Planners green-light Israel’s first master plan for energy infrastructure

With ministry struggling to reach renewable energy targets, plan earmarks nearly 10,000 acres, mainly in south, for solar and wind turbine plants

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

View of the Ashalim solar power station in the Negev desert,  June 19, 2018. (Miriam Alster/FLASh90)
View of the Ashalim solar power station in the Negev desert, June 19, 2018. (Miriam Alster/FLASh90)

Government planners on Tuesday gave the green light to Israel’s first-ever master plan for energy infrastructure, which earmarks up to 40,000 dunams (almost 10,000 acres) of land for the construction of renewable energy plants by 2050.

Seeking to put an end to the practice to date, which saw infrastructure plans for electricity, oil, gas, water and other such industries planned separately and on a project-by-project basis without any broader vision, the master plan consolidates all previously approved plans for facilities providing conventional as well as renewable energy, and lays out guidelines for future infrastructure development through 2050.

According to the Energy Ministry, the master plan has been put together following consultations with government ministries, the major utilities, environmental organizations, local authorities and interested parties.

Master plan 41 (known in Hebrew by its acronym, Tama 41) maps a dozen large sites, mainly in and around industrial areas in the country’s south, for the creation of solar farms, with one, near the Negev city of Dimona, set aside for wind turbines.

To minimize harm to the landscape and preserve the environment, it also delineates locations for the laying of infrastructure, both above and below ground, with an emphasis on running cables and pipes for gas, oil, electricity, water, sewage and communications together wherever possible. The plan includes instructions to investigate the feasibility of digging new tunnels for infrastructure in 11 locations, mainly under existing roads.

No new facilities for natural gas are envisaged beyond 2040.

The master plan will now be sent to district planning committees, which are responsible for issuing building permits, for consultation and comment.

Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz speaks at a conference in Tel Aviv on February 27, 2019. (Flash90)

“For the first time, we are presenting one plan to advance the energy infrastructure in Israel for the medium and long term. The plan envisages a mixture of infrastructure for natural gas and renewable sources of energy within a framework of reducing air pollution for the sake of public health,” said Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz.

Israel is currently transitioning from coal-fired power to natural gas, following the discovery of huge reserves off the Mediterranean coast.

The Tamar platform, located roughly 80 kilometers (50 miles) west of the northern city of Haifa, began production in 2013. The much larger Leviathan field, 125 kilometers (77 miles) west of Haifa, is expected to start operating by the end of this year, with its production platform due to arrive in Israel within days.

A marine crane vessel that is on its way to Israel to set up the Leviathan platform offshore Israel. (Noble Energy)

Behind target

The Energy Ministry is trying to reach government targets set in 2016 to have renewables producing 10 percent of the country’s electricity by 2020 and 17% by 2030. By the end of last year, just 3.5% of energy was being renewably produced, and by December this year, that figure is expected to rise to only 5%.

In July, the Energy Ministry and the Electricity Authority rolled out an incentive campaign to encourage more Israelis to install electricity-producing solar panels on their roofs. (Solar-powered water heaters have been a common site on roofs for decades).

Photo voltaic solar panels atop a cow shed on Kfar Vitkin. (Chen Leopold/Flash90)
Photo voltaic solar panels atop a cow shed on Kfar Vitkin. (Chen Leopold/Flash90)

To date, solar panels have been installed on around 13,000 roofs, the vast majority of them agricultural, commercial or industrial, such as shopping centers. The aim of the campaign has been to double that number of roof-laid panels by the end of next year, largely by encouraging residential property owners to invest in solar systems that become profitable after eight to 10 years within the framework of a deal that pays them for the surplus electricity that enters the national grid.

Plans are also afoot to place solar panels in quarries and at landfill sites, as well as to put floating panels on bodies of water that can also reduce evaporation.

A truck cleaning the dust off the thermo-solar mirrors of the Negev Energy Ashalim plant, August 29, 2019. (Avshalom Sasoni)

At the end of last month, Israel officially marked the start of operations at the nation’s largest renewable energy project — a 121MW thermal solar power plant in the Negev desert. The plant, which started production in April, will supply 0.75% of the nation’s electricity to some 70,000 households, helping to reduce some 245,000 tons of CO2 emissions per year — the equivalent of taking 50,000 vehicles off the road — according to the project’s website.

In contrast to Israel, the European Union aims have at least 32% of its energy coming from renewables by 2030. According to a World Economic Forum report published in February, renewable sources accounted for an average of 17.5% of EU electricity across the board by 2017, with Sweden deriving 54.5% of its energy from renewables, Finland 41%, Latvia 39% and Denmark 35.8%. At the bottom of the pile is the Netherlands, which is 7.4 % behind its goal.

Tama 41 joins Tama 42, a national master plan for land-based transportation which brings all transportation plans together and contains targets to be implemented up to 2040. That was presented to the national planning committee for the first time last month.

Israel faces the dual challenge of having to cut carbon emissions, which contribute to global warming, while providing power for a population that is set to almost double by 2050 from the current nine million to 17.6 million.

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