Alon Tal
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Natural gas is no longer green enough

We cannot wait to worry about climate change; it is time to talk about a full transition to solar energy
Illustrative. Strong winds from Hurricane Dorian blow the tops of trees and brush while whisking up water from the surface of a canal that leads to the sea, located behind the brush at top, seen from the balcony of a hotel in Freeport, Grand Bahama, Bahamas, September 2, 2019. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
Illustrative. Strong winds from Hurricane Dorian blow the tops of trees and brush while whisking up water from the surface of a canal that leads to the sea, located behind the brush at top, seen from the balcony of a hotel in Freeport, Grand Bahama, Bahamas, September 2, 2019. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

Climate change needs to change Israel’s energy policy

Recently, the world has faced a litany of alarming statistics and disturbing images that confirm scientists’ gravest warnings — warnings that have been unheeded for some thirty years. Fires burning in the Amazon; massive ice melts in Greenland; recurrent heatwaves in Europe; communities evacuating from Iceland to Fiji; and now yet another record storm in the Bahamas.

The overall effect leaves little room for doubt: The earth is warming at a rate far faster than we had imagined. The implications should reverberate across countries like Israel, that has seen a 2 degree C increase in average temperature during the past forty years, a growing frequency of droughts, and a steady rise in the Mediterranean’s sea level. Business as usual will hasten a catastrophic climate crisis — if not for us — then surely for our children.

Israel’s governments regardless of political affiliations, have never denied the existence of a greenhouse effect and global warming. But neither have they done much beyond paying lip service to national responsibility. For some 20 years, we insisted as being recognized as a “developing country” under the UN Framework Convention for Climate Change, a status that essentially exempted us from having to take any meaningful measures.

With Israel’s ascension into the OECD, it became impossible to continue to pursue such a patently elusive climate policy. But in retrospect, Israel’s declarations and promises in the sundry climate agreements brokered by the United Nations in recent years, still essentially amounted to obfuscation.

In contrast to other countries, any Israeli commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions invariably contained the caveat — that reductions would only be “per capita.” With a population growing at a rate of two percent a year, it means that in practice, Israel’s carbon footprint has steadily expanded – this during a time when climate stability worldwide requires an annual total decrease of 6%. Such hypocrisy reached a peak with the government’s recent promotion of a plan for privatized, gas-fired power plants.

Ostensibly, the reason for the stuttering and duplicity can be traced to Israel’s formidable gas reserves in the Mediterranean Sea. Rather than heralding a new era that phases in renewable energy and phase out fossil fueled electricity plants, Israel’s government has doubled down on natural gas.

Natural gas surely has a lower carbon footprint than coal. But in recent years, scientific studies reveal a great deal of exaggeration regarding its advantages for climate change mitigation. That’s because of the leakages, apparently unavoidable, in natural gas extraction and production processes along with the warming potency of methane (the primary component of natural gas) when it is released into the atmosphere.  For the first 20-odd years after it is emitted, methane continues to capture heat 86 times more effectively than carbon dioxide — some three times more than the outdated assumptions of Israel’s Ministry of Energy.

That’s not the only government assumption which became antiquated. The presumption that natural gas would be the cheapest form of energy for Israel’s electricity production is simply no longer the case. Since 1980, the price of photovoltaic cells have dropped by some 97%, making solar energy the most cost-effective energy alternative.

Nonetheless, the bureaucrats at the Ministry of Energy continue to point to the intermittency problem associated with a solar energy generation and the inconvenient problem of storage. The mantra remains: “Unfortunately, the sun doesn’t shine at night.” The problem is that this argument is no longer valid.

A new financial evaluation, published this year by Bloomberg syndicate analysts, reports that the price of lithium batteries — of the magnitude appropriate for power plants — has fallen 76% since 2012, and 35% during the past 18 months. The expectations are for an additional 50% drop by 2030. Even in the short term — solar energy has compelling economic, security, health, ecological and climatic advantages.

And still, Israel chooses not to adopt a policy comparable to progressive countries in Europe such as Denmark or Germany, who long ago passed the 50% tipping point in their renewable energy supply. Conceding the eagerly awaited, copious revenues to the state’s coffers from Mediterranean natural gas apparently was simply too painful. Much easier to paint gas-fired electricity as a greener alternative. This constitutes a charitable explanation for Government Decision 2592 passed in April 2014 for creating private power plants across the country.

The decision itself urges private entrepreneurs to reach agreement with land owners and build with them privately owned power plants that run on natural gas. When a proposal comes together, it immediately enjoys the special status of a “National Project.” This status grants the program a direct line to the Committee for National Projects in an accelerated approval process that circumvents the conventional planning system, without allowing the public’s voice to be heard excessively. A more cynical but possibly more precise explanation for the government’s policies, would highlight the extraordinary profits enjoyed by the “so-called” tycoons, who will own these private power plants.

As soon as it became clear that this is not some modest “neighborhood generator” springing up around the corner, the Israeli public woke up. For instance, the new private power plant that is set for approval in the southern Sharon region is to supply 1,400 megawatts, relying natural gas and kerosene. We’re talking about dimensions much larger than the Redding D power plant that for years was the largest source of air pollution in Tel Aviv – tens of thousands of kilograms of pollutants emitted annually.

But since the government’s decision five years ago, a few things have changed. The public protest has become more indignant, with communities refusing to pay the price for this new stage a fossil-fueled energy supply.

This protest has also led to some interesting partnerships. For instance, the coalition opposing the 1300 megawatt “Shalom Power Plant” is a motley coalition of the city of Kfar Saba, the Arab town of Jeljulia, Jewish settlers from the nearby Samaria region, residents from the city of Rosh HaAyin and even the mayor of the Palestinian municipality of Kalkliyah. In the face of such a diverse and expansive opposition, attempts to disparage the protest as local, narrow-minded “NIMBY” (Not in My Back Yard) selfishness, ring hollow. Indeed a new national environmental organization “Struggle 2020,” that brings together 17 campaigns against privately owned power plants, advocates the national interest in rethinking present energy policies.

As mentioned, the economic equation really has changed. The electricity bill of the Israeli citizen will be far lower if her energy relies on sunshine rather than natural gas. But even more importantly – and what has changed even profoundly is our recognition that climate change is no longer a distant concern that we can leave for the future. It requires us to think differently now! The transition from coal to natural gas is over. It is time to start talking about a full transition to solar energy.

This new reality has reached the political arena. A week ago, the Blue and White party published a revised energy program that calls for the cancelation of government decision 2952 and its replacement with a multi-year strategy that will move Israel’s electricity supply to one which is based almost exclusively on renewables “with constant reduction in the usage of polluting fossil fuels.”

The decision reflects the ability of a new party to free itself from old, invalid paradigms and to look dispassionately at present environmental challenges without blinking. The decision also testifies to the growing (and healthy) influence of MK Miki Haimovich, who has already been on-site visiting the many communities that would be affected by the new plants.

Energy policy does not need to be mired in political controversy. Climate change will impact everyone — and everyone should be on board. The projections for the future are truly frightening. But this does not need that they should lead to paralysis. Climate change also holds the potential for embracing new Israeli technologies and public participation in our common quest for a renewable and sustainable energy system.

About the Author
Alon Tal is a professor of Public Policy at Tel Aviv University. In 2021 and 2022, he was chair of the Knesset's Environment, Climate & Health subcommittee.
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