Nothing New Under the Sun: As the World Turns to Solar Energy, Israel Falls Behind

The sun may be shining, but Israel is far from reaching its goals of harnessing this powerful energy resource

The Ashelim solar energy production plant, near Be'er Sheva, has a capacity of 121 mega-watts, August, 2019.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

In a documentary about his family's immigration to Israel from Poland, director Igal Bursztyn recalls that his mother always said that Israel was good for drying laundry. Local sunshine bears another distinct advantage – it’s an excellent source for producing electricity – but Israel still is far from meeting its goals when it comes to exploiting this energy source.

Israel has been seeking new ways to enlist the sun's power to swap out polluting fuel sources. The Environmental Protection Ministry is convinced the breakthrough will come when more residential buildings and businesses install solar panels – not just on their roofs, but on their walls as well.

Under a cabinet resolution that was passed four years ago, alternative energy, primarily solar power, should constitute 17 percent of Israel’s power production capacity by 2030. The interim goal for 2020 was 10 percent. According to the Electricity Authority, alternative energy sources currently only compromise 6 percent of Israel's power production capacity.

Even in Germany, which doesn't have nearly as many sunny days, 8 percent of the electricity comes from the sun, and if you add wind power, it's 20 percent.

The Negev Energy plant at Ashelim.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The factors delaying solar energy development in Israel include high costs and difficulty attaining permits for land use. Meanwhile, almost none of Israel's energy comes from wind turbines – most of which are still in the approval or construction stages.

"There's another reason for the slow progress, and that's the infrastructure, which hasn't been developed for decades due to a delay in the reform of the electricity market," says Eitan Parnass, director of the Green Energy Association of Israel. "Now that the reform has been approved, the change is starting, but it'll be many years until the network will be able to handle a mass infusion of solar power."

Just over a month ago, Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz attended the launch of a solar power plant at the Ashalim site south of Be’er Sheva. This plant was built and is operated by Negev Energy, owned by Shikun & Binui, the Noy Fund and the Spanish company TSK. The power station has a production capacity of 121 megawatts and is based on thermal solar technology (mirrors that absorb the sun’s rays). “The station's advantage is its ability to store energy," says Chemi Sugarman of Negev Energy. “We store the heat with salt and can supply electricity for four hours after the sunlight is gone.”

In recent years, the economic preference for photovoltaic technology (solar panels) has grown and will play a major role in the future as well. At the ceremony, Steinitz announced that his ministry is considering a significant increase in the power production target from alternative energies.

Ashalim has several large solar-panel compounds belonging to a number of companies. Their advantage is their relatively high production capacity, but they consume a significant amount of land. The Negev Energy complex covers about 4,000 dunams (4 square kilometers), making it larger than the city of Givatayim.

Last month the National Planning and Building Council approved a national energy master plan, which is meant to help obtain the necessary land. The plan sets identifies swaths of land that the state can market when it sees fit, in accordance with the needs of the energy sector.

The plan specifies 11 sites containing a total of 43,000 dunams, most of them in the Negev, although there are sites in the north. A report by the Planning Administration notes, however, that there are various obstacles at almost all the sites.

The power plant at Ashelim.

In the Golan Heights area, for example, the nearby communities want the area to be preserved for agricultural use. In the Ketziot region of the Negev, nature conservation organizations worry that a solar installation will threaten the bird populations that breed in the area.

The report favored putting photovoltaic installations on as many rooftops as possible, especially now that a building permit is no longer needed to install them. “Rooftops have a double planning and environmental advantage, because it doesn’t undermine the use of the building and also saves having to build on the ground,” the report said.

Nine years ago the Energy Ministry estimated that rooftop installations would make up 11 percent of the total solar array, but the most recent estimate is that by the end of next year they will make up nearly a third of all installations. “In terms of rooftop solar, the Energy Ministry and the Electricity Authority have made great strides and relaunched efforts in the field after years of treading water,” Parnass said. “But this launch hasn't brought new companies and entrepreneurs to the field and the sector's ability to carry out projects remains limited.”

According to the Environment Ministry, the future of solar energy is not just on the roofs, but on the walls.

Machines clean panels at the Ashelim site, one with watcer, and the other with brushes, August 2019.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

“Buildings and infrastructures have to become energy producers,” says Dr. Gil Proctor, the ministry’s head of energy and climate change. “One can utilize the walls of buildings and areas on the sides of the roads, or the areas trapped between roads. We estimate that it’s possible to supply most of Israel’s energy needs if we utilize these structures.”

This assessment is not exclusive to the Environment Ministry. This year, a study by Prof. Evyatar Erell and Prof. Itai Kloog of Ben-Gurion University examined the potential for installing photovoltaic systems for electricity generation in residential buildings in crowded urban areas. The researchers noted that buildings can provide a large percentage of the country’s power generation capacity and this option needs to be explored in depth.

"We're reached a stage where it's more economically worthwhile to produce photovoltaic electricity than from polluting fuels," says Proctor. He stressed, however, that increased use of alternative energies must be accompanied by more efficient electricity usage.