Stop relying on natural gas, scientists tell energy minister

Yuval Steinitz

"The government is opting for a solution that will cause economic and environmental damage to Israel in the long term."

Over 100 energy and sustainability scientists and experts, including Nobel prize winners, have sent an open letter to Minister of National Infrastructures, Energy, and Water Resources Yuval Steinitz asking him to halt the expansion of natural gas power stations, and to switch to large-scale use of renewable energy because of its economic, energy, and environmental advantages. "In view of the minister of energy's recent statements in the Knesset debate about Israel's energy policy, we, who are scientific and academic experts in energy and the environment, want to get some facts straight," the scientists wrote.

The signatories to the letter included Nobel Prize winners Prof. Dan Shechtman and Prof. Robert Aumann, former Israeli Renewable Energy Association chairman Prof. Abraham Kribus, winners of the Israel Prize in earth sciences, and a long list of experts from all of the academic institutions in Israel. The letter was initiated by Tel Aviv University Department of Public Policy chair Prof. Alon Tal, one of the leaders of the environmental movement in Israel. "I did not expect that, after I had drafted the letter, 100 scientists and academics, including two Nobel Price winners and two Israel Prize winners in earth sciences, would join in a single day," Tal said. "I am greatly encouraged by the support, but it is cold comfort, given Israel's disappointing performance in renewable energy in the power industry."

The scientists say that the decision by the Ministry of National Infrastructures, Energy, and Water Resources to build natural gas-fueled power plants and convert existing coal-fired plants to gas represents a "significant economic risk." Current studies indicate that, five to fifteen years from now, using gas will be far more expensive than building an equivalent solar power plant with storage.

"The result will be the early termination of the plant's use, with the state continuing to pay the developers for many years under the contractual obligation," the letter states. Concerning the decision to convert coal power stations to gas, the letter asserts that while gas is a cleaner fuel than coal, the switch should be to renewable energy, not gas. "Gas is a fossil fuel, and burning it releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Current studies show that the use of natural gas results in many emissions. In the short term, the effect of methane released into the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas is 84 times that of carbon dioxide - approximately four times earlier estimates. The quantities of methane emitted in the production, handling, and transportation of gas are much higher than the previous estimates. These emissions contain volatile organic ingredients, some of which are known carcinogens. These two discoveries put natural gas in the same category as coal in its effect on climate change."

The letter adds, "Natural gas-based power plants constitute a source of nitrogen oxide pollution, especially as the plant gets older."

The government decision to establish a new network of private power plants based on natural gas, which is contrary to the existing economic trends in the energy market, will pose a large economic risk to Israelis, and does not comply with Israel's international commitments on climate change and sustainable development targets. In 2016, Israel, together with many other countries, made a commitment to use 100% renewable energy by 2050, and Israel enjoys plenty of sunshine. "Sun-blessed Israel is retaining the low targets from the past," the scientists write. "We fear that the government is opting for a solution that appears convenient in the short term, but that will cause economic and environmental damage to Israel in the medium and long term."

The letter cites the many advantages of switching to renewable energy for electricity production, including the economic benefits. "Today, renewable energy is a cheaper option than any other type of energy. At the end of 2018, the average global price of 1 MWh of electricity was $151 for nuclear energy, $102 for coal, $59 for natural gas, $42 for wind turbines, and $36 for solar energy. 66% of the new power production capacity installed in the world in 2018 comes from renewable energy sources, not fossil fuels, and the trend is expanding."

The scientists also address at length the problem of solar energy storage, which formerly constituted a major barrier to increasing the use of the solar energy, writing: "The cost of storage has plunged in recent years, mainly because of the upgraded performance of lithium batteries." The price of batteries is projected to continue falling steeply in the coming years, while "Clean energy stored during the day at a reasonable price can already be used at night." An MIT study this year found that the cost of storage had to fall to $150 per kilowatt-hour in order to increase the proportion of renewable energy use in the US to 95%. On the basis of the current trend, this price will be reached in the foreseeable future.

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on November 19, 2019

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2019

Yuval Steinitz
Yuval Steinitz
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