Oil spill heightens sense of urgency at Israeli conference on green energy

Oil spill heightens sense of urgency at Israeli conference on green energy

A ribbon-cutting ceremony inaugurates the new Regional Collaboration Center for Research and Development and Renewable Energy near Eilat. (Photo provided by Jewish National Fund)
A ribbon-cutting ceremony inaugurates the new Regional Collaboration Center for Research and Development and Renewable Energy near Eilat. (Photo provided by Jewish National Fund)

The worst oil spill in Israel’s history was the unplanned backdrop for a recent international conference on green energy held in Eilat, the country’s southernmost city. A busy port and popular resort city located at the northern tip of the Red Sea, Eilat is at the epicenter of the Jewish state’s renewable energy industry.

The Eilat-Eilot Green Energy 6th International Conference and Exhibition, held last month, was the culmination of six events that comprised Israel Energy Week and offered participants from around the globe a concentrated encounter with the emerging world of alternative energy in Israel. The conference focused on challenges facing the renewable energy industry today, including storage and supply of electricity, development of methods to manage electricity flow, and financing to advance projects.

It also focused on the key role renewable energy plays in the southern Arava, a stretch of Negev Desert from the Dead Sea to the Gulf of Aqaba in which Eilat and the Hevel Eilot Regional Council are located. This arid, sun-drenched area is Israel’s main locale for sustainable development and functions as an international showcase for Israeli innovation in the field of green energy.

“Renewable energy, with an emphasis on solar, is a major focus of our municipal activity and plays a key role in the region as a whole,” Meir Yitzhak Halevi, the mayor of Eilat, told conference attendees. “The city of Eilat and the Hevel Eilot Regional Council, which together account for 13 percent of Israel’s land area but less than one percent of the country’s population, have recognized the potential offered by the sunlight and open space that exist here in such abundance and are concentrating on renewable energy as a catalyst for regional growth.”

According to Udi Gat, head of the Hevel Eilot Regional Council, the area has already reached nearly 60 percent daytime energy independence and in eight months will generate nearly 100 percent of the energy consumed each day in the southern Arava. By 2020, the municipality and regional council anticipate that the area will be completely energy-independent and free of fossil fuel and carbon emissions.

“We want to generate more electricity, even beyond the needs of Eilat and the regional council. We want to help the country produce electricity from an inexpensive source — the sun — and to be Israel’s electricity storehouse or ‘bank,’” Gat said.

The importance of achieving energy independence was conveyed to the conference in a dramatic way when, four days prior to the start of the gathering, an oil pipeline ruptured during maintenance work at a construction site about 12 miles north of Eilat. Five million liters of crude oil spilled out and fouled an estimated 250 acres of scenic desert, including a nature reserve. Delicate coral reefs beyond the nearby shoreline were also threatened.

The work area is the site of a future international airport to serve the southern Arava. Nearly one week after the spill, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu toured the area and, according to news reports, said that the situation appeared to be “under control.”

“Everyone’s big concern is a loss of control by large floods that can take the oil south to Eilat and the Eilat Gulf,” Netanyahu said. “Actions were taken here to prevent that, and up until now they have succeeded.”

While fears of an environmental catastrophe seem to have abated for now, many observers believe the accident underscored the potentially destructive nature of oil dependency and the need to shift to sustainable sources. Yet not everyone at the conference seemed convinced that a total shift is feasible.

“The spill was a disaster,” said Russell F. Robinson, CEO of the Jewish National Fund, who was a speaker at the conference. “Still, I don’t think we’re ever going to see crude oil and fossil fuel completely replaced by renewable energy. We can’t convert large cities overnight. Instead, we need to strike a balance. Renewable energy can make a difference in smaller areas, like neighborhoods and communities. On the other hand, we need to come up with better safeguards to protect against these kinds of accidents in the future.”

Over the past several years, JNF has invested $1 million in developing renewable energy in Israel as part of its “Blueprint Negev” plan, which calls for bringing 500,000 new residents to the Negev. To that end, the organization, which underwrote part of the Eilat-Eilot conference, supports various projects to enhance the quality of life in the southern Arava, including those related to renewable energy.

One of these projects is the new Regional Collaboration Center for Research and Development and Renewable Energy, an office hub and testing lab specifically designed for start-up companies. It is located at Kibbutz Yotvata outside of Eilat and is expected to be ready for occupancy in about a month.

“The area is perfect for us,” said conference exhibitor Or Yogev, who was among the guests at a ribbon-cutting ceremony to inaugurate the regional collaboration center. Yogev — the founder and CEO of Augwind, a three-year-old start-up that fuses wind and solar energy — plans to relocate his company there from its current base in central Israel.

“This facility will help young entrepreneurs like me to implement our dreams,” he said. “The environment will encourage collaboration that will help incubate all of our projects.”

Ilan Ben-David, CEO of Chakratec, a producer of electricity storage batteries and another conference exhibitor, said he intends to maintain his company headquarters near Tel Aviv but plans to make the regional collaboration center his testing lab.

“When we first started out, there were only three companies investing in energy,” he said. “Energy is a very difficult field in which to raise money. Now, because of this Center and the focus of the municipality on clean energy, we plan to have a long-term relationship with the region.”

Ben-David added, “This facility will help Israel develop technologies that will not only benefit Israelis but can be exported, especially to China, India, and Africa, where the interest in green energy is great. There is a huge future for us in these markets.”

“Renewable energy is about how to get people to move to different places,” JNF’s Robinson said. “If we want them to move to the Negev, we need to develop technologies that will lower the cost of energy, especially as it relates to water recycling. If we can produce enough energy cheaply, we can settle people anywhere in the desert.”

But how imminent is that reality?

“I think if you look at the Eilat and Eilot region and see what they have accomplished, you’ll realize that it can be done,” said Robinson. “Since the first of these Eilat-Eilot conferences was held, solar sources have come to supply 60 percent of the Eilat region’s daytime energy consumption. That means that every day they turn on a grid that provides them with enough electricity to meet all of their daytime needs. Just a few years ago, who would have guessed that could happen?”