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Israel has not been blessed with plentitude of natural resources. Until the recent discovery of offshore natural gas, Israel was devoid of rich fossil fuels to support its economy. However, the country does have an annual incidence of sunshine, especially in the Negev desert in the south, which it has harnessed to its advantage. Israel has never shied away from using every effort to alter its accessible resources and develop a vibrant economy.
Israeli engineers have been working on harnessing solar power since 1948 and the practice has become a staple for 90% of Israeli households. Many use solar water heaters on the rooftops of residential buildings. Due to years of accumulated experience and ingenuity, Israel is at the cutting edge of solar energy technology, and Israeli companies are incorporated within solar projects around the world. For example, market leaders in utility scale projects include Israel-based BrightSource Industries, Solel and Brenmiller Energy.
There are two segments of solar energy: photovoltaic industry and concentrated solar power. The leading Israeli companies deal with concentrated solar power (CSP) such as solar towers and solar reflectors, since CSP produces a higher
amount of energy per cost value in regions with high solar incidence, like Israel’s Negev desert. The country’s solar technology has advanced to the point where it is close to compete with fossil fuel energy prices, according to a 2008 Bloomberg report citing the Israeli company Zenith Solar. But in 2009, Israel discovered natural gas reserves offshore, in the Leviathan and Tamar gas fields. These discoveries have consequentially reduced the country’s immediate urgency of solar technology development.
Historically, Israel’s fuel shortage crisis was the trigger to harness solar energy and use solar water heaters. After the energy crisis of the 1970s, the Knesset (the Israeli Parliament) passed a law requiring installation of solar water heaters in homes in 1980. By 1990, all new residential buildings were required to install the system. This early, state-backed use of solar energy made the industry boom: nowadays, solar energy accounts for 3% of the primary national energy consumption in Israel, making the country the world leader per capita. Solar waters can be seen on rooftops of most residential buildings all around the country. The Ministry of National Infrastructure estimates that solar panels for water heating saves Israel approximately two million barrels of oil a year.
The Negev Desert, in the south, and the eastern valley of Arava, between the Dead Sea and the southern city of Eilat, are the sunniest parts of the country. In the south, the soil is not arable. These two aggregated factors transformed this southern region into the center of the Israeli solar industry. Founded in 1987 and located in the Ben-Gurion University, at Sede Boqer in the Negev desert, the National Solar Energy Center is a world renowned research center. It counts projects such as the world’s largest solar reflector, built in a joint project with the company Zenith Solar in 2007, which uses a 10 square-meter reflector dish. The reflector’s concentrated solar power technology has proved to be five times more efficient than standard flat photovoltaic panels in testings.
A prototype ready for commercialisation reached a concentration of solar energy that was more than 1,000 times greater than flat panels. The Israel-based company Megalim Solar Power, whose shareholders include General Electric, is currently building a solar power tower in the Negev desert. The tower will be over 240 meters tall and will generate up to 121 megawatts of electric power after its completion in 2017. The cost of construction is over $773 million and will provide around 1% of Israel’s electricity.
The government aims to produce 10 percent of country’s energy from renewable sources by 2020. Megalim’s tower is one of many grand solar projects. The 50-megawatts solar photovoltaic power plant Zmorot Solar Park was inaugurated by EDF in May 2016. The facility, located in the Negev desert, extends over 60 hectares and counts 207,000 solar panels. The industrial complex of Rotem, near the Negev desert city of Dimona, uses more than 1600 solar mirrors. Bright Source Industries plans to build three new solar plants in California to test a new solar ray technology.
The industry of solar energy technology has been a good example of how a country can adjust to reality in the absence of abundance of natural resources. In November 2015, Israeli scientists presented Israel’s solar energy solutions at the United Nations Climate Change talks in Paris, which representatives from over 166 UN member states attended and committed to keep global warming below an increase of two degrees Celsius over the next century.
Harnessing solar power can also be element of expediting economic cooperation within the Middle East region, and particularly bewteen Israel and the Palestinian territories. Gershon Baskin, a businessman in solar energy and an advocate of economic cooperation with Palestinians, has taken part in solar energy projects with Israelis and Palestinians. He told Fanack that there is no official policy by the Israeli government not to support solar power in the Gaza strip, a Palestinian territory.
“There is no objection at all by the coordinator of the territories,” he said. “The problem stems from keeping the project viable on a large scale.” Baskin told Fanack the Israeli government does not permit certain materials to enter the Palestinian territory of the Gaza strip, as they believe they may be used as weapons. Batteries for solar panels, he added, may count as such. However, one does see solar panels on some of the rooftops in Gaza. However, Baskin argues, a Gaza-wide solar power project would take a large donor to be viable: he considers it would be difficult for a private enterprise to get credit rating and provide financial statements. Another detrimental fact Baskin cites is that many in Gaza do not pay their electrical bills.
Israel’s advanced solar technology could also be shared with neighbouring countries facing similar climate challenges. Despite the discovery of natural gas, solar energy should continue to diversify, in order to avoid depending on a sole source of energy.