Israel’s alternative energy ‘brain trust’ to show off latest technologies

The Eilat-Eilot Renewable Energy Conference will feature innovative Israeli-developed renewable energy ideas — and show policymakers why solar and other alternative energies are still better than natural gas

A view of a portion of  Israel’s largest solar field, the 4.95MW Ketura Sun project at Kibbutz Ketura in the Negev (Photo credit: Courtesy Suntech)
A view of a portion of Israel’s largest solar field, the 4.95MW Ketura Sun project at Kibbutz Ketura in the Negev (Photo credit: Courtesy Suntech)

An A-list of the renewable energy industry will be assembling this week in Eilat for one of the world’s premier conferences on the subject — the Eilat-Eilot Renewable Energy Conference, a three-day showcase of the latest in international and Israeli-developed renewable energy technologies. No fewer than 194 speakers — arguably the world’s renewable energy “brain trust,” including experts in solar, wind, biogas, and other alternative energy technologies — will be discussing energy policy, emerging technologies, and innovations developed by Israeli energy start-ups, among many other topics.

Attending the conference will be thousands of top energy policymakers and corporate executives from around the world. And, as at an event where the captains of any industry converge, it’s not unlikely that some big deals could emerge, said Dorit Davidovich Benet, director of Strategy and Regional Development at the Eilat-Eilot Renewable Energy Initiative.

“A lot is happening in the renewable energy business, and those attending this conference believe that renewable energy is clearly the future,” Benet told The Times of Israel. “One of the main purposes of a conference like this is to foster a dialog between the technology people, the financiers, and business in order to promote the implementation of these great technologies.” To that end, the conference will include a special investors’ summit, an interactive forum for investors from around the world to have an in-depth, hands-on look at investment and partnership opportunities with the many of the leading alternative and sustainable energy technology companies in Israel.

There are some great technologies out there, said Benet. While renewable energy – especially solar – has been seen by policymakers as a great solution to high energy prices and pollution, the commercial application of many of these technologies has not yet taken off as many have hoped. However, said Benet, many of the problems that have prevented wide-scale adoption of alternative energies, such as lowering costs of alternative energy to the level of fossil fuel-produced energy, are close to being resolved. “A number of the Israeli start-ups that will be presenting have some amazing new technologies that we believe will significantly propel the adoption of alternative energies” in many communities, she said.

Ironically, despite the fact that alternative energy technology has come so far, the worldwide glut and sinking prices of natural gas — including the recent discoveries of huge natural gas deposits off Israel’s shores — would seem to have sounded a death knell of sorts for development of alternative energies. After all, natural gas is a relatively “clean” energy source, and there’s plenty of it — in Israel’s case, enough for at least half a century’s worth of electricity and gas. A kilowatt hour of electricity produced from gas is likely to be far cheaper than the same kilowatt hour produced by renewable energy sources, considering the infrastructure that would need to built to take advantage of solar, wind, or biogas. Why bother?

Because, said Benet, renewable will always beat fossil fuels in the long run. “No matter how much natural gas we find and use, it is going to run out eventually. This is a fact that cannot be changed, and that is not the case with renewable energy.”

Especially in a sunny country like Israel, it makes more sense to invest in the infrastructure for solar energy than to rely on a resource that is eventually going to evaporate. If anything, the discovery of gas provides the government an incentive to speed up adoption of renewable energy; now that we are no longer “under the gun,” said Benet, Israel can properly plan and deploy an alternative energy system based on solar, wind, and biogas, developing the infrastructure to take full advantage of all three natural resources.

“It’s true that a kilowatt of gas-produced electricity will cost 20 agorot (about 5 cents) with gas, versus 55 agorot with solar energy,” she said. “But the real price of a gas-produced kilowatt is far higher, because of the healthy subsidies the gas exploration companies and producers are getting for their work.”

The direct subsidy is far from the only benefit the gas people are getting from Israeli taxpayers. “Gas is a national resource located far off Israel’s coasts, and it needs to be defended,” Benet said. “The Israeli Navy, Air Force, and Army need to be deployed specifically to defend that resource.” That’s a subsidy that won’t show up on anyone’s balance sheet, but it’s an expense that needs to be paid for somehow – and that does not exist in alternative energy deployments.

Plus there are the costs for environmental cleanup from production, pollution, the government-subsidized construction of pipelines, and so on. “If you add up all the subsidies and costs, alternative energies come out cheaper,” said Benet. “The one thing that will always be available in this country and that does not any defending is the sun. If every rooftop in this country had a photovoltaic solar panel system on their roof, we could easily supply 70% to 80% of the country’s electricity needs.”

Much more than the question of alternative vs. fossil will be discussed at the conference, said Benet. “Another important emerging technology is that of smart energy management, such as the installation of smart grids by electric companies to manage electrical usage.” Many Israeli companies are also working on those systems, which promise to save energy for utilities and money for customers. Smart grids allow utilities to monitor the use of electricity by customers, ensuring that the distribution is working properly, and enabling them to reroute power in case of a blackout or emergency.

According to experts, several East Coast utilities in communities that were pummeled by Hurricane Sandy were able to restore power to customers on their smart grid within hours, instead of the week it took utilities in many other places. That’s the kind of technology policymakers will be looking for at the conference, and Israel, with a young but growing and highly advanced alternative energy industry, will be able to supply some of those technologies, said Benet.

“Every year we get more advanced,” she said. “We have a young industry, but a very advanced one, and that’s the main reason people are coming from all over the world to this conference.”

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