Renewable Energy Is Coming of Age

With the same alacrity that we grasped the potential of solar energy, we abandoned it in favor of the politics of oil and the filth of coal.

Israelis can take pride as pioneers in the renewable-energy revolution. We harnessed the sun's energy for heat 50 years ago with the development of the solar-heated boiler for the home. Making their installation mandatory in the 1980s made Israel the No. 2 country in the world for solar heaters per capita, supplying 3 percent of the national primary energy consumption.

Yet with the same alacrity that we grasped the potential of solar energy, we abandoned it in favor of the politics of oil and the filth of coal.

Two processes are coming to a head at coincidentally the same time: reform of Israel's energy sector, and a global craze for renewable energy. Suddenly nature, quality of life and efficiency are coming back into fashion.

"Renewable energy" refers to energy produced from renewable natural resources: sun, sea, wind, even waste, as opposed to non-renewable fossil sources such as oil, coal and natural gas. Fossil fuels have been used since prehistory, but so have renewable sources. Our forefathers employed the sun to heat water and the wind to turn turbines that pulverize grain.

Humans became slaves to fossil fuel with the industrial revolution, blissfully ignorant of the economic and environmental prices they would pay. But the inconvenience of addiction to oil has fueled the search for alternative energy sources.

In 1982 an Israeli company named Luz Industries established the world's first solar energy company in the Mojave desert in California. In the aftermath of the Iran-Iraq war, oil spiked to $42 per barrel, which translates into $90 in today's dollars.

However, flouting forecasters, come 1985 oil plunged back to $10-12 per barrel and the world lost interest in alternatives. Only now is it coming back into fashion.

Forget principles: It took a hit in the pocket to motivate the masses to clamor for change.

As consumers caviled at Middle Eastern oil and Russian gas, solar farms started to sprout in the U.S. and Spain. Luz, which had meanwhile turned into the Tel Aviv-listed company Solel, began to make a global mark.

Just last week, U.S. Congress rolled back $16 billion in tax breaks for oil companies and use the money to develop renewable energy sources.

And here? Surely given our geopolitical interests and proven technological capabilities, we should be at the forefront of development and investment. Right? No. We have already missed the National Infrastructures Ministry's target of having renewable energies provide 2 percent of the nation's electricity by 2007.

Now the target is 10 percent by 2010. What are our options?

1. Solar energy: If we have a natural asset, it's sunshine, which can be exploited using two technologies: solar-thermal and photovoltaic. Solel is solar-thermal, which is based on heating water to generate steam that operates a turbine that produces power. The water is heated not by burning fossils but by using thousands of mirrors in a parabolic structure that tracks the sun. It is clean but costly, double the cost of coal-fired stations. It also needs a lot of space and is expensive to maintain. Some think the future lies in photovoltaic technology, which was developed for outer space and converts sunlight into power through silicon cells. A million German homes are powered with photovoltaic plates on their roofs. It's expensive, though.

2. Wind is the fastest-growing sector in renewable energy. Last year investment rose to $30 billion. Vast areas around the world are covered by the tri-bladed windmills of wind power, but in Israel the only one using wind for power is Avraham Melamed, who runs 10 turbines in the Golan Heights that provide a mere 6MW. But there are plans to build wind farms in the Negev, Golan and Mt. Hebron. But wind will remain a bit player in Israel.

3. Biomass. Last week a Granite Harcarmel group firm said it has invested NIS 40 million in a facility that can burn 600 tons of cow feces a day, mainly to rid the world of unwanted byproducts and secondarily, to produce power by creating steam.

4. Nuclear: Building a nuclear power plant is not economically illogical, though one can hardly call it renewable energy. The chain reaction heats water and creates steam that turns turbines. It's rather expensive and there are safety and security issues that make it an unlikely solution for Israel.

5. Hydroelectric and geothermal energy: Israel can't have a hydroelectric plant because we don't have any roaring rivers to power one. So forget that. The Mekorot water facility has tiny hydroelectric plantlets supplying individual facilities with power. Nor can we take advantage of Mother Earth's subterranean magma power because we don't have any volcanoes, or even a geyser or two, which is not entirely a disadvantage. So forget that too. We can boast some national pride in the Ormat Industries group, which builds geothermal and recovered heat power stations around the world.

Click here to read about the Haaretz Group's new stand on the environment.