The Solar Vote

Though the upcoming Knesset election promises to be contentious, there may be one issue all parties can rally around: solar energy for the State of Israel.

Though the upcoming Knesset election promises to be contentious, there may be one issue all parties can rally around: solar energy for the State of Israel. Today Israel has virtually no commercial solar electricity, but it could quickly become a solar superpower if politicians can be convinced to make one key change in regulatory policy. Voters across the spectrum could make the difference.

Those who cast their ballots on the basis of security issues know how ludicrous plans are for at least two new coal-powered plants in Ashkelon, within range of missiles from Gaza. Indeed, missiles in the hands of Hamas and Hezbollah can already reach most of Israel's power plants. The best defense against Israel's national grid going down in an age of missiles is a distributed power network, meaning solar fields of 25-50 megawatts dotting the country. Even if one is hit, damage to the electricity supply and distribution network will be limited.

Those who vote based on environmental issues - and polls indicate there will be record numbers of such voters this election - know that Israel's heavy reliance on imported, carbon-based fuels is bad for the environment and for public health. Fortunately, Israel is blessed with enough sunshine: Solar power alone could fuel up to 40 percent (8 gigawatts) of Israel's anticipated electricity needs by 2020. But today, less than 1 percent of our energy comes from renewables, and our official goal for solar is to reach only a modest 10 percent by 2020. A moratorium on new conventional power plants, coupled with the building of solar energy fields, would bring Israel into compliance with developed nations on greenhouse gas emissions.

Those who will vote based on economic considerations are concerned about the implications of reduced foreign investment. Even now, in the wake of the credit crisis, the good news is that global interest in investing tens of billions of dollars in Israel's solar infrastructure - subject to one condition - remains real and enduring. An entire new power industry, with thousands of jobs, could sprout up. Israel pursuing energy independence would also keep valuable currency at home and offset imports, since solar fuel is free, forever.

Those voters with a peace agenda may know that the terms of Israel's 1994 peace treaty with Jordan include unimplemented provisions for cooperation on regional energy issues. Just this week, rising energy costs in Jordan produced rare demonstrations in Amman, and will continue to destabilize the country. For the sake of regional stability, Israel should not only develop its own solar infrastructure but coordinate such efforts with Jordan. This might even give our neighbors the incentive to reconsider their plans for nuclear power plants for their future energy needs.

Those who will be casting their votes based on considerations for the elderly fear the image of our most vulnerable citizens sweltering in the summer heat or freezing in the winter during the power blackouts anticipated in the coming years. And those voters focused on religious considerations will note that this coming Nissan 14, we will recite Birkat Hashemesh, the once-every-28-year talmudic blessing that appreciates the wonders of the sun. Also, because solar photovoltaic fields have no moving parts, they will require fewer people to carry out maintenance work on Shabbat.

Arab voters will note that most of the country's Bedouin are still not hooked up to the electrical grid, and that solar energy could bridge the country's power divide.

If all voters and parties can essentially agree that the time has come for Israel to finally go solar, what then is the ongoing obstacle?

The one piece of policy this election may be able to change - if politicians can be convinced that it's in their interests to include it in their platforms - would be the adoption, finally, of a European-style feed-in tariff for solar fields built between now and 2015, when most experts predict a grid parity between the cost of producing a solar kilowatt and a carbon kilowatt.

A feed-in tariff is a subsidy per kilowatt hour, to make solar worthwhile for investors. Spain, Germany, Italy, Greece and a dozen other countries have abandoned Ashalim-style tenders for solar plants and embraced a feed-in tariff system, making them the world's leaders in solar energy generation. Ashalim, an area in the northern Negev designated for a 250-MW solar park, has been in the planning stages for over five years and, because of the cumbersome and political nature of government-run tenders, is not expected to produce power before 2013.

Israel's current leadership has failed to implement a rational, serious or investment-friendly solar policy, despite the vigorous championing of National Infrastructure Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer. Instituting a tariff system now, however, would allow solar power to begin flowing into the grid in 2009, and could produce a gigawatt by 2015, dwarfing Ashalim.

A feed-in tariff to support the creation of 1 gigawatt of solar power (roughly 10 percent of current consumption) by 2015 would be a courageous and correct step, but it will also mean higher electricity bills. Yet voters know those costs are going to increase anyway; we might as well invest part of that increase in our future energy independence rather than in funneling money to our oil-rich neighbors.

While there are other regulatory hurdles to overcome, many key government offices are actively championing new solar-friendly policies. Yet there is still no meaningful feed-in tariff for large solar fields. Voters should demand that a solar Israel with meaningful feed-in tariffs be the first act of leadership from the next Knesset, cabinet and prime minister.

Yosef I. Abramowitz serves as president of the Arava Power Company and David Lehrer serves as director of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies. The authors live on Kibbutz Ketura, which receives 2,274 kilowatt hours a year of sunshine per square meter.