Israel’s Biggest Wind Farm Gets Trapped in a Bureaucratic Turf War

Genesis Wind is supposed to make a major contribution to Israel’s renewable energy mix, but after nine years, the project has yet to get off the ground

Yoram Gabison
Yoram Gabison
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Enlight turbines in Serbia, June 24, 2019.
Enlight turbines in Serbia, June 24, 2019.Credit: Enlight
Yoram Gabison
Yoram Gabison

The picture of a giant wind farm on the Golan Heights, featured on the website of the Israeli energy company Enlight, is an inspiring vision of Israel’s growing use of renewable energy. The catch is that Genesis Wind, as the farm is called, is just an artist’s conception; the facility that is trapped in a bureaucratic turf battle has yet to be built.

Genesis Wind is designed to be Israel’s biggest wind farm, with 42 turbines generating 189 megawatts at a site not far from the Syrian border. When completed, it will make an important contribution to the government’s goal of generating 17% of Israel’s power needs from renewable sources, like solar and wind.

But the going has been very slow. Enlight, a Tel Aviv Stock Exchange-traded company that has developed solar and wind facilities in Israel and Europe, has been seeking to develop the site since 2011.

But the company, as well as the Energy Ministry which is backing its efforts, have run into opposition from the Defense Ministry. Failure to resolve the issue not only endangers Genesis Wind but could snag development of other wind farms.

It’s also pushing Israel to develop a renewable power mix weighted toward solar that will cost the economy more.

The Defense Ministry delayed the project for many years on the grounds that the turbines would disrupt the radar facilities the army operates on the Golan. The ministry finally gave approval more than three years ago, but conditional on a technical solution being found.

It was, but in the meantime sources say the Defense Ministry decided to exploit the veto power they have over the Genesis Wind and other wind farms to wring money to fund the 280 million shekel ($80.5 million) cost of upgrading the radar system needed to overcome the disruptions.

Defense Ministry sources said, in response, that the demand was reasonable because without the Golan wind energy projects there would have been no need to make the upgrades. Covering its costs is in line with the principle that when a new infrastructure interferes with an existing infrastructure, the developer of the new infrastructure must cover the costs of any problems they are creating.

“The Defense Ministry believes it is important to promote wind energy projects in the north of the country, and in recent years has made great efforts, together with the finance and energy ministries, to ensure the security components that are essential to the project,” the Defense Ministry said in a statement.

For its part, the Energy Ministry concluded that the savings from wind energy justified taking on the expense. After protracted talks, it agreed with treasury approval to cover 230 million of the 280 million shekels from electricity tariffs.

From there, everything appeared to be going smoothly. In July 2018 the National Planning and Building Committee for National Infrastructure approved Genesis Wind after environmental groups’ concerns about the turbines killing birds was resolved.

Last January, the housing cabinet gave its approval – except that at the last minute it agreed to a provision that gives the Defense Ministry director general veto power over the project. Although the ministry had agreed to the financing terms, it could continue to block the project until director general Udi Adam had personally signed off on it.

The Defense Ministry blames the Energy Ministry for pulling back from previous understandings on funding.

Meanwhile, Energy Ministry sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said they are worried that the Defense Ministry will use its veto power in the future to block other wind farms unless it gets money in return. To prevent that, officials are demanding that the Defense Ministry commit to approving a list of potential wind farm sites to be developed in the future and give operators freedom to locate turbines within the sites as they see fit.

The two sides have been in discussions since the housing cabinet decision. But time is going by without the government getting any nearer its goal of achieving 17% renewable power generation.

To compensate for the delay in the 730 megawatts it hoped to generate from Genesis Wind and other wind power facilities, the Energy Ministry jawboned the Electricity Authority into starting a campaign to promote installation of rooftop solar panels on homes and commercial buildings.

Solar is another renewable source and the advantage it has over other sources is that the suppliers are already linked to the electricity grid and there are no costs in building power lines. As Israel moves to electric vehicles, a rooftop panel could serve as a direct source of power for the family car.

But there are significant drawbacks to solar, mainly because the panels produce most of their power between the hours of 11:00 A.M. . and 3:00 P.M. every day, often producing excess power. Storing electric power is expensive, so if Israel is going to meet its renewable target it needs to create backup conventional power.

If solar is generating all 8,600 megawatts of renewable power by 2030, Israel will have to develop conventional backup sources of 7,400 megawatts at a huge (and duplicate) cost.

There are other renewable sources, such as bio-gas, that can complement solar but in the final analysis, it’s wind power that is supposed to be the other major component of the mix. Turbines not only produce power but produce it at different times of the day than solar. Israel will need to develop far less conventional power backups.

Wind power is more expensive than rooftop solar (30 agorot per kilowatt hour versus 23 agorot for large rooftop installations). The savings from a mix of wind and solar still adds up to 300 million shekels a year.

The Energy Ministry and Electricity Authority are aware of the problem of relying so heavily on solar for Israel’s renewable power, but the Defense Ministry delays, they say, are tying their hands.

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