Israel should catch the wind power

Wind energy is not generally considered worthwhile for Israel, but that’s a costly misconception. Global Wind Day, to celebrate the fastest growing source of renewable energy in the world, passed without a peep in Israel. I am often asked, “There isn’t much wind in Israel. Why should I support wind turbines in Israel?” I’d like to provide some answers to that question.

First, there IS wind in Israel. A good estimate is several thousand megawatts worth of it, but most people don’t pay attention to it because it is invisible unless it rustles the leaves of trees. The long central mountain range, the coast, the Golan, and several areas of the Negev have excellent wind resources. There is actually more wind energy hitting Israel than solar energy, because wind power is concentrated solar energy, and because wind can be captured vertically much better than sun, and its capture doesn’t interfere with agriculture.

A variation on the question is, “But we have now found enough gas to last us 40 years!” One response to that is that we live in international markets, and there is no way that the gas it will be saved only for local use. Furthermore, it only helps us put off the day of reckoning. When that day comes, we will have an even harder time fitting in renewable energy that wasn’t part of the planned infrastructure, and our electrical needs will be several times higher. In addition, we need to reverse climate change now.

Secondly, wind energy can contribute to the economy. Wind energy was recently identified as the second best global growth industry for the next five years; this can be a great export market for Israel if it is addressed properly. This means that government money should be allocated immediately to help Israeli companies enter the sector more strongly and quickly.

This market for wind energy will only be accelerated by the recent nuclear disaster in Japan and Germany’s decision to drop nuclear power. Two of the world’s major economies are thus going green faster than anticipated. And it is well known that China is accelerating its development of renewable energy.

An objection might be made to government support of an industry. There are several answers to that:

1. It works. An evaluation of solar subsidies in Germany revealed that it created a new industry and hundreds of thousands of jobs, even though Germany is not very sunny.

2. Every other country supports crucial industries and Israel already does it with targeted industries. Why not consider wind in Israel a targeted industry?

3. We are currently in a super-cautious investment environment where capital markets are not working appropriately and the government needs to step in temporarily.

Wind farm plants can contribute to the economy in other ways. It doesn’t require purchase of fuels from other countries and a loss of foreign exchange. Most of the best wind in Israel is in the periphery, and wind farm installations can provide an important boost to underprivileged sectors. All prices are affected by energy costs, and anything that brings basic costs down assists economic development.

Third, wind turbines makes an important contribution to the grid. What is the concept of peak power? If a country needs 500 gigawatts most of the day but 1000 gigawatts for just a few hours of peak use each summer, then it needs to build enough power plants to provide the “peak power” of 1,000 gigawatts. That means huge direct and indirect costs plus additional pollution to meet the demand that occurs a small percentage of the time. Many renewables can take up that slack between standard usage and peak usage at a much lower cost. That is only one major reason why it is worthwhile for a government to offer subsidies for renewables: because they save the economy money.

Wind power in Israel is a perfect match for the peak power problem. Because of the geography of the country, the wind usually blows from late morning through the evening in different areas of the country, so it provides a lot of coverage of consumer needs. Combined with solar power, which peaks at mid-day, it becomes even more effective in meeting the country’s power needs.

An objection might be raised as to whether wind power is cost-effective on its own without a subsidized tariff. The answer in many locations is “no” right now, but as soon as wind farm installations begin in quantity, prices will likely drop. In addition, we have to take account now of the big unknown of energy inflation. We don’t want to wait till oil is over $200 a barrel to make our adjustments in crisis mode.

Fourth, providing wind power and other renewable sources of power is a security issue. What if even a single power plant were disabled for some reason? Distributed power produced in thousands of different locations throughout the country is less likely to be knocked out at one time. This is even more important with the advent of the electric car now that the transportation sector is becoming dependent on the supply of electricity.

About a year and a half ago, I was the wind energy expert on a panel held at the Council for Foreign Relations in Washington. We spent a lot of time discussing the value of creating nodes of power production that could be isolated from the central grid in the event of a magnetic pulse attack from a country like Iran.

Here are some other possible objections to wind power in Israel:

Question: Israel is a major migratory path for birds. Won’t wind turbines interfere with that?

Answer: In some cases that is true, but only to a minor extent, and only with certain turbine types. There are certain types of small vertical axis wind turbines that pose absolutely no problem for birds.

Question: Israel is a small country with a lot of military needs and other land needs. Will wind turbines interfere with land use, the Air Force, and with radar?

Answer: There are a few areas that are unlikely to be settled with more than cows or simple agriculture and are not militarily sensitive. Those areas should be set aside for placement of higher output large wind turbines, which require isolation for many reasons. Israel is a small wind turbine country. Small vertical axis turbines do not interfere with the Air Force and radar. Because of the shortage of land, the emphasis should be on rooftops, traffic islands, and other locations that don’t interfere with agriculture or land use. The only type of turbine that can come this close to people is a vertical axis turbine.

Question: We all know that bureaucracy and zoning are a major hurdle in Israel. How can a wind turbine owner deal with that?

Answer: The wind farm needs to be zoned easily, so the win turbine needs to be pleasing to look at and quiet for the people in the building. It is possible to design such wind turbines.

There are some clear policy steps that can help wind energy companies in Israel succeed in creating a better world and a better local economy:

Continuation and expansion of the tariff program under the Ministry of Infrastructures.

Rapid allocation of special funds for grants for company development in wind, just like the recent allocation to biofuels.

Opening up agricultural areas for wind turbines in a responsible way. Many areas are zoned for agriculture but are unusable for agriculture. Furthermore, wind turbines can replace trees as windbreakers in agricultural areas.

National zoning criteria that make approval of rooftop power routine. Even better would be a formula that requires rooftop power on every new building. Let it become as routine as rooftop hot water. This allows free markets to operate to choose the best solution. In one location, it may be solar power, another wind farm, and even water in certain skyscrapers.

The best way for the government to get mileage for money invested in the sector would be loan guarantees, which leverage the amount of capital available, for projects, research and development, demonstration projects, and manufacturing. Just as the Chief Scientist program has paid for itself many times over for a variety of technology companies, such a program would likely be successful. In this case, however, to speed development and to deal with the fact that there is a temporary shortage of capital, financing should be guaranteed up to 100% of a project, whether it is a power or a research project.

Provide an additional allocation of subsidized renewable energy from any source that gives additional incentives to Israeli-manufactured goods. Ontario in Canada has already enacted such a program to benefit local industry.

With the suggestions mentioned above in mind, Israel can catch up to the countries that are leaders in the wind industry, and reverse the shame of being one of the laggards in the percentage of renewable energy in the developed world. It would make sense for Israel to be a leader in wind technology and its implementation.

Dr. Daniel Farb is the founder and chairman of the Leviathan Energy group of companies, which includes two wind energy companies that won second and third place in a contest for the best clean technologies in Israel, a hydroelectric company that received the Eureka label from the EU and the Israeli Chief Scientist, and five others. Leviathan Energy is a member of the Israeli Association of Renewable Energy and the I-Consortium.