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Here Comes the Sun: Israel and Solar Energy

Here Comes the Sun: Israel and Solar Energy

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Solar powered hot water units crowd residential apartment building rooftops in Tel Aviv.

Solar powered hot water units crowd residential apartment building rooftops in Tel Aviv.

I recently returned from a trip to Israel, complete with scenic views, delicious local cuisine, and of course, the nagging feeling that I might be blown up at any moment. What struck me more than anything however, was the heat. Much like the hummus, it is impossible to escape, even in the “cold” winter months. From the Negev deserts to the bustling streets of Tel Aviv, the land of Israel is “burning up with heat” today as it was over a hundred years ago, as then-humble newspaper correspondent Mark Twain observed. Unlike in Twain’s time however, the rooftops of modern Israel are decorated with hundreds and thousands of solar heaters, making it the world leader in the use of solar hot water systems.

The history of solar energy in Israel began only a few years after the establishment of the state. Unlike its Middle Eastern neighbors, Israel was (until very recently) thought to possess almost no fossil fuel resources and so in the 1950’s, Israeli engineer Levi Yissar developed a solar water heater to address the energy shortage. By 1967 around one in twenty Israeli households heated their water with the sun and over 50,000 solar heaters had been purchased. Following the 1970’s oil crisis, Harry Zvi Tabor, the father of Israel’s solar industry, developed the prototype of the solar water heater now decorating 90% of Israel’s rooftops.

Two factors set Israel apart in its approach to solar energy: (1) the country’s incredible research and development efforts and (2) ability to attract enormous amounts of overseas investment. Several breakthroughs in next-generation solar technology, including Tigi Solar’s honeycomb panels, solar-powered desalinization, and many more have all been pioneered by Israeli scientists and engineers. International investment has come from several sources, such as China using the Negev Desert (an arid land that makes up the southern two-thirds of Israel) as a solar tech laboratory or the United States and other countries importing Israeli technology.

Like Germany, the Israeli government also approved a feed-in tariff of approximately 45 cents a kilowatt hour in 2008. The present government’s target is to generate 10% of the country’s energy needs from renewable sources by 2020 (by comparison, the EU has set the goal of 20% by 2020). Another unique factor is the seemingly endless supply of sunshine Israel enjoys; The Ketura Sun Plant in the Negev for example sees 330 sunny days a year.

However, certain players within the Israeli solar industry feel that their government is losing out by over-regulating construction and manufacturing. Germany and Italy have outpaced Israel in solar development, despite having fewer sunny days and less powerful sunrays. The Germans, for instance, “generate nearly 12 times as much solar power per capita as their Israeli counterparts”, according to official statistics from both countries. Jon Cohen, the CEO of Arava Power Company who spearheaded the aforementioned Ketura plant, has pointed out that no large-scale projects have been launched in Israel since June 2011 (Advocates of solar technology are hoping the Israeli government’s recent contract to Ashalim Sun PV to construct three major solar plants in 2015 will change that bit of trivia). Some fear the investment Israel has attracted to support its solar endeavors may soon be awarded to European competitors.

So what lessons can Israel pass on to nations such as the United States, who have been relatively late to the solar party? First, the U.S. should follow Israel’s example and push for greater R&D in the solar sector and increase funding for the firms that do it. Second, the United States government should stay away from overregulation in the solar tech industry and pass new incentives for residential and small industrial solar power installations. Finally, the U.S. private sector should continue to partner with Israel in order to maintain access to next-generation solar technology and insert itself where possible into the lucrative contracts that will emerge in the coming years as a result.

This is of course to say nothing of the national security incentive both the United States and Israel have to pursue solar energy and increase its prevalence in the energy mix. The vast consensus among economic, military and energy experts across the political spectrum both in the U.S. and abroad is that a dependence on oil constitutes a significant national security threat. Blame it on the sunshine, culture, geography, or what have you, Israel has understood this lesson from its inception; the United States has not. Whatever the reason (financial, environmental, or security-inspired), we here at ASP hope both nations push for the greater use of solar and other alternate energy technologies in the coming years.

Alexander Vagg is a Junior Fellow at the American Security Project in Washington D.C.

This article also appeared in an op-ed in Real Clear and AOL Energy, available here.

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