Israel Plans to Boost Renewable Energy Production, but Activists Warn It’s Not Enough

Government plan aims for 30 percent solar energy and 70 percent natural gas for electricity production by 2030, after rejecting an Environmental Protection Ministry proposal for a 40-percent target

Zafrir Rinat
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Workers install solar panels in northern Israel, May 18, 2020.
Workers install solar panels in northern Israel, May 18, 2020.Credit: Rami Shllush
Zafrir Rinat

The cabinet approved Sunday a plan to boost electricity production from renewable sources from 17 percent to 30 percent by 2030, in an outline presented by Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz. The cabinet rejected an Environmental Protection Ministry recommendation that would have set a target of 40 percent instead.

Data from the Environment Ministry showed that the 30 percent target is lower than that of many other countries that are working to address climate change and that have set targets of 60 or even 80 percent by the end of the current decade. The cabinet also approved a proposal by Environment Minister Gila Gamliel for a panel of ministry directors general that will exam the future of heavy industry in .

Currently Israel relies on renewable energy sources for the production of almost 10 percent of its electric power. The vast majority of that is solar power. The cabinet set an interim goal of 20 percent by the middle of the current decade in addition to the 30 percent target by 2030. Achievement of the 30 percent goal would be expected to save the 8 billion shekels ($2.4 million) a year, mainly by cutting the amount of fuel required for electricity generation and by reducing the cost to the country of medical conditions caused by air pollution.

The country’s two remaining coal-based power plants are due to be shut down by the middle of the decade. After that, about 70 percent of Israel’s required energy for electricity production should be coming from natural gas, which Israel has in abundance offshore. Although it is considered less polluting than coal, experts say that also significantly contributes to global warming.

Sunday’s cabinet resolution requires the Energy Ministry to provide support for a special loan fund to encourage investment in facilities producing and storing renewable energy. It also extends the period of the improvement tax exemption on the major facilities that currently use and that are expected to be installed on roofs, water reservoirs, waste treatment facilities and fish ponds.

A power plant near the Gaza border near Ashkelon, February 4, 2020
A power plant near the Gaza border near Ashkelon, February 4, 2020Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

In addition, the cabinet decided that, in contrast to the past two years, from now on permits will not be issued to private entrepreneurs for the construction of natural gas-powered power plants. The only permits that will be issued will be for the renovation or upgrading of existing plants. Although construction will continue at natural gas-based plants that have already been approved, the government will promote a public-private partnership for the construction of a large solar-based power station.

As a result of Sunday’s cabinet decision, the cabinet will reconsider its natural gas export policies, since Israel will in the future be consuming less natural gas than had been anticipated.

Prior to the cabinet session on the issue, the Environment Ministry submitted its objections to the Energy Ministry plan, saying that it is overly dependent on natural gas and continues to create air pollution problems and greenhouse gases. Environment Minister Gamliel said that, according to professional assessments, it is possible with existing technology to achieve a goal of 40 percent electricity production from renewable sources, the vast majority of which would be utilization of building space. Ministry experts also said that a more ambitious target now would have resulted in even greater savings to the economy.

The Tamar gas field in the Mediterranean Sea, September 2, 2015.
The Tamar gas field in the Mediterranean Sea, September 2, 2015.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

“Unfortunately, despite the encouraging title of the decision-makers’ proposal, when it comes to its content, it is encouraging the economy to continue using polluting natural gas for many years,” Gamliel said after the cabinet resolution was released. “[This is] an impediment to continued reduction of air pollution and the transition to a low-coal economy, which is a step that Israel needs to take as part of its international commitment to deal with the climate crisis.”

For his part, said, “In the next seven years, Israel might be in first place in the amount of electricity [per capita] produced from solar energy. The air pollution emitted from the 20 power stations around Israel will decline within a few years by more than 90 percent.”

Environmental activists also responded to the cabinet’s decision. “The higher targets are rather too little too late,” said the Israel Union for Environmental Defense (Adam Teva V’Din in Hebrew), adding that the 70 percent natural gas target will have long-term negative consequences. “In addition, we should be working to cut electricity use through energy efficiency.”

“The dispute is not about 30 or 40 percent, but rather who will supply electricity,” said Eitan Parnass, the chairman of the Green Energy Association of Israel. “Renewable energy shifts this role to many thousands of solar producers who supply electricity for themselves and their network. That involves the genuine privatization of the electricity market. The good technology will triumph, and the countdown has now begun in Israel for polluting fuel.”

In addition to its other action on Sunday, the cabinet approved a resolution submitted by Gamliel to establish a panel of ministry directors general to examine the future of heavy industry in . The committee will function for 90 days and submit its plans for public comment. Among the issues that it will consider are the future of petrochemical facilities there and whether they should be allowed to remain or be relocated.

Later the panel will consider the energy infrastructure in the Haifa Bay area, including the presence of a fuel pipeline as well as Haifa’s residential, planning and employment-related needs. The joint forum of environmental groups in the city said in response to the two cabinet resolutions that, “Today a new horizon is beginning for the Haifa metropolitan area and for Israel in general. We are moving forward toward the end of the era of oil in the country and toward a more sustainable and healthier environment for the citizens.”

Kahol Lavan member Miki Haimovich, who chairs the Knesset’s Interior and Environment Committee, said that an opportunity had been missed to show what she called “real courage” in addressing what she said was years of delay in setting ambitious targets. “Granted that the several natural gas power stations have been scrapped, but the resolution that was adopted still permits the expansion and construction of a number of stations that are expected to produce up to 6,000 megawatts through gas. The country is demanding renewable energy and that’s not a slogan. It’s the key to creating long-term energy security and an innovative and clean economy.”

The group Greenpeace Israel said the Energy Ministry has followed a pattern of action that at this point is not surprising. “It is promoting destructive oil and gas projects in the sea, of a scope that we have not known, and at the same time is seeking to whitewash its plans by creating the false impression that most of its efforts are directed towards promoting renewable energy. The overall picture created from the ministry’s work is that Israel is being subjugated to polluting fuels and to scuttling the battle over the climate crisis.”

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