Solar can bring energy to the PA, peace to all: expert

Israel’s ‘Kaptain Sunshine’: A $2 billion program for sun-powered electricity infrastructure is just what the West Bank needs

Abramowitz handing out matzahs at a seder for African asylum seekers, April 2014. (photo credit: Jacob Ross)
Abramowitz handing out matzahs at a seder for African asylum seekers, April 2014. (photo credit: Jacob Ross)

The Palestinian Authority is set to become a major “solar power” in the Middle East, as it adopts a policy of building solar energy fields in Areas A and B, the PA-controlled areas of the West Bank. According to Israeli solar energy pioneer Yosef Abramowitz, there is a “99.9% likelihood” that the first solar field will be built there next year.

In contrast with Israel’s lackluster attitude toward solar power, he said the PA suddenly appears very visionary as a center of solar technology. “Because of bureaucratic issues, many of the solar power companies in Israel have either folded or gone abroad,” Abramowitz noted. In the PA, though, “there are some very professional people who are seriously interested in expanding solar energy as a means of achieving energy independence, generating jobs, and enhancing the pride of Palestinians.”

Abramowitz, whose Twitter handle is @kaptainsunshine, knows from solar energy: Along with partners David Rosenblatt, Ed Hofland, he established Israel’s largest solar field to generate electricity in Kibbutz Ketura, and he was the first to sign a deal with the government for commercial production of solar-generated electricity. Now he is working on projects in Africa.

Abramowitz is also known for his social activism, even setting a legal precedent in a free-speech case in the US Supreme Court, as well as his work in Jewish education, and advocacy for Ethiopian Jewry. In addition, Abramowitz has used his work in solar energy at the Arava Institute to help the Negev Bedouin, supplying electricity for their villages and creating jobs for them. Now he is bringing his brand of “solar activism” to the PA, where he believes a major solar energy project can help Palestinians, Israelis, and the cause of peace.

Last year, US Secretary of State John Kerry proposed spending $4 billion to help develop the West Bank, and Abramowitz believes that a good portion of that money should go to solar energy field development. “A 1,000 megawatt solar energy generation system would be transformative for the West Bank, providing energy independence and jobs. It would cost about $2 billion, and be completed in three to five years,” he said.

“Kerry’s plan called for ‘bold ideas’ to help develop the PA, and this is a pretty bold idea,” he said – a lot bolder than the conventional energy plan the Quartet has formulated for the West Bank, “which is based on the usual fossil fuels, which would be imported, most likely from Israel. Solar is the only way the PA is going to achieve energy independence, the cornerstone of a modern state – and as far as I know, the two-state solution is still the one subscribed to by Israel, the PA, the US, and the EU.”

Yosef Abramowitz (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Yosef Abramowitz (Photo credit: Courtesy)

Abramowitz said Israel has never used energy as a means of punishing the PA, even during violent confrontations – and Israel is quite prepared to supply the PA with natural gas to generate electricity, as it plans to do for itself. “Natural gas is better than the coal and diesel fuel used to generate electricity today, but it’s still a fossil fuel,” and in a development that, in his opinion, should convince even the most skeptical, Abramowitz said that a recent study presented by Prof. Eugene Kandel, director of Israel’s National Economic Council, showed that “the price of electricity generated by solar power and gas is now the same, taking into account all factors, such as security for the offshore gas fields, transportation and pipeline costs, etc. We have achieved ‘grid parity’ between solar and gas, and since solar doesn’t pollute, there’s a clear advantage to preferring it,” especially in the West Bank, where there is currently no energy production infrastructure that would make it difficult for policymakers to try something new, he noted.

In fact, solar is an even better bet than gas for the PA, because the United States is prepared to finance – and insure – construction of solar fields. OPIC, the US-sponsored Overseas Private Investment Corporation, has said it would finance up to 70% of the cost of solar energy field development, and it’s offering a full insurance package to private US investors who put up funds to pay for the other 30% of the projects. “Investors are covered for war, terrorism, or other untoward events,” said Abramowitz. “For Americans, investing in the West Bank is like investing in Georgia in the southern US.”

The agriculture-intensive rolling hills of the West Bank are no impediment to a major solar project, either. “I have been on numerous tours of the area, and I have found that there is more than enough space to set up the solar installations to generate 1,000 mw of electricity,” said Abramowitz. Hills, too, are no problem for solar development. Abramowitz and his partner Chaim Motzen have set up East Africa’s first utility-scale solar field in hilly Rwanda, and the system works just fine, he said. The Abramowitz plan would entail the construction of vast fields of solar energy panels to capture sunshine during daylight hours, converting the sun’s rays into electricity, which would then be distributed to homes and businesses.

For now, Abramowitz plans to concentrate on the West Bank. Gaza, he said, is “a mess,” and no international agency is going to fund a major energy project there as long as Hamas is in charge. “I believe things could change there quickly if there were a regime change,” he said. “Solar projects could be set up in the vast expanses of (Egypt’s) Sinai, and the power could be funneled to Gaza. It’s not going to happen until there are some serious changes there, however.”

This comes as much of the Arab world is turning to solar energy, as is much of Europe. Jordan already has a major solar project in the planning stages, and other Middle Eastern countries are likely to follow suit. Israel, he said, should be among those countries, and Abramowitz has been using what influence he has as the “doyen” of Israel’s solar energy industry to encourage more use of solar energy. “The government should increase its modest goal of generating 10% of the country’s energy from solar sources by 2020 to 20%, as the EU has proposed. There’s no reason Israel can’t achieve that goal.”

For now, the West Bank looks like the most likely spot between the Jordan and the Mediterranean for development of a major solar project – and Abramowitz sees only an upside to it. Besides promoting the PA’s energy independence, an improved environment, and the boost to Palestinian pride, Abramowitz sees solar energy as a possible bridge to peace.

At the Ketura-based Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, which Abramowitz has supported, “we have had about 100 Palestinian graduates who developed not only skills to help develop alternative energy, but a vision to implement it as well.” That the Palestinians were trained at an Israeli institution is just one example of how solar energy can bring Israelis and Palestinians together. “We share the same air, water, and sun,” he said. “The only way to manage the environment and its resources is to work together, to have a dialog, to cooperate and coordinate. Building bridges – this is the currency of peace.”

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