Sunday, December 30, 2012

Israel's solar power industry French, fried

I recently read that France's national electric company is setting up a field of solar panels (which were also made in France) in the Negev.

While I'm pleased to read about the new initiative -why is France setting up a new solar energy field in Israel?

Israel is no slouch when it comes to photovoltaics - we are the largest user of solar power per capita - with over 85% of all homes using a dude shemesh, or solar water heater. The wide-spread adaptation of this technology can be traced back to the 1950s, when a severe energy crises drove the government to eventually mandate the solar water heater as a way to reduce the country's dependence on imported sources of energy (oil, coal, gas). Heating water can consume up to 40% of a home's total energy use, so this means significant savings for Israelis.

Another example of a country that has seen great strides in the utilization of this technology through government intervention is Germany. It is the world's leading producer of energy from solar power - a country much further north and with much greater cloud cover than Israel.

On average, Israel consumes about 12,000 megawatts  (MW) of electricity per year. Virginia, which has slightly more people than here, consumes 110 million MW of electricity. In comparison, Israel's energy demands seem rather paltry.

So, we've established that sunny Israel has the natural capacity to generate large amounts of energy from solar panels, the ability for the government to institute policies to encourage (or force) people to buy the technology, and in comparison to other similar populations, the energy consumed seems that it could reasonably be met with renewable energy.  What is the hold up?

Some blame the Ministry of Finance, which is reluctant to pay the subsidies that encourage homeowners to install solar panels. What about a commercial power plant? In this case, there is the issue of red tape - according to Haaretz, 24 government offices that must grant approval for a new power plant to function. How bad is the buracracy in Israel? I recently visited a local wine producer, who told me that they have been waiting 10 years for government permits to come through that allow them to function legally. Unfortunately, a project as high profile as a major power plant doesn't have the luxury of building first and applying for permits later. In addition, another financial incentive started by the government in 2008 that would pay developers of new photovoltaic energy above market rates for the electricity they generate hasn't gotten off the ground. The government is constantly changing the price they are willing to pay, in order to not feel like it's paying too much. In the meantime, it is hard to encourage investors to give money to a program that doesn't have any reliability.

Fortunately, there is hope for the industry in Israel. The pioneer Arava Power Company, which launched the country's first commercial solar power field in June of 2011. Built with a seemingly paltry capacity of 4.95 MW on Kibbutz Ketura, the success of this field inspired international electricity giant Siemens to invest in the company. Together, they are now planning a new field with the capacity of 58 MW.

It's a start. One can hope that Arava's efforts will help to reduce government inertia and pave the way for other companies to begin opening their own fields and for investors to feel confidant about sending their money to Israel.

Then we can read about Israeli companies opening solar fields in France!

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

It ain't easy being glib

Actually, it is pretty easy being glib. Find a current event that could be important, but no one really pays attention to. Quote some staggering numbers without putting them in context or citing the source of your data. Give people vague encouragement on how they can solve the problem you just painted to be almost impossible. Attach a pithy headline. Op-ed gold!

After finishing the typical piece, the reader should feel nothing but contempt for themselves, their country, and their way of life, while simultaenously feeling that the problem is too big to do anything about.

As someone who cares about the environment and believes with proper education, people can feel empowered enough to make small changes, which ultimately lead to large, measurable changes to our quality of life, these pieces bother me.  This type of journalism isn't unique to environmental issues, and I think the dissections you will find below can be applied to any field.

Tuesday's Israel Hayom had a piece by Ariel Ellsner about the recent United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change talks in Doha, Qatar. Without going through every sentence, below is a smattering of ideas Mr. Ellsner touched upon, and which I would like to expand for the benefit of the reader. I hope the analysis will lead the reader to...
The conference is significant for each and every one of us and our children, and for the entire planet.
I could argue that there are other UN conferences that have a more significant impact on us in Israel, but that is beyond the scope of this blog. At the very least, we can say this is a grandiose statement, and sets the tone for what we can expect.
In 2009, one of the more important climate conferences was held in Copenhagen, where participating countries were supposed to decide on concrete guidelines for reducing harmful emissions and set clear goals to end global warming. Instead, the Conference of Parties "took note" of the Copenhagen Accord but did not formally adopt it.
How 'important' really was this conference if none of the participating countries would actually agree to any action (not even a non-binding agreement or symbolic statement) at its conclusion?
Let's put aside the rest of the world for a moment and focus on ourselves. Any way we look at it, we are still, in the words of Israeli songstress Corinne Elal, "half a pinhead on the map of the world." This is also true regarding the amount of harmful emissions we produce. On the other hand, over the years we have become a Westernized, gluttonous, polluting monster.
Those two hands are pretty diametrical - how seriously can we take Israel as a 'gluttonous, polluting monster' when we and our emissions are but a spec on the map?

Using OECD statistics, we see that Israel's population grew over 16% from 2000-2008. At the same time, electricity consumption grew by 32% - double population growth. This is a quantifiable number that with context, now means something. 
There has been a sharp rise in the number of private vehicles, which produce airborne pollutants.
As for the 'sharp rise' in cars, a amount anyone who has sat in Jerusalem traffic would probably attest to - the World Bank shows there has been an increase of 12 cars per capita in Israel from 1998 through 2012 - or using the demographic data above, about 12,000 more cars on the road. For context, let's look at cars per capita in a few Western countries, which with Israel is being compared:
  • Israel 272
  • USA 627
  • UK 457
  • Japan 453
  • China 44 (the largest emitter of greenhouse gas emission in the world)
The article goes on, but we can stop here.

I hope you have enjoyed our journey reading the opinion piece with a critical eye. I look forward to any comments or questions you have!

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

New source of water for Be'er Sheva

Building new housing in Israel tends to be a sensitive issue, but for the Mayor of Be'er Sheva, the decision not to build 16,000 new apartments had nothing to do with politics and everything to do with the environment. What will be there instead of homes? Trees!

Actually, this is just part of Mayor Rubik Danilovich's bigger plan to revitalize the city. Its population of around 200,000 depends greatly on local Ben Gurion University, for now. In addition to creating an urban forest, akin to Forest Park in Portland, Oregon, the Mayor's ambitious 10 year plan also calls for building a lake with state of the art water technology, a 'green' shopping mall that will collect rainwater and generate electricity with solar panels (other than solar water heaters, solar power is sorely lacking in such a sun-drenched country) and a  revitalization of the riverfront.

The city's name means '7 Wells', but the water for all of these projects won't come from the ground, rather from a newly built water treatment facility, which will reclaim all of the city's waste water. While it is not yet able to purify the water to be consumed, it's good enough to be used in the planned waterfalls, fountains, and lakes. (Before you get too grossed out at the idea of sitting next to a fountain using reclaimed water - it's what the Bellagio uses for their famous fountain).

Green infrastructure, which includes specifically building forests into the city, just like any other structure, is becoming part of the common parlance when used to describe how to grow cities. It not only helps to reduce problems like storm water runoff (allowing it to be absorbed into the ground instead of overwhelming the city's waste water facility), green spaces also have proven to promote physical and emotional health - all of which ultimately benefits the city's economy.

It is exciting to see how Be'er Sheva will grow in the next few years, and after the Mayor's term is up in 2015 how his plan is continued.