Recent heatwave’s power cuts underline failure to properly prepare for climate change

Malfunctions and poor planning led to outages for 300,000 Israelis in temperatures of over 40°C, as inefficiency and red tape hinder expansion, optimization of power grid

Sue Surkes

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

A man checks a fuse box during a power outage. (Jovanmandic, iStock at Getty Images)
A man checks a fuse box during a power outage. (Jovanmandic, iStock at Getty Images)

Hundreds of thousands of people were left without electricity Friday afternoon as a powerful heatwave Friday sent temperatures soaring to over 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) in many parts of the country, sparking massive demand for electricity as homes and businesses attempted to crank up the air conditioning.

Those responsible for producing and distributing Israel’s electricity predictably blamed one another.

Energy Minister Israel Katz castigated the previous government for failing to approve additional gas-fired power stations, two of which were greenlighted by the current government last week.

The Israel Electric Corporation (IEC), the national electricity supplier, blamed the Independent System Operator, which oversees infrastructure planning and is in charge of ensuring the resilience of the power and transmission systems.

The Independent System Operator’s director general, Shaul Goldstein, hit back, accusing the IEC’s CEO, Meir Spiegler, of malevolence and of failing to understand how the system worked.

Separate malfunctions occurred Friday at two power plants in southern Israel.

Others were undergoing maintenance work to prepare them for the summer.

Even solar panels underperformed, due to thick haze that accompanied the heatwave.

It was an embarrassing debacle.

An Israeli at the beach on a hot summer day in Tel Aviv, June 2, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

This time, thankfully, the heatwave passed quickly and nobody was hurt.

But the writing is on the wall — and has been for some time.

Thanks to climate change, Israel’s dog days are already becoming more intense and longer-lasting.

Premature deaths from exposure to extreme heat and weather-linked hospitalizations are already on the rise.

Unless the various bodies that are jointly in charge of keeping the nation’s air conditioners working get their act together, heat-related fatalities will rise.

Too many cooks in the kitchen?

There are a plethora of bodies responsible for electricity in Israel.

The Energy Ministry determines supply targets and must ensure that they are reached.

The Electricity Authority, a body within that ministry, takes care of regulations and financial incentives, which the Finance Ministry is in charge of deciding whether to fund and to what extent.

Illustrative: A worker from the Israel Electric Corporation seen repairing a fault in the electricity networks. August 29, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/FLASH90)

A structural reform of the inefficient electricity industry was launched in 2018. It transferred responsibilities for planning the electricity infrastructure from the Israel Electric Corporation to the newly created Independent System Operator.

It left the IEC in charge of implementing the Independent System Operator’s plan.

When talking about improving the electricity infrastructure so that it can withstand warming weather, one must also factor in the Interior Ministry, responsible for the local authorities; the Agriculture Ministry; the National Infrastructure Planning Council, known by its Hebrew acronym, Vattal; the Israel Lands Authority; and the environmental organizations that watch over all the developments with an eagle eye, such as the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel.

Not only has it taken a long time for the Independent System Operator to get going; interagency coordination — never a strong suit in Israel — has become more complicated, with more organizations supposed to be working together and coordinating.

And that’s compounded by another Israeli disease — excessive bureaucracy.

Red tape

Israel is crawling towards establishing two new power stations fired by fossil fuel gas, while progress on renewable energy is laughably small.

The state has promised the United Nations that by 2030, 30 percent of its electricity will be generated by renewable sources — primarily the sun. However, it is going nowhere near the pace needed to meet this target.

View of the “Halutziot” project, which includes the construction of a 55 megawatt solar power plant as a joint venture of the communities of the new pioneering region, in southern Israel. November 16, 2017. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

Israel’s population, and its power demand, are constantly increasing.

But according to the 2018 electricity reform, all energy installations will have to be connected to the national grid to ensure — ironically, given Friday’s events — that nobody is left without power.

The problem is that the grid is outdated and unable to absorb any more electricity. Citizens wanting to put solar panels on their roofs are being told that there’s no chance of connecting them. Solar energy companies are laying off employees.

In one policy document, the Electric Authority predicted that reaching its 30% renewables target would require the construction of six new switching stations (to convert from the high voltage of 400,000 volts to the medium voltage of 160,000), almost 100 substations (to convert from 160,000 volts to an even lower voltage), and laying 1,600 kilometers (994 miles) of transmission cables — enough to crisscross the length of the country more than three times.

The document noted that it could take a decade to complete a new substation because of the time it takes to finish planning and obtain permits for the land. Getting a high-voltage line erected can also take a decade due to the need for land acquisition, planning, permits and construction.

It cited additional difficulties such as competition for land and public opposition to pylons and high-voltage lines near homes or in scenic locations.

Thus, as the power demand grows, the system is unable to supply it.

Many believe that storing solar energy produced while the sun is shining, and only putting it on the grid at non-peak times using under-utilized lines, could be an alternative to expanding the grid.

But solar energy storage barely exists in the country, even though its installation would cost far less than extending the grid.

Jo Tyndall, director of the OECD’s Environment Directive (left) and Environmental Protection Minister Idit Silman, in Jerusalem, May 31, 2023. (Michael Dimenstein/GPO)

Last week, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development issued a blistering review of Israel’s environmental performance over the past decade, calling for a climate law that has legally binding emissions reductions and renewable energy production targets.

Such binding targets are, however,  opposed by both the finance and energy ministries, holding up efforts to pass a climate law, including a current one by Environmental Protection Minister Idit Silman.

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