With fires, floods, hurricanes and other disasters putting the consequences of climate change high on the international agenda, many developed nations are finding renewed urgency in reaching net zero emissions targets by 2050, which will involve substantially cutting fossil fuel use.
For 2050, Israel has committed to a more modest goal, reducing total emissions by 85 percent from 2015 levels. That will include an 85% reduction in emissions from electricity production, but the country has not set an actual target for how much power will come from renewable resources — primarily the sun — by then.
The country did not come close to meeting a goal set by the Energy Ministry for 10% renewables by 2020, reaching only 6%. And despite vast desert tracts, plentiful solar rays and access to new technologies in efficient power generation and storage, there are serious questions as to whether even its goal of 30% renewables by 2030 is a realistic one.
Recent years have seen the Energy Ministry in full-throttle embrace of natural gas from large deposits found offshore. Karine Elharrar, who became energy minister in June, has indicated that she will oversee a shift in focus toward renewable energy, which she views as a top priority.
But there are still a number of hurdles that stand in the way of a solar revolution in Israel, including finding room for all the solar panels needed to supply electricity, upgrading the country’s outdated and insufficient electric infrastructure, and resolving organizational issues.
One in eight Israelis who want to erect solar panels on their roofs are being told that there’s no room on the grid to handle the exchange. Some have begun pushing for a sea change in the way Israel’s grid is designed, advocating a move to a decentralized model that they say could more effectively harness solar energy in diffused fashion.
Bringing all the pieces together will require coordinating between a mind-boggling array of ministries, state agencies, private stakeholders and others. But the body charged with plotting out what will need to happen to hit the targets only started work in December.
Stepping on the gas
Yuval Steinitz, who was energy minister from 2015 until June, may best be remembered as a champion of natural gas.
It was he who refused to set any target for renewable energy generation for 2050, saying that too little was known about how the technology will develop.
Despite a move away from fossil fuels in many countries, Steinitz’s Energy Ministry continued to issue permits for gas and oil exploration, though it did set a 2025 target to phase out coal, which is even dirtier. (His successor Elharrar announced in August that oil exploration on land would stop, but offshore exploration and drilling is expected to continue.)
Steinitz advanced plans for new gas-fired power stations to meet much of Israel’s domestic consumption needs.
He oversaw deals to supply gas to Jordan and Egypt and, with his eye on sending it further afield to Europe, co-founded the East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF) with Cyprus, Greece and others.
A United Nations report published in May declared that expanding natural gas infrastructure and usage was “incompatible with keeping [global] warming to [the UN’s target, as set out in the 2015 Paris Climate Accords of] 1.5° C.”
With so many eggs in the natural gas basket, Steinitz’s Energy Ministry was reluctant to commit to renewable energy in any major way.
A roadmap for cutting emissions that the ministry published in April talked in general terms and lacked interim milestones, and Steinitz spoke out about the difficulty of reaching the 30% goal — which he himself had upped from a previous commitment for 17% renewables by 2030.
One of his main arguments against solar power was the sheer amount of space needed.
He told a press briefing earlier this year that close to a million dunams (just under 250,000 acres) of open land would be needed for the country to provide 90% to 100% of its electricity from renewables. This would double Israel’s built environment, including roads, he said.
Energy Ministry Director General Udi Adiri, who is due to be replaced by an Elharrar appointee, said at the same event that solar energy takes 150 times the land required for natural gas development, and urged attendees to also consider preservation of open land and biodiversity as an environmental factor.
Earlier this month, he told the Knesset Interior and Environment Committee that reaching 30% renewables would require 180,000 dunams (45,000 acres). A ministry spokesperson later clarified that of this figure, 80,000 dunams would come from potential dual-use sites.
These are roofs and other locations that are already in use, ranging from agricultural and industrial buildings to traffic intersections and cemeteries.
The Israel Electricity Authority, which regulates the power industry, estimates that at least 40,000 dunams (9,900 acres) of open land will be needed to hit the 30% target, though the National Planning Council has limited the amount of open space for solar panels to half that.
By contrast, both the Environmental Protection Ministry and the NZO (Net Zero) project at the Heschel Center for Sustainable Development, a Tel Aviv-based environmental policy shop, have run models indicating that Israel could reach 95% renewables by 2050 through the dual-use approach alone.
The Environmental Protection Ministry even estimated that there is enough space for solar panels on roofs and other potential dual-use locations to already provide 46% of Israel’s electricity needs.
Ofer Yannay founded and heads solar power firm Nofar Energy. Among the firm’s innovations is floating solar panels on a reservoir, harnessing the underutilized surface area to generate electricity.
According to Yannay, Israel could get 100% of its electricity from the sun by 2035 without putting a single panel on virgin land.
“We need to aim to put panels on any surface that can generate energy, from car roofs and the surface of the roads to the facades of buildings — for which the technology exists,” said Yannay, who tried unsuccessfully to get a permit for his floating solar installations, in a taste of the red tape that experts say has also held back expansion of solar projects.
Drafted into producing a new national plan to deal with dual-use solar energy sites, Energy Ministry planning head Dorit Hochner has sought to both expand where panels can be placed and streamline regulations.
Called Tama 10D 10/2, the new national plan for photovoltaic solar panels on dual-use sites covers the potential placement of panels on traffic junctions, acoustic barriers, retaining walls, reservoirs, waste dumps, greenhouses, outdoor parking lots, pergolas, cemeteries and installations owned by utilities such as the telephone or water companies.
Hochner’s department is now working on a policy paper to add army bases, fencing, building facades and agrivoltaics — which combines electricity generation with shade that is beneficial for crops — into the mix, as well as plan for solar energy storage.
Hochner has also managed to get a number of riders inserted into the omnibus Economic Arrangements Bill making its way through the Knesset that would support dual-use panels in areas outside its purview, meaning other ministries will also need to play ball.
One proposal recommends planning for solar panels above army firing ranges and even in cleared minefields, areas that the Prime Minister’s Office and Defense Ministry normally control.
Another clause would exempt solar panel companies from capital improvement taxes on parking lots and other dual-use sites, bypassing the Interior Ministry, which currently only exempts roofs.
Hochner has also proposed that the Israel Lands Authority charge set prices for land to put solar installations on, rather than haggle with potential developers on each project, inserting uncertainty into the process. And she wants the planning council to review its 20,000 dunam (4,900 acre) cap on open space for solar projects.
But several people involved in moving Israel toward the 2030 goal told The Times of Israel that finding the room for panels is just one of several critical hurdles faced by solar advocates.
Another key obstacle is the electricity grid, which does not have the capacity to absorb the shift to decentralized solar power, despite repeated demands over the years to expand and upgrade it.
The limitations on the grid means the Israel Electric Corporation has been rejecting 13% of all private solar installations requesting to be hooked in, an IEC spokesman said.
Residents of the Galilee and the Golan Heights in northern Israel and Eilat in the south, for example, have been informed that they cannot connect solar panels into the system until 2023.
In a recent policy document, the Electric Authority predicted that reaching 30% renewables would require 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 1,600 kilometers (994 miles) of transmission cables — enough to crisscross the length of the country between three and four times.
The document noted that it can take a decade to complete a new substation because of the time it takes to finish planning and obtain permits for the land. It can also take a decade to get a high-voltage line erected 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.
Some experts believe storing solar energy produced while the sun is shining, and only putting it on the grid at non-peak times using underutilized lines, could be an alternative to expanding the grid.
Today, according to the Energy Ministry, Israel only has 300 megawatts of storage, and that is so-called pumped storage, which uses the pressure of water, not batteries. The Electricity Authority believes that by 2030, it will need to be able to store about 3 gigawatts, or 10 times the current capacity.
According to Yannay, if Israel can manage to increase its storage capacity by over 13,000%, to 40 gigawatts, and implement some efficiency measures to the grid, the 2030 target can be reached without any physical expansion of infrastructure.
“The grid needs to be managed so that other producers can use it when the big power stations aren’t working,” he said. “Better management would allow the grid to accommodate three times more energy already today.”
The UK, one of the top three global markets for storage deployment over the next few years, according to a market research company, is forecast to install 298 megawatts of storage this year and 2.9 gigawatts, or 2,900 megawatts, next year. Spain has set a 20 gigawatt target for energy storage deployment by 2030.
Yannay believes solar-producing households that get the chance to access their own cheaper electricity at night will foot the bill.
“Without storage, renewable electricity is cheap during the day and expensive during the night. With storage, people can supply their own electricity for less at night and be paid for the surplus that they sell to the grid,” he said.
Predicting that there will be a million electric vehicles on the roads by 2026, he added that all buildings will also need storage to recharge the vehicles at night.
There is already demand. Yannay’s Nofar Energy installed the country’s first solar battery facility, for 3.22 megawatts, in February at Kibbutz Nir Yitzhak in the Negev.
The company has a $30 million agreement with Tesla for batteries to store 100 megawatts of electricity at 35 kibbutzim and several malls — the first near Bilu junction in central Israel, by the end of next year. Yannay also acquired another 20 megawatts worth of batteries from another producer for another five kibbutzim.
Eilat and the Arava region are already 100% solar during the day and will soon have enough storage to be energy independent during the night as well.
“We have shown that storage today is half the price of extending the grid,” said Dorit Davidovich-Banet, CEO of the Eilat-Eilot Renewable-Energy Initiative. “And the prices are coming down all the time.”
Indeed, in December, a tender for solar energy including storage closed at 17.45 agorot (5.36 cents) per kilowatt-hour which, according to the business daily The Marker, was 31% less than natural gas at the time.
But in its policy document, the IEA did not factor storage into its calculations, saying that battery storage technology was still in its infancy.
Talking with The Times of Israel, Hochner expressed a similar view.
But she said that her staff was conducting research into storage and hoped to start work on a national storage masterplan by the end of this year.
According to Maj. Gen. (Res.) Shlomo Turgeman, who heads a new state-owned company to manage the electric industry, changes will be proposed to make the grid more efficient. But he ruled out Yannay’s claim that the 30% goal could be reached without expanding the grid as well.
Too many cooks?
The new management company — charged with producing a detailed plan for reaching the 2030 target — only started work in December. It will not formally take over the day-to-day management of the grid from the Israel Electric Corporation until November.
Asked which bodies were responsible for what to ensure that the 30% target is met, Turgeman said that this was “the most important question,” with the division of responsibility not always clear.
The Energy Ministry determines the targets and carries overall responsibility for reaching them, Turgeman said.
The Electricity Authority, based within the ministry, is responsible for regulations and financial incentives, which the Finance Ministry has to fund.
The management company that he heads is in charge of infrastructure planning. It is working intensively on a detailed, integrated program to be presented by the end of the year. This will provide the data on how much renewable energy can be produced, by how much the grid needs to be extended, and how much storage will be required.
Once the management company has completed its plans, the Israel Electric Corporation will be charged with implementing them.
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 all developments with an eagle eye, such as the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, and the complexities of moving forward start to become more clear.
Progress is being made, and overall coordination by the Energy Ministry is working better under new minister Elharrar, according to people closely involved, but the pace is still painfully slow.
Vision for the future
The 2018 electricity reform guarantees that all energy installations, including storage, are connected to the national grid on the grounds that nobody can be left without backup.
But some, like Davidovich-Banet, would like management of the electricity grid to be decentralized, making it possible for local communities to manage their own renewable energy demand and supply.
Others are also pushing for a so-called smart grid system.
“Wouldn’t it make more sense that if I have excess electricity and my neighbor needs more, that I supply him directly?” said Yosef Abramowitz, who a decade ago established the country’s first solar field at Kibbutz Ketura in the Arava desert.
“I should be able to store my own energy in a battery in my home, but there are no regulations for this, and at present, it’s not economic,” he said.
To Abramowitz, a decentralized system would be safer from outside threats. Israel has made protecting its electricity infrastructure from foreign cyberattacks, especially from Iran, a top priority in recent years. But a decentralized system would be nearly impossible to take down.
“If everyone had panels and batteries then we would still have electricity when the Iranians try to shut down our grid,” he said. “You would think a security-minded country like ours would have been on top of this years ago, but the finance and energy ministries, who know about this option, have done nothing about it.”
“They [the energy and finance ministries] may think that natural gas is good for our economy but [gas-fired] electricity is three times more expensive [than solar], and that’s without factoring in savings on environmental and health costs, and the potential of solar energy to provide more jobs, especially in the periphery of the country,” he said. “There are also the costs incurred in defending the marine gas fields.
“It’s the opposite of an economically sound energy policy.”