Israel is a country that, along with the rest of its Middle East neighbors, gets a lot of sunlight. However, aside from its nearly ubiquitous rooftop solar water heaters, Israel has no solar power production facility of any kind… until now. Arava Power, a solar PV startup, is planning to break ground on an 80 MW facility. For reference, the current largest PV power plant (according to pvresources.com) is 60 MW, in Spain.
Arava had to secure approval from the Israeli government in order to rezone the land (which belongs to kibbutzes, traditional Israeli agricultural communities) for use as a power generating facility. Coming to terms with the Israel Electric Company was another major accomplishment – the IEC agreed to built a transmission line connecting the PV plant with the rest of the grid.
Driving all this progress is Arava’s founder, Yosef Israel Abramowitz, and chairman Ed Hofland, a veteran of Kibbutz Ketura – the kibbutz that is partnering on the project. Abramowitz started out his career as a journalist and political activist in the US, and later founded his own media company. He moved to Israel in 2006 to “take some time off”, but when he arrived he was shocked to discover that none of Israel’s electricity came from solar power, despite the powerful Middle Eastern sun rays. He decided then and there to found what eventually became Arava.
Abramowitz declined to discuss many corporate details, but he did tell me that – like in the US – the key to successful renewable energy in Israel is favorable policy and legislation. He pointed out that the reason why so many solar power plants have been successfully built in Europe is that the European governments have been very active in feed-in tariffs. Essentially, that means that European governments partially subsidize renewable energy by buying renewable energy at fixed rates slightly above average.
The Israeli government has yet to adopt such a system. In addition to the feed-in tariff, Israeli renewable energy companies are hoping that their leaders will enact policies that will give them tax relief (in the same way that the country already does for hi-tech companies). The government is certainly aware that energy independence is critically important, and hopefully that means that the necessary policies will be implemented.
Israel has already set for itself a goal to be 10% renewable by 2020, compared to the EU’s goal to be 20% renewable by the same year. In his articles, however, Abramowitz claims that – if storage issues were properly addressed – Israel could build enough solar capacity to meet 40% of its demand by 2020, not just 10%. Such storage technologies might involve some sort of pump which would use off-peak energy to raise water up a mountain, and later release it back through a turbine. Of course, arid Israel does not have extra water to spare, so a different system might be preferable.
Recently, however, Israelis discovered a very large natural gas well off the shore of the port city of Haifa. This is certainly beneficial for the country, since ample natural gas resources give Israelis something cleaner to burn than coal. Hopefully, it will not lull the country into thinking that it is energy independent. Fossil fuels are no reason to slow down progress on a more long-term energy source.
Arava’s vision is to become “the first great green utility in Israel and the Middle East”. If it is successful, we can be sure that there will be many more to follow.
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