Israel's Solar Industry Aims to Regain its Edge

camel with solar panel photo

Photo by the author.

Half a century ago, Israel was a world leader in renewable energy. With solar water heaters on every rooftop, Israel was at the forefront of innovation. Today, Israelis are looking to once again position their country as a pioneer in the renewable energy industry. A 3-day conference that kicked off yesterday in the southern resort city of Eilat has provided a few clues as to the direction that the nascent revolution is taking. The unseasonably warm weather served as an appropriate backdrop for the third annual Eilat-Eilot International Renewable Energy Conference. Focusing on the economic opportunities created by the transition to renewable energy, the event opened with a recorded announcement by the Prime Minister. Several other government ministers, along with a handful of American political personalities, have also been speaking here.

The impression one gets from listening to the talks is that today, unlike in the past, the various government bodies are now lined up firmly in support of renewable energy projects in Israel, even if there are still disagreements about the details.

Last year in Copenhagen, Israel committed to a 20% reduction in carbon emissions by 2020, and the government has also set itself a goal of producing 10% of the country's energy from renewable sources by 2020. These two relatively new commitments have given the industry a significant boost, and the wealth of entrepreneurs in attendance here served to illustrate this.

It hasn't always been so simple. Barely two months ago, Israel's nascent solar industry was thrown into an uproar when the public electric company abruptly announced that its quotas for solar energy were full. Eager to nourish a domestic solar industry, the state had committed to providing incentives within the framework of those quotas, stimulating the growth of dozens of solar energy start-ups.

Following the unexpected announcement that the quotas were full, almost a hundred solar firms sent a letter to Minister of National Infrastructures Uzi Landau, telling him that the development had put them "in an impossible situation."

Indeed, the matter was cleared up with uncharacteristic speed, and things sounded quite different yesterday at the opening day of the conference. Minister Landau was on hand to announce not only new and expanded quotas for solar energy production, but also new sources of financing for Israel's first large-scale solar plant, which is expected to begin operating in late 2014 and will eventually produce 250MW of electricity.

The packed house also attested to a new awareness in Israel that the transition to renewable sources of energy in Israel is an economic opportunity, and not, as one speaker put it, a "decree or a punishment."

Thus far, one of the most promising approaches to that transition has come from the Eilat-Eilot region, a sliver of arid and sun-drenched territory in Israel's extreme south. With a new regional renewable energy administration in place, and numerous projects being launched in the city of Eilat and the surrounding kibbutzim, the region hopes that its new regional development strategy can serve as a sustainable model for the rest of the country as it transitions away from fossil fuels.

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