112 top scientists call on government to abort plan for gas-fired power stations

Quoting research on climate-related dangers of natural gas and with solar power now cheaper than gas, experts say Energy Ministry should move straight to renewables

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

An aerial view of solar panels near the southern resort city of Eilat. (Moshe Shai/FLASH90)
An aerial view of solar panels near the southern resort city of Eilat. (Moshe Shai/FLASH90)

More than 100 leading Israeli scientists have signed a letter calling on Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz to reverse his ministry’s decision to build a new network of power plants that run on natural gas and instead to put greater emphasis on moving to renewable energy.

The latest research indicates natural gas is similar to coal in terms of its effect on global warming, said the letter, signed by 112 experts and delivered on Monday.

The move to create gas-fired power stations, they warned, “locks in for decades old technologies and assumptions that are no longer valid regarding the economic benefits of natural gas relative to a cleaner, less expensive and more dispersed energy system.”

The call was in response to an Energy Ministry declaration last week that the end of the coal era was being brought forward to 2025 from the original date of 2030.

Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In light of the discovery of vast natural gas reserves in the Mediterranean Sea, the Energy Ministry plans that around 80 percent of the country’s energy needs will be met by natural gas by 2030, with 17% coming from renewable sources. At present, only around 6% comes from renewables, mainly solar energy.

Two years ago, the government approved the construction of 16 power stations to be fired by natural gas.

Signatories to the letter include Nobel laureate Robert Aumann of Jerusalem’s Hebrew University; Israel Prize winners Dan Yakir of the Weizmann Institute and Tel Aviv University’s Gedeon Dagan; leading solar energy expert Abraham Kribus of Tel Aviv University; Ofira Ayalon of Haifa University, coordinator and project manager of the Israeli Climate Change Information Center set up by the Environmental Protection Ministry; and Alon Tal, chair of Tel Aviv University’s Public Policy Department and a veteran environmental activist.

Professor Yisrael (Robert) Aumann (photo credit: Flash90)
Professor Yisrael Robert Aumann. (Flash90)

“Natural gas is a cleaner fuel than coal and we welcome the reduction in the utilization of coal, oil and kerosene,” the letter says. “Nonetheless, it would be better if the transition was made directly to renewable energy and not to gas. Gas is a fossil fuel whose combustion releases CO₂ into the atmosphere. The most recent research reports considerable emissions as a result of using natural gas.

“In the short term, the impact of methane, released to the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas, is 84 times (per mass unit) greater than CO₂ — about four times higher than previous estimates.

“During the production, refining and delivery of the gas, much greater quantities of methane are released than were previously recognized. These emissions contain volatile organic compounds that are recognized as carcinogenic.”

“These two findings suggest that the effect of natural gas on climate change is comparable to coal,” the letter said.

The Hadera coast line with the Orot Rabin power plant, April 16, 2013. (Flash90)

The letter said a natural gas plant emits pollution “comparable to a diesel bus traveling 20 million kilometers (12.4 million miles).”

The letter also warns of an economic risk connected to the building of these new power stations, noting that prices for renewable energy, and batteries to store solar energy overnight, were falling rapidly.

“We are convinced that the government of Israel needs to reconsider its decision to expand the use of natural gas beyond its use in existing power plants in light of the clear benefits — economic, environmental and social — of renewable energy sources.

“We fear that the government has not undertaken an in-depth analysis of all the policies but has selected a solution which appears convenient in the short term, but will cause economic and environmental damages to Israel in the medium and long-run,” the statement said.

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