"Solar power is Israel's only alternative"

Renewable Energy Association of Israel Eitan Parnass is playing the security card in trying to overcome bureaucratic indifference.

The daring break-in into the strategic installation occurred in the early hours of the morning at the beginning of last month. The Noble Energy terminal at Ashdod is one of the vulnerable points of the Israeli energy economy. Anyone hitting it could cause a complete shut-down of gas supplies, huge financial damage, and the collapse of the power grid.

For that reason, the installation looks like a small military base, surrounded by guards, and full of the most sophisticated and expensive security equipment. All that did not prevent a group of six activists from environmental organization Greenpeace from gaining access to the installation in less than five minutes, using ladders. The activists made no effort to elude the guards. They notified the police of the break-in, and instead of camouflage they wore colorful, glowing fancy dress in the form of the sun. Despite that, two of them managed to move around the installation before a long time until someone detected them.

"If this is what the nice guys from Greenpeace can do in an installation responsible for the supply of gas to the State of Israel, just imagine what a Hamas saboteur could do with a Molotov cocktail, or something more serious," warns Eitan Parnass, founder and CEO of the Renewable Energy Association of Israel (REAI).

Speaking to "Globes", Parnass explains why dependency on natural gas is dangerous, and why the break-in to the installation in Ashdod was mistakenly reported by the media as part of the campaign against gas exports. In fact, it was part of an almost desperate campaign in favor of producing electricity from renewable sources, and against reliance on natural gas.

The message is simple: the sun in Israel is a more secure, cleaner, and ultimately also more economically worthwhile source for generating electricity and supplying power than is natural gas.

The campaign is led by the association that Parnass runs, and that represents the 85 companies active in this field, from international giants like Siemens, ABB, and EDF, the French national power company, to small entrepreneurs who install photo-voltaic solar systems on rooftops.

How does the euphoria over the gas harm progress on solar energy?

"The gas has done huge damage because it has put the decision-makers to sleep. No decision-maker in Israel really understands why we need renewable energy at all when we have so much gas.

"If there is a solar industry at all in Israel, it's because the government doesn't want to fall too far behind what's happening in Europe and the rest of the world, and thanks to the activity of organizations like ours. This industry has developed without direction or forward planning. We had to squeeze 120 megawatts out of the Finance Ministry officials.

"The problem is that quality of the environment is not an issue in Israel. Look how easily they shelved the plan for reducing emissions that Peres committed to at the Copenhagen conference. The politicians don't really want to develop renewable green energy here."

The indifference of the decision-makers to environmental considerations forces Parnass and co. to highlight more and more the only issue that really is taken seriously here: security. Parnass uses a presentation laden with pictures of shore-to-sea missiles in use by Hizbollah, missiles capable of hitting the gas platforms, and with drawings showing how most of the country's power stations are within range of missiles from Hamas and the Gaza Strip. It sounds like a briefing by an intelligence officer for military correspondents.

"Securing the gas installations is going to cost billions, and still there is no possibility of providing hermetic protection for the gas platforms from sophisticated missiles, drones, or boats with suicide bombers," he says. "Therefore an attack on them is not hypothetical, but a foreseeable event. Renewable energy can already ensure continuity of supply and energy independence for an individual building or a restricted area. The Ministry of Finance and the Electricity Authority are promoting gas with a penny pinching attitude that fails to take into account the hostile elements in Lebanon and Gaza, which are also looking at the gas, but through a gun sight. We don't expect the Finance Ministry to consider the security aspect; for that there's an Energy Minister and a government that see the full picture."

Nevertheless, what counts in Israel these days is the bottom line, and because of that Parnass and those like him are pinning great hopes on a report drawn up by the National Economic Council headed by Prof. Eugene Kandel. The report is a first serious attempt to price the advantages of solar power over natural gas in "non-economic" areas, such as energy security and pollution reduction. "The Finance Ministry doesn't like this report," says Parnass, "It is being submitted to the government after a year's delay, and then only because of the stature of Professor Kandel."

What in your view is the report's main conclusion?

"The report finds that the economic value of solar energy ranges between NIS 0.45 per kilowatt hour for a normal PV installation and NIS 63.3 for an installation with power storage capability. This finding means that it is worthwhile for the State of Israel to pay a price for solar energy up to three times higher than the price it pays for natural gas, and that is without the report pricing the economic contribution of solar energy to the periphery. Nearly all the solar fields under construction today are in the Negev and in the Gaza border area, and will bring income to the communities that hold the land, money that will be directed to consumption, entrepreneurship, and investment in better education for the next generation."

Yet those who live in the periphery have not joined your campaign.

"The periphery is totally disillusioned with central government. Look how they abolished the housing grants. In the periphery, they simply don't believe that the state will really give them the money it promises."

What consequences will the Kandel report have in the government?

"The Kandel report will open a new era. We will switch to a system of tenders for purchase of electricity from solar and wind power producers with the Kandel tariffs serving as a price ceiling."

The heads of Israel Electric Corporation promise that the price of electricity will fall in the coming years because of reform of the industry and thanks to the gas. Won't that damage the attractiveness of solar power?

"The story that electricity is going to become cheap is one of the biggest bluffs in the country. The government resolution on reform of the Israel Electric Corporation of 2006 states that the recognized costs of the structural change will be incorporated in future electricity tariffs. There is talk of the workers receiving benefits to the tune of NIS 6 billion or more, and people forget that there's a 'small' debt that has to be dealt with of seventy-something billion shekels, which will oblige the state to inject cash into the company. Just the interest on a debt like this is around NIS 3 billion a year, and the total debt will shortly rise to over NIS 100 billion. So when they talk of the total cost of the reform, I hear numbers in the region of NIS 30 billion."

And will the public agree to finance this?

"The Israeli public is indifferent, almost apathetic, to rises in the electricity prices. The electricity tariff has risen 30% in the past two years, and no-one has yet taken to the streets. There is no entity in Israel that provides a forecast of power demand or a forecast of prices for the coming year, even though the public is entitled to it."

You sound very pessimistic.

"In the end, I believe that there is a great future for renewable energy in Israel, because the country has no other option for diversifying its sources of supply. Today, 20 solar power plants are located in the Negev, which will join the 300 megawatts of small installations connected to the grid. I believe that the production quotas that the Electricity Authority has approved, totaling 2,400 megawatts, will be taken up by 2020, which means that there will be investment of NIS 15 billion here in the coming years in constructing installations, and that means developing a smart power grid, without which the system cannot be managed efficiently. There are already 10,000 solar power producers, and in the future there will be thousands more megawatts, and that will have tremendous significance. The problem is that it takes years to develop these infrastructures and a smart grid, and meanwhile they will have to build coal-fired power stations, because it's impossible to rely only on natural gas, and the back-up will have to be from coal."

Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on July 10, 2013

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2013

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