Solar struggles in Israel

2012-08-28 08:45
Solar panels. (Franklin Reyes, AP)

Solar panels. (Franklin Reyes, AP)

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Kvutzat Yavne - Israel has developed some of the world's most advanced solar energy equipment and enjoys a nearly endless supply of sunshine, but when it comes to deploying large-scale solar technology at home, the country remains in the dark ages.

Solar power provides just a tiny percentage of Israel's energy needs, leaving it far behind colder, cloudier counterparts in Europe. Israeli solar companies, frustrated by government bureaucracy, have taken their expertise abroad.

Fifty years ago, Israel was at the front of the pack, with simple solar water heaters on top of its apartment buildings. They're still there, but little else has moved forward.

Advanced solar power has come to the tiny community of Kvutzat Yavneh, but its small scale is more an example of what can be done than what has been done.

Nestled in grape vines and pomegranate trees in south-central Israel, the 16 glimmering installations, each of them 4m tall, are an odd sight in this traditional collective farm, which also features a pickling factory and a barn.


The solar panels provide the community with nearly all of its hot water, and the electricity they generate is sold to Israel's main energy provider, Israel Electric.

Miriam Schlusselberg, a secretary at the kibbutz, said the 320 residents are "very excited" to get solar power in their backyard. But she also acknowledged that solar energy on a large scale "is not going to develop on its own unless people start investing in it".

The field in Kvutzat Yavne, built by the Israeli company ZenithSolar in 2009, has a maximum capacity of about a quarter of a megawatt of combined thermal and electric power. That's not even a dent in Israel's overall capacity of some 12 000MW.

"This is, unfortunately for us, our only project in Israel," said Roy Segev, co-founder of ZenithSolar. "I think there was a poor policy from the Israeli government. It was a total neglect of the possibility to create a big industry in Israel."

Segev said there has not been enough government investment in solar manufacturing or start-up companies. He pointed out that industry leaders such as Germany and Italy have outpaced Israel in solar development, despite having fewer sunny days and less powerful sunrays.

The Germans, for instance, generate nearly 12 times as much solar power per capita as their Israeli counterparts, according to official statistics from both countries.

Israel has a solar capacity - the amount of energy it could continuously generate in ideal conditions - of 212MW, most of which comes from rooftop installations, according to the electric company. That accounts for less than 2% of the nationwide capacity and falls well short of the country's 2014 goal of 1 480MW from solar sources.

Large-scale projects

As a result, "no one in the international community is going to take Israel seriously going forward", said Jon Cohen, CEO of Arava Power. "The natural resource exists, the real national need exist - it's really a mystery why [solar] is being blocked."

Cohen spearheaded Israel's first major commercial solar project, the Ketura Sun plant. The 5MW facility is in the Negev desert, an arid, sparsely populated wedge of land that makes up the southern two-thirds of Israel. The area enjoys roughly 330 sunny days a year, making it an ideal site for solar power.

But no more large-scale projects have launched since Ketura Sun began operating in June 2011.

"We thought we'd be raising the pioneer flag," Cohen said, pointing out that his company fought for four years to get the necessary approvals and permits for the field. "We were hoping we'd have more to show on the ground promptly, and here we are a year later, and we haven't gone far."

There are some signs of change.

In March, Ashalim Sun PV, a US-Israeli consortium, won a government tender to construct three major solar power plants in the Negev that will provide a combined 250MW of power. The plant is not expected to open until 2015 at the earliest.

Cohen has 10 projects in the works that envisage producing a total of 100MW when completed. Three are still awaiting government approval, a situation he described as "tense and endless".

Smadar Bat-Adam, chief of staff for Israel's Energy and Water Resources Ministry, acknowledged that red tape has been an issue. "We are trying to solve the bureaucratic problems," she said.

Bat-Adam said the overambitious 2014 target was set several years ago, before Israel had substantial solar infrastructure or regulation. While that may not be reached, she said Israel is on track to reach its 2020 benchmark of generating 10% of its electricity needs from renewable sources.

"When it comes to infrastructure projects, it always takes time," she said.

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