solar - Arava Power - June 10 2011
The Arava Power solar panel installation outside Kibbutz Ketura. At its peak, the installation is expected to produce 4.95 megawatts. Photo by Arava Power
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Morey Chen
The ceremony marking the opening of the solar field on Sunday. Photo by Morey Chen
Alberto Denkberg
Yossi Abramowitz. Photo by Alberto Denkberg

A group of Anglos are largely responsible for Israel's first major solar power field, which was inaugurated earlier this week to much fanfare. But while the desert installation is harnessing the power of the sun to the peak tune of 4.95 megawatts, questions remain over Israel's ability to meet its stated renewable energy goals and whether the panels can offset the energy used for their own production.

Jon Cohen immigrated to Israel from the United Kingdom decades ago, and today is the CEO of Arava Power, the company that built the field. "What's important is to advance the scope of activity in Israel and reach the scale that will mean meeting the objectives that the government decided upon in 2009," Cohen said. "Ten percent renewable energy by 2020."

Currently, the government permits construction of only 300 megawatts worth of fields, Cohen says.

If the country is to meet its renewable energy objectives, he says, the government must allow solar energy companies like Arava Power to ramp up their operations, not limit their output.

The solar panel field has been built on land owned by Kibbutz Ketura, about 50 kilometers from Eilat. Ketura, founded by American alumni of Hadassah's Young Judaea youth group in the 1970s, is today home to a large number of native English speakers.

On the day of the launch, which was attended by Knesset members, functionaries and other guests, Michael Soloway, a kibbutz member, led visitors on tours of the renewable energy operations and discussed opposition to the solar panel project.

"Even within the governmental agencies, they are of two minds about things. On the one hand, they want to encourage Israel's energy independence. But on the other hand, they like the idea that we are dependent, and Egypt is dependent, on a peace agreement that has oil in the middle of it. They like that very much; it's good international politics," he said.

Currently, much of the Israel's electrical power is produced by burning natural gas imported from Egypt. Cuts in the Egyptian gas supply since the January upheaval there have led to emergency measures, like the Environmental Protection Ministry temporarily approving dirtier forms of energy production.

Ed Hofland, a Ketura member who co-founded and chairs Arava Power, recalled the political hurdles the passed to get the field up and running. They expected that it would take only a year to cut through all of the red tape, but in fact it took almost five years and the approval of at least two dozen government officials.

"The impact it will have on the economy of the kibbutz and the region itself will be quite large, because right now, all of our energy is imported from Ashkelon and transported all the way to the South," Hofland said. "We expect and we hope to provide up to fifty to sixty percent of the energy needs of this region. That's besides all of the other fields we all planning to build."

Arava Power's installation takes advantage of the Arava desert's large open areas, but another venture promoting roof-based solar power in Israel opposes their model.

Solar-By-Yourself says they have invested over NIS 1 million in the last two years to promote roof-based solar panels in Israel and have waged a campaign in the courts to prevent the progress of field-based solar panel projects.

SBY strategic adviser Lior Datz says that the company opposes Arava Power's plans on various grounds: ecology, economy and efficiency.

"In Israel, land resources are on the verge of extinction, and therefore they must be preserved," Datz said. "That's why we must give preference to rooftops and not develop the land."

He notes that other kinds of renewable energy, like wind and thermo-solar, require ground installations, but solar panels don't.

Datz also says that if the government permits the construction of large fields of solar panels, it will lead to the consolidation of the emerging renewable energy market and drive out small businesses.

"The dispersal of solar panels on rooftops will generate thousands, if not tens of thousands, of small businesses. Every roof owner becomes a small business owner," Datz said. "Everyone knows that a country's economic growth is not tied to its mega-corporations, but to its small and medium-sized businesses; they are its economic engine."

Rooftop panels are also said to be more efficient since they produce energy in developed areas, precisely where they are needed, and no infrastructure is needed to transport the power.

While solar power is considered a clean energy source, one also needs to weigh the "embedded" energy needed to create, transport and install panels against how much energy they will produce over a lifetime. Arava Power's field, named Ketura Sun, is expected to last 20 years, according to Hofland.

Arava Power co-founder and president Yossi Abramowitz, who came to Ketura from the United States five years ago, believes that solar panels will get more efficient in the future, but admits that with current technology, a solar panel may take its whole lifetime to offset the energy needed to produce it.

The company that provides panels to the both Arava power and Solar-By-Yourself, China-based Suntech, says their corporate headquarters is solar powered, but their factory is powered by a coal-burning plant and a dam on the Yangtze river, both of which are considered environmentally harmful.

What this in essence means is that the dirty energy production is moved elsewhere, in this case China, rather than being eliminated altogether.

Datz still believes rooftop panels are the best way for the government to reach its goal of 10 percent alternative energy production, granted they are willing to hand out subsidies to private citizens for such ventures, as is done in Europe.

But Abramowitz thinks large scale projects, like Arava Power's, are the key to reaching the benchmark, and will also spur investment in research and development for more efficient panels.