Israeli gov't to unveil Med-Dead Sea conduit plan

Dead Sea picture: Tamar Mitzpi

The underground conduit from Ashkelon to the Dead Sea will produce 10% of Israel's electricity through hydroelectric power.

Israel Electric Corporation (IEC) (TASE: ELEC.B22), Mekorot National Water Company, and a group of private developers will present a new plan to the cabinet in the coming months.for an underground conduit for transporting water from the Mediterranean Sea to the Dead Sea. The plan is currently being perused by an inter-ministerial team headed by Prime Minister's Office director general Eli Groner. It is believed that Mekorot and IEC wish to be partners in both owning and carrying out the venture after it gains cabinet approval.

Past attempts to realize the Zionist founder Theodore Herzl's vision by connecting the Mediterranean Sea to the Dead Sea failed, but the developers believe that the current project, based on an underground conduit, rather than a canal, is economically viable and will make a real strategic contribution to the electricity and water sectors, in addition to saving the Dead Sea from drying up.

The plan was born several years ago as an idea by Israeli developers experienced in tunneling and hydroelectric power plants (using water power to generate electricity, A.B.). The idea was first presented to then-Minister of National Infrastructure, Energy, and Water Resources Uzi Landau, who referred the developers to Mekorot for feasibility tests. The idea is based on digging tunnels to transport water 100 kilometers from the Mediterranean Sea and a 1,500-megawatt underground hydroelectric power plant that will use the difference in water level between the Dead Sea and the Mediterranean to generate electricity.

A year ago, the developers appointed Citrine, a company owned by former Minister of Finance budget director Gal Hershkowitz, to accompany and manage the project. Hershkowitz met in recent months with representatives of the relevant government ministries, and presented the project plans and the findings of an initial viability study to them.

Technical engineering and economic tests were conducted for three years by a joint team of IEC, Mekorot, and the developers. Hershkowitz made it clear that the cost of the project would not exceed $3 billion, which he said would be raised by the developers themselves with no government aid at all, other than regulatory coordination, such as setting criteria for hydroelectric-produced power (currently, there are no such criteria), and steering through the national infrastructure committee, as is usual for a project of this type. A number of leading international infrastructure companies that do tunneling work for transportation and water have already expressed interest in carrying out and financing the project. According to the developers, the project will employ 2,200 workers in the Negev during the seven-year construction period, and hundreds of workers to operate it afterwards.

Meanwhile, Mekorot is also joining the project. In discussions, Mekorot CEO Shimon Ben Hamo made it clear that the project was very worthwhile, because the cost of tunneling had fallen steeply in recent years, and because of the possibility of connecting the central Negev and the Arava to water sources for irrigation. Mekorot believes that water can be desalinized near the planned power plant at low cost, while saving on transportation costs. Mekorot is talking about desalinizing 200 million cubic meters a year, which will make it possible to use one million dunam (250,000 acres) of land in the central Negev (land on which only rainwater can be used at present) for agriculture, pour water into the Dead Sea, and export water to Jordan and the Jericho area in the Palestinian Authority. Internal Mekorot cost estimates for the project are higher as much as $4.5 billion, but Mekorot says that the project is worthwhile even at that price.

IEC personnel also joined the project later, headed by senior VP Planning and Technology Development Unit Dr. David Elmakais. The IEC representatives examined the idea of constructing the hydroelectric power plant and its contributions to redundancy in the supply of electricity and management of the electricity system. The plant can generate enough non-polluting electricity to help meet the government's international commitments to the ambitious targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions (a 50% reduction in projected emissions by 2030) and increasing the use of renewable energy (17% of electricity produced, compared with less than 2.5% at present), at reasonable cost, and with full control over production.

In internal discussions, Hershkowitz noted that the variable (regular) costs of producing hydroelectric power were negligible. In contrast to similar pump-storage hydroelectric plants (the first power station of this type is being built at Ma'ale Gilboa, A. B.), the planned power plant in the tunnel project will generate electricity with no emissions at all, and will need no fuel whatsoever to operate it. Building the plant underground will save open space (solar power requires a capacity of 7,000 megawatts and an area of 20,000 dunam (5,000 acres) in order to produce the same amount of electricity, A.B.), and provide the electricity sector with strategic redundancy. In other words, electrical production capacity will be ensured in emergency situations and in extreme weather conditions (in contrast to electricity produced from wind or sun), while energy sources will be diversified.

The hydroelectric power plant also has significant advantages for management of the national electrical system, because it is the only existing engineering solution for storing substantial quantities of electricity, with extremely short closing and opening times and the ability the generate a variety of capacities. It can be used by the electricity system administration for operational storage and flexible regulating at times of varying demand. The operational flexibility of a plant of this type and size can make it possible to substantially increase the amount of electricity produced from renewable energy, without jeopardizing the network's stability.

Digging of the main tunnel is to go from the area of the Ashkelon coal-fired power plant to the production site in the Negev a huge underground space in which a 1,500-megawatt hydroelectric power plant (10% of Israel's total installed power capacity) will be built. Another tunnel will be dug from the production site to the Dead Sea. The length of both tunnels will be over 100 kilometers, and they will be dug at a depth of 30 meters below sea level, while the power station will be located 500 meters below sea level. IEC and Mekorot declined to comment on the matter.

Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on March 20, 2016

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2016

Dead Sea picture: Tamar Mitzpi
Dead Sea picture: Tamar Mitzpi
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