An Israeli company will oversee $1 billion worth of solar field projects in Africa, harnessing the power of the sun, even as Israel itself struggles to bring its own plans for large solar fields online.
The massive deal to install the solar panels is part of an agreement that came out of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s trip to Liberia to attend the Economic Community of West African States on Sunday.
Jerusalem-based Energiya Global’s deal will start with a $20 million solar field next to Liberia’s main airport producing 10 megawatts of power, and eventually expand to other ECOWAS countries, though further fields are still in the preliminary planning stages.
Energiya Global CEO Yossi Abramowitz, who was in Liberia with Netanyahu and was part of Israel’s negotiating team for the COP21 Paris Climate Accords, said Israel’s legacy of bureaucracy and its struggling infrastructure mean that the deals Energiya Global is inking with African countries will put those countries ahead of Israel in terms of percentage of renewable energy consumption.
Gigawatt Global, another company overseen by Abramowitz, is exploring solar fields in 10 African countries. In Rwanda, the 7.8-megawatt solar field it opened in 2015 now produces approximately 5% of the country’s electricity.
“In Africa, they deeply feel the effects of climate change because of increasing desertification,” said Abramowitz.
“They are looking to Israel as a world leader to hold back desertification, and a lot of conflicts in the region are due to scarce water and food conflicts.”
He noted that the joint communique from ECOWAS and Netanyahu identified the top area for cooperation as agriculture, but the second area for cooperation was climate change and climate mitigation.
“If they have energy in these countries they’re using heavy fuel oil, which is super expensive, super polluting, and super greenhouse gas emitting,” he said. “Why should the poorest people on the planet, who may only have electricity if they’re lucky, pay the highest possible amount for the worst kind of electricity? The economics is much easier here than trying to duke it out with cheap natural gas in the Mediterranean.”
“It’s much better to do solar today in Africa than in Israel,” said Abramowitz. “Because here, they want you.”
Abramowitz and others say Israel still has a long way to go before it utilizes the solar capabilities it is exporting to the rest of the world, blaming red tape.
“We are among the leaders in energy research,” said Dr. Jonathan Aikhenbaum, a campaign manager at Greenpeace Israel who led the fight to ease solar regulations. “You can find so many creative solutions for solar and energy collection, but the bureaucracy creates the situation that many startups that have solutions don’t get off the ground.”
Israel announced in 2015 that as part of the Paris Accord it aims to have 10% of the country’s energy come from renewable sources such as solar, wind, and biogas by 2020, and 17% come from renewable energies by 2030.
The figures are far below the OECD goals of 20% energy from renewable sources by 2020 and 27% by 2030, and many countries are well beyond that. In 2016, 32% of Germany’s energy consumption came from renewable forces.
“Israel has the lowest target for any of the OECD countries for renewable energy,” said Abramowitz.
Still, just 2.6% of Israel’s energy currently comes from renewable sources, making the goal of 10% in the next two and a half years highly unlikely, said Abramowitz.
“You can find so many creative solutions for solar and energy collection, but the bureaucracy creates the situation that many startups that have solutions don’t get off the ground.”
Until eight months ago, regulations from a variety of authorities made it very difficult for individuals to put solar systems on their homes that would supply their power needs with the excess going to the electricity company, or for companies to build large solar fields. “There was not any leadership from ministers or anyone, including a prime minister like [David] Ben-Gurion, pushing the issue of solar [regulations],” said Aikhenbaum. “As a result, it created a lot of really complicated bureaucracy.”
Every authority that was tangentially involved in solar made its own regulations. The Tax Authority required anyone putting in a solar system to register as a commercial business, including filing taxes and receipts as a business. Each local authority in the country had different requirements for solar systems in their jurisdiction. The Finance Ministry required additional paperwork from individuals who wanted to put in a solar system. The Israel Electric Corporation dragged its feet, not knowing how to charge people who were both consuming and creating energy.
Greenpeace worked with various authorities for more than two years to streamline the process. After some resistance, both the Tax Authority and the Finance Ministry cooperated fully and canceled many of the stringent requirements for private solar installation last October. Aikhenbaum said that many of the authorities wanted to ease the bureaucracy burden, but without governmental leadership were at a loss how to proceed and needed external pressure.
Although it is now easier for individuals to obtain solar systems for private homes, Aikhenbaum said the next step is securing funding for interested individuals.
Currently, an 8-kilowatt solar system, about the size needed for a private home, costs about NIS 50,000 to install, said Aikhenbaum. A system this size would save a family approximately NIS 7,500 per year on its electric bill, so it would take about seven years to recoup the cost of installation.
Solar panels cannot provide 100% of the electricity for a home because they produce electricity during the day, but people also need electricity at night. Currently, storing energy produced during the day for later use is prohibitively expensive on an individual basis.
A solar system on a private house can work for 30-40 years, making it a solid investment. But because the field is new, some banks are reluctant to provide loans for solar installation, which is why Greenpeace and Aikhenbaum are trying to identify foundations that could provide loans at favorable rates for individuals to install solar panels.
Apartment dwellers can also install panels on the roofs of their building – each apartment needs about 30-40 square meters of space on the rooftop for their solar panels, but it also requires approval of the neighbors in the building through a separate process.
Aikhenbaum hopes that the country’s solar use catches up to its reputation as a leader in the solar field.
“Everything that Israel does with high-tech agriculture and medical technology, [the government] really supports it, but with energy they’re not doing this. They haven’t yet taken energy and put it in the same place as a strategic thing,” he said. “Taking large solar fields and learning how to store it, that’s really the future and how Israel will save itself.”
Abramowitz noted that Israel has already proved that solar can be effective. “When we started the solar industry in Israel, we had an audacious goal: we wanted the Red Sea to the Dead Sea to be 100% solar during the day, but the electricity company and everyone said it’s silly and stupid,” said Abramowitz, who was one of three co-founders of Arava Power along with Ed Hofland and David Rosenblatt.
Currently, the Arava region is 70% powered by the sun during the day, and at 2020 will be at 100%.
This summer, Arava Power installed a 40-megawatt field at Kibbutz Ketura, which supplies a third of Eilat’s daytime energy. In the next five years, a 60-megawatt field will be constructed around nearby Timna.
In 2018, the three plots of the Ashelim project are expected to be completed. The centerpiece is a solar tower that will be the world’s tallest at 250 meters (820 feet). Ashelim is set to generate some 310 megawatts of power, about 1.6% of the country’s energy needs — enough for about 130,000 households, or roughly 5% of Israel’s population, according to the Israel Electricity Authority.
Abramowitz said that the discovery of massive natural gas fields off the coast of Israel reduced the motivation for Israel to put emphasis on solar energy. “Natural gas has financial and political power,” he said.
Abramowitz also faulted the Israel Electric Corporation for failing to upgrade infrastructure to allow for more solar energy, especially from private homes. “Without an infrastructure investment, the country can’t ramp up,” he said. “There’s not even plans on the table and there’s no political will to do so.”
A spokesperson from the Israel Electric Corporation said there are no issues absorbing solar panel installations from private homes, but the company does have difficulty with new installations of solar fields or large companies utilizing solar in remote locations, because the existing network cannot handle it.
The IEC and the Public Utilities Authority published a tender last month to work with solar companies in tandem, so that as a company is building a large solar installation, the Electric Corporation will simultaneously upgrade the network surrounding the new installation.
“We really support renewable energy, it’s very important, we think this is the future,” said the spokesperson. “We know that most electrical production in the future may come from private entities [like solar panels or wind farms].”