Imagine if Israel made the full transition to a low carbon economy. The Ministry of Environment has proposed a reduction in greenhouse emissions by 85% relative to 2015 levels) by 2050. That is, the country’s greenhouse gas emissions would not exceed 12 million tons of carbon equivalents instead of today’s 64 million, and 95% of the country’s electricity supply would come from renewable sources. It sounds unimaginable, doesn’t it? There are several legitimate environmental misgivings about such a dramatic transition. But in a letter to Israel’s Prime Minister last week, more than 125 Israeli scientists joined me in arguing that a net-zero emissions future is both scientifically possible and economically feasible for Israel. It is also morally imperative.
How would such a plan work? For starters, the environmental ministry’s low carbon goal is not radical, it’s the approach already adopted by most European countries. Under the new Biden administration, the United States is expected to offer an even more ambitious timetable in the near future. That degree of reduction in greenhouse emissions necessitates almost a full transition to renewable energy. It sounds dramatic, but nothing less will save the planet from climate chaos.
Israel’s Ministry of Environmental Protection concurs, and in its push towards a solar-energy-dominated energy system, it envisions even 95% renewables by 2050.
The Ministry experts believe that as much as 70% of Israel’s roof space can be used for small electricity generation. Parking lots would be shaded with solar-paneled canopy cover. New technologies such as those that integrate photovoltaic materials into the sides of buildings would dramatically expand potential electricity capacity. Wind turbines and “agrivoltaic” solar sharing in agricultural fields also have enormous potential.
Furthermore, the progress in developing energy storage systems has been breathtaking. Electric cars, for example, can now travel distances unheard of not long ago due to rapid advances in battery technology. So by 2050, electricity storage may be far more efficient. The pace of innovation is enough to inform the environmental ministry’s call for an absolute reduction of 27% in carbon emissions by 2030.
I should note that this optimistic view about renewable technology is no longer just the perspective of zealous environmental ministry staff. In a surprise change in his own rhetoric, Prime Minister Netanyahu essentially endorsed the ministry’s position, proclaiming in a speech at a December 12 international climate conference that “Israel is totally committed to a successful transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy by 2050.”
Getting there will entail much more than increasing the renewable energy supply. For example, the ministry is seeking a 47% drop in methane released from garbage dumps, a ban on vehicles that do not meet the EU’s cleanest emission standards, and a 30% increase in industrial energy efficiency. But the main driving force behind this reduction would be a new renewable energy target of 40% for Israel by 2030.
Yuval Steinitz’s reasonable misgivings
In the midst of my work promoting the above agenda, Dr. Yuval Steinitz, Israel’s minister of energy called to offer his alternative perspective with me. In the five years that he has held the post, the minister has arguably done more than any Israeli in history to change the face of the country’s energy profile. He fought and won a political battle with Israel’s security and electricity establishment to phase out coal as a source of fuel for local electricity production, a move that has done more to improve the quality of Israel’s air than any other single policy measure to date. Steinitz also deserves credit for agreeing to push Israel beyond earlier timetables for renewable energy. Today, at the start of 2021, more than 9% of local electricity comes from sunlight, which makes Israel the second-largest solar producer (percentage-wise) in the world, after Honduras. And, after Israel made an underwhelming commitment to reach 17% renewably generated electricity by the year 2030 under the 2015 Paris climate accord, Steinitz has since updated that objective to 30%.
Nonetheless, the minister has reservations about the dramatic renewable energy targets, and he shared some of those misgivings with me.
While Steinitz likes the idea of moving to a low-carbon economy, he points to three central challenges to doing so. First, Israel is an energy island. That means that for the foreseeable future, we are not going to be able to import electricity from our neighbors. In the event of cloudy days (there were 11 in a row a month ago), solar panels produce little to no electricity. Even with significant storage capacity, solar energy is a serious challenge those extended periods when the sun doesn’t shine.
Second, a low carbon future in which Israelis would still be able to use electricity at night would require massive electricity storage infrastructure. No place in the world is even close to the colossal storage capacity this requires. For the time being, that means relying on lithium batteries, which have a limited life span. Unlike solar panels, which can last between 25 to 30 years, lithium batteries remain fully functional for seven years at best. After that, they become a hazard, and the resulting electronic waste pollution problem would be extensive.
Most significantly for Steinitz, was the challenge of sufficient land for the enterprise. Would Israel’s roofs really be sufficient to house solar energy? The optimistic ministry of environmental protection reckons that if all the country’s “roof potential” can be harnessed, Israel can receive half its solar electricity from urban areas. The ministry of energy, however, relies on the Electricity Authority’s more conservative estimates, a small fraction of the more optimistic approach. Given the myriad technical and social obstacles associated with obtaining rooftop space for the panels, the ministry’s concern was that it would not be able to harness more than 10%, nothing like the goals of 50% or more. It is, of course, too soon to be sure, but that is the concern.
If our cities and towns ultimately are not able to integrate the majority of Israel’s solar production via their roofs, then as much as a million dunams of land would need to be dedicated to producing renewable electricity by mid-century. That’s roughly 6% of Israel’s open spaces.
Steinitz also expressed concern over the aesthetics of filling Israel’s landscape with unsightly solar farms. Of the few current large solar facilities in Israel, the largest, the Ashelim solar farm in the Negev, produces enough glare to be a cautionary tale. Sure, it produces 120 megawatts, some 1.6% of Israel’s electricity, without emitting greenhouse gases, but nobody is enthusiastic about the sight of a massive expanse of heliostats and a blinding solar tower. Environmentalists never consider solar farms to be eyesores, but they should.
Because of this risk to the beauty of the landscape, explained Steinitz, the ministry still sees the benefits of natural gas plants. (The greenhouse gas emissions from them are lower than coal-fired facilities, but are still significant.) A 1,000-megawatt electric plant running on natural gas would use 80 dunams of land (20 acres), for example, in contrast to the 10,000 dunams (2,500 acres) required to generate the same amount of electricity from the sun. And while the natural gas lobby would surely be glad to hear of Steinitz’s concerns, its influence alone does not account for the minister’s concerns. He has earned the right to reflect carefully on the best environmental strategy for Israel, as it seeks to do its part in addressing the planet’s most pressing environmental crisis. There are tradeoffs.
Heroic measures are required
To begin with, Israel needs to take concrete steps to cease being an “energy island”. Once we are open to the possibility of cooperating with our neighbors, the potential land reserves for solar energy system becomes substantially greater. Both Jordan and the United Arab Emirates are four times the size of Israel; Saudi Arabia is almost 100 times larger. These countries have plenty of space for the solar facilities needed to generate the region’s future clean energy – and it would be a sound energy strategy that included these neighbors. In fact, Steinitz has already gone on record supporting electricity importation; it makes sense ecologically and geopolitically.
Yet, for the Israeli scientists who openly support the environmental ministry’s ambitious renewable strategy, the implications of a two-degree increase in the planet’s average temperatures are too catastrophic to leave the country a choice. An Israeli future of droughts, floods, sweltering summers, and frequent forest fires seems untenable. Moreover, the leading experts at the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have made it clear that heroic measures are required to reduce global emissions by 5% a year for the coming decade. With the earth so imperiled, how can Israel think of doing anything other than its utmost to carry our planet to safety?
At the end of the day, it seems that we all need to make a huge leap of faith in technology. The new solar energy applications being designed today — from floating solar farms to building-integrated photovoltaics to solar skins and fabrics — should improve our options even a decade from now, as will cheaper, more efficient energy storage and solar panels. With the massive investment in R&D, Israel can join the international community and gamble on the transition to a healthier energy system.
But reliance on the market for investment or corporate idealism alone will not translate into the necessary progress. Clear and reliable, “technology forcing” regulatory interventions that create long-term incentives are critical too, or humanity may not make the quantum technological leap forward required for a carbon free energy strategy in time. As a prosperous, scientifically sophisticated country, Israel cannot afford not to be part of the environmental shift. Economically, we need to seize the opportunities offered by the “green new deal” sweeping the planet.
Ethically, no matter how exceptional Israel’s circumstances may be, the country cannot evade the policy commitments that our increasingly hot world demands. We need to get under the proverbial global stretcher and carry our ailing planet to a better place. By the time our children are able to take on this challenge…. it will be too late. It’s on us.
It was a profound faith in scientific progress that led a very young Israel to require uncompromising passive water heating standards on rooftops 50 years ago and underpinned establishment of the world’s first solar industry. Regardless of who wins the present political debate, in order to meet the 30% renewable energy target by 2030, Israel will soon have a higher percentage of solar-powered electricity in its grid than any nation on the planet. It seems that Israel has already made the leap of faith. This is no time to blink.