Report gives Israel low marks for its energy policy
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Report gives Israel low marks for its energy policy

Israel imports too much of its energy and pays too much for it. All the more reason, some say, to look to the sun

Workers on the Israeli Tamar gas processing rig, 24 kilometers off the southern coast of Ashkelon, October 11, 2013 (photo crdit: Moshe Shai/Flash90)
Workers on the Israeli Tamar gas processing rig, 24 kilometers off the southern coast of Ashkelon, October 11, 2013 (photo crdit: Moshe Shai/Flash90)

Israel’s gas revolution has not quite kicked in yet, according to a new report by the World Economic Forum.

The WEF’s Global Energy Architecture Performance Index (EAPI) shows Israel, in 56h place worldwide, imports more than most European countries – most of which are not blessed with large natural gas reserves. And the gas from the Tamar and Levithan fields aren’t being exported yet either; Israel ranks 99th in the world in the amount of fuel it exports as a percentage of GDP.

Maybe that’s for the best, according to solar energy pioneer Yosef Abramowitz. Speaking at this week’s Eilat-Eilot Renewable Energy Conference, Abramowitz said that Israel still had the opportunity to embrace solar.

“It’s time to give the sun a chance. We’ve gotten to the ‘parity point,’ where electricity from solar can be produced at the same price as from fossil fuels,” Abramowitz said. “We have plenty of sun here in Israel. The government’s too-modest goal of producing 10% of the country’s energy needs from alternative and renewable energy like solar, wind, and biomass by 2020 is a far cry from what we can, and should, be doing.”

The WEF report looked not just at energy imports, but energy policy overall. While Israel ranked first overall among countries in the Middle East, it was close to the bottom of the rankings among advanced economies.

The annual EAPI index, designed to help countries address challenges and identify opportunities across their energy systems, benchmarks the energy architecture of 125 countries based on their ability to provide energy access across three dimensions of the energy triangle – affordability, environmental sustainability, and security and access. Compared to countries like Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Qatar, and others, Israel’s 0.65 overall score and 45th worldwide rank on the 18 metrics measured by the Index looked okay (Tunisia, in 61st place, was the second best-ranked in the region). But compared to the 32 advanced (OECD) economies, Israel came in 27th place overall, ahead only of South Korea, Estonia, Cyprus, and Malta.

With that, Israel did well on some metrics. Nearly all of the country’s residents have electricity in their homes (the vast majority from the Israel Electric Corporation), and the number of people burning solids like wood and coal for home cooking and heating – considered wasteful, polluting, and dangerous by energy policymakers – is negligible, with most Israelis using cooking gas or electricity for food preparation. Israel’s automobiles are relatively fuel-efficient; the country ranked 19th worldwide on average fuel economy for passenger cars.

But the report has Israel performing unimpressively in the matter of deploying an energy policy that will help advance the economy, and in using environmentally sustainable energy sources. While the IEC is slated to begin using cleaner-burning natural gas in the coming years, it’s still burning coal and fuel oil to generate power – placing Israel at number 102 out of 125 in energy efficiency. That inefficiency is the reason for the relatively polluted air in Israel; the country’s air has a relatively high amount of particulate matter (PM10) concentrations. And because it still imports most of its fuel, Israel has one of the world’s least secure supplies of energy in the world, ranking 114th in the percent of net imported energy.

While the report was issued after the Eilat-Eilot conference was over, much of the information it contained was known and discussed by the energy entrepreneurs, policymakers, and activists who attended the event. Renewable energy, especially solar, Abramowitz said, could help solve the security and pollution problems the WEF report attributes to Israel, as well as save the country billions annually, stemming the drain on Israel’s GDP, also mentioned in the report.

Waiting for the sun

Abramowitz knows the potentials and pitfalls of solar perhaps better than anyone in Israel; he has worked for years to promote the use of solar energy here and around the world. Abramowitz is the honorary chairman of the sixth annual Eilat-Eilot Renewable Energy, the country’s premier conference on alternative and renewable energy, where technologies like solar energy, wind energy, biomass, and others were discussed and analyzed by experts from around the world.

Abramowitz, along with partners David Rosenblatt, Ed Hofland, established Israel’s largest solar field to generate electricity in Kibbutz Ketura, and was the first to sign a deal with the government for commercial production of solar-generated electricity. More recently, Abramowitz has set his sights on Africa, hoping to electrify far-flung villages where power cables are unlikely to ever reach.

“The European Union has a reasonable goal of providing 20% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020,” said Abramowitz. “Most of that is going to be from solar – but Israel, which gets 60% more sun than countries like Germany, has set a goal for itself of getting 10% of its energy from renewable sources by the end of the decade. Meanwhile, Germany is planning to provide up to 80% of its energy needs from renewables.”

That will never happen in Israel, said Shlomo Wald, the Chief Scientist of Israel’s Infrastructure Ministry. While agreeing that Israel could be doing a lot more with the sun, he said that the country set its energy policy based on existing technology. But the problem with solar energy is that it works fine when the sun is out, but not when it isn’t – like at night.

“There has been a major improvement in the efficiency of electricity production from solar, to the extent that production costs for solar-generated electricity today are about the same as for fossil-fuel generated electricity,” said Wald. “Now we are waiting for the improvement in storage, to allow us to use the solar power generated during the day during off-hours. When that happens we can indeed investigate a change of policy.”

With that, he said, he had examined the issue very closely and determined that solar energy wasn’t quite “there” yet – and was unlikely to be a viable alternative to fossil fuels, especially gas, for a long time. “Based on our figures, we determined that the maximum we could get out of solar is about 35% of Israel’s energy needs,” Wald said.

The best candidate for solar-generated electricity is the rooftop photovoltaic (PV) system, where solar panels connected to a mini-turbine are placed on the roof of buildings, generating electricity which can be used locally or fed into a local or national electricity grid, said Wald – but it wasn’t good enough.

“We computed all the space on the rooftops of Israel together with current and projected energy needs of the country,” said Wald. “Even if we placed PV systems on top of every building in Israel, we would only generate about a quarter of the country’s energy needs. To supply all the power needed we would have to use most of the open spaces in Israel to build PV fields.”

That, of course, is a nonstarter, said Wald; Israel has no choice but to rely on gas for its power needs, and learn how to use it wisely.

Nonsense, said Abramowitz.

“I disagree with every point Wald makes,” he said. “Right here in the Negev, we’ve proven that PV, combined with biogas and thermal solar systems, is a viable alternative to fossil fuels. By 2016, all of this region’s electricity – from Eilat north to the Dead Sea – will be generated by renewables, and soon after that we will become a net exporter of electricity, because we will be generating more electricity than we need. And as anyone who drives down from the center of the country to Eilat can see, we haven’t ruined the landscape with PV fields to do this.”

If countries like Germany can reach for high levels of renewable use, there’s no reason Israel can’t, said Abramowitz. And if it doesn’t, “it will be the fault of short-sighted politicians who have no vision.”

While gas is a vast improvement over coal, it’s no more secure than any imported fuel; in order to protect its supply, the IDF is going to have to deploy a heavy navy presence 150 kilometers out at sea, in hostile territory.

While he has every confidence in the Israeli Defense Forces, things might not work out the way everyone hopes; there are just too many risks, said Abramowitz.

“Just a few days ago we had the massive oil spill just a few kilometers from Eilat that is being called the worst environmental disaster in Israeli history – and that’s in the Arava, in a peaceful part of the country, where there is good security cooperation with Jordan. But even here we were unable to prevent an ecological disaster. How do we think we are going to prevent an environmental disaster at Israel’s natural gas platforms 150 kilometers out at sea that are likely to be targets for terrorists?

“The sun, on the other hand, isn’t going anywhere – it’s renewable, and it’s free,” said Abramowitz. “The choices we make now are going to be crucial for the future of the country’s defense, economy, and environment. We had better think twice about what sort of future we want to leave our children.”

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