It's hard not to flash a sly smile when looking at the Web site of the Interior Ministry's National Infrastructures Committee. The photograph on the site looks like a wind turbine, a symbol of clean energy, while as we speak the committee is in the final stages of approving two additional coal-powered electric plants in Ashkelon - likely to both pollute the air and release greenhouse gases. The southern coastal city was chosen due to the availability of land in the area.
The new plants (each will produce 630 megawatts) will employ "supercritical" technology intended to reduce pollution compared with older technology. According to the National Infrastructure Ministry, building the plants is essential to ensure Israel has the required resources to produce enough electricity.
The fundamental question is how much longer we can try to meet the ever-increasing demand for natural resources. Must we continue to satiate the never-ending demand for water, energy and transportation, or has the time come to address the appetite for these things in a cost-efficient way, one which develops alternatives?
The consequences of endlessly meeting consumer demand is illustrated in the position of the Environmental Protection Ministry, presented during discussions over creating the power plants, which holds that the new sites will increase air pollution and lead to a rise in respiratory and heart disease.
The economic damage that would be incurred from health care costs as a result of the new facilities are likely, the ministry said, to reach some NIS 800 million annually. The plants will also harm Israel's ability to meet its obligation to reduce greenhouse gases, and make it difficult for the country to be accepted into important economic organizations, like the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
The alternatives to coal production are neither simple nor cheap. Due to both the limited availability of land and high costs, Israel will find it difficult to accommodate the majority of its energy consumers through solar facilities. Nonetheless, its policy must be aimed at meeting existing energy needs.
According to energy experts Amir Mor and Shimon Sarusi - who recently compiled a study on energy production for the Society for the Preservation of Nature in Israel - the Israel Electric Corporation has for years viewed the solution to high energy consumption as simply producing more power. In recent years, however, experts have increasingly come to believe that before rushing to build another new power plant, efforts must be made to save energy, as well as make its production more efficient.
It is estimated that some 20 percent of the electricity consumed in Israel could be saved. This can be accomplished by raising costs for using electricity during peak hours, and offering financial incentives for exchanging less efficient electrical appliances for energy-saving models. The report also encourages the creation of facilities for using heat energy, as well as following "green" construction methods based on efficient insulation and natural ventilation of new buildings.
In addition to all of these measures, it is important to remember that the recently-discovered natural gas fields present a cleaner energy source than coal.
The commission for natural resources should therefore seriously consider the recommendations of Southern District's National Planning and Building Committee to postpone the implementation of the plan for creating the energy-production sites in Ashkelon by at least five years. In that time a policy can begin to be drafted for meeting energy demands, and in parallel a policy for monitoring the progress of more advanced technology for operating coal-power stations, which would reduce pollution.
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