizations – and even the government.

“Sooner or later, some smart businessperson is going to realize that there’s big money to be made in solar tech, and then we will see the revolution. I believe it is close.” And if it takes the likes of Hassan Nasrallah and his threats to add fuel to the solar fire, added Denan, “then let him make as many threats as he wants. It will benefit us in the end.”

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