"Climate change injects a major new source of chaos, tension and human insecurity into an already volatile world. It threatens to bring more famine and drought, worse pandemics, more natural disasters, more resource scarcity and human displacement on a staggering scale. We risk fanning the flames of failed-statism, and offering glaring opportunities to the worst actors in our international system. In an interconnected world, that endangers all of us."
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry
Seeing the Light
Usually when the massive plates that float over the Earth's molten core collide, the intense pressure over millions of years pushes the land upward. It is this force that has created some of the world's most breathtaking mountain ranges. About 80 million years ago, for some reason, when the Asian plates encountered the African and European plates this wasn't the case. Instead of the earth lurching upwards towards the sun, the plates separated, creating the volatile Syrian East African Rift Valley: A valley that includes the world's lowest point - the Dead Sea - 427 meters below sea level.
Today along the planet's largest fault zone - this could also be a political statement - the 6,000 kilometer flat indentation is straddled by Israel, Jordan, the West Bank, Saudi Arabia and a host of East African countries all the way down to Lake Victoria.
When you overlay a solar irradiation map over this very region, something extraordinary pops up that may ultimately hold the key to regional stability, Israeli-Palestinian relations and energy independence while also rolling back extreme climate change.
A Rift Rife with Potential
Today, it is Germany that leads the world in production of commercial-scale solar energy. With an installed capacity of 36,519 MW1, Germany alone produces nearly half the planet's total commercial solar energy. And they manage to do so with fewer than 1,000 kilowatt hours per square meter (khw/m2) of sunlight a year. In other words, they have very little sun from which to produce electricity.
Now, if you go to Google Earth and plug in the following coordinates - 29.971168, 35.092073 - you will be transported along the Rift Valley to the Jordanian-Israeli border, about 45 kilometers north of the port cities of Eilat and Aqaba. Here, amid soft sand dunes and towering date palms, we find that the epicenter of solar radiation in the region is a blazing 2,147 kwh/m2, that is to say, more than twice Germany's.
The impact from harnessing this energy could be huge. Jordan could be a solar superpower, even exporting a surplus. The Palestinian Authority (PA) could be energy independent from both the Israelis and the Jordanians. Israel could be the first major economy powered by the sun. Egypt, the most populous Arab country, could be strengthened by new abundant power sources rather than continuing to wilt as it is now doing under a debilitating energy deficit and blackouts.
The 1994 peace treaty between Jordan and Israel delineates that the border between the two countries is to be marked at the lowest point of the shifting Rift Valley. In the 66 years since the British pulled down the Union Jack from both Jerusalem and Amman, the border, still under massive geological pressure, has moved more than half a meter.2 This means, for example, that in the Wadi Araba, the Jordanian village of Rahma, and in the Arava Valley, the Israeli Kibbutz Ketura, are moving closer, becoming more aligned.
One would hope so.
Ketura is widely known as the home of Methuselah, the 2,000-year-old miracle date seed from Masada that was sprouted by kibbutz member Dr. Elaine Soloway. Fittingly, Ketura is also home to the Middle East's first commercial-scale solar field, as well as the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, where Jordanian, Palestinian, Israeli and other students seed their own green revolution in the making. It was at the Arava Institute, in a reconstituted turkey coop, that Israel's solar industry - "sprouted" by Ed Hofland, David Rosenblatt and myself - began.
Drive for Energy Independence in a Volatile Valley
The efforts to launch solar industries in Jordan and Israel began around the same time, in 2007, with both Israeli President Shimon Peres promoting the solar vision in Israel and King Abdullah calling for a solar program in Jordan. Neither fared well against their bureaucracies and entrenched interests. Both have paid dearly for the delays in creating the necessary regulatory frameworks to accommodate the massive investments needed in order to move forward with solar programs to match their solar potentials.
In a three-year period, from February 2011 to February 2014, the natural gas pipeline from Egypt that crisscrosses the Sinai was sabotaged over a dozen times by anti-Israel forces. These same forces also objected to the Egyptian central government's ignoring the economic needs of their region. The explosions that flared the pipelines forced the Israel Electric Company to switch on their back-up generators, burning dirty and expensive heavy fuels and racking up a NIS 6 billion deficit for which Israeli consumers are still paying.
This could have been better managed if the government, represented by the Public Utilities Authority (PUA), had green-lighted a rational solar policy early enough. Had the path been clear for investors to build the 6,000-8,000 megawatts (MW) that Israel needs to reach the European Union goal of 20% renewables by 2020, the Israel Electric Company would have been able to rely more on cheaper solar than on more expensive diesel during those energy volatile days. (Israel, in fact, has only a modest goal of 10% renewables by 2020, which should be viewed as a scandal.)
While the Egyptians ultimately cancelled the gas deal with Israel, the ripple effect of the sabotage was greater on the Hashemite Kingdom. Over 80% of Jordanian power came through the Egyptian gas pipeline. Switching to burning heavy fuels bankrupted the kingdom. A one-time Saudi energy gift of $500 million, arranged by Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh as diesel-carrying ships refused to dock in Aqaba until payment arrived, saved the fragile kingdom from energy-related riots. This turned out to be the wake-up call that finally inched the bureaucracy forward. Next year Jordan's first solar fields are finally likely to be interconnected.
Jordan, which needs about 4,500 MW3 of installed power, has the land assets to not only meet its energy needs with solar during the day, but to also use their unique position on the Middle East grid line and proximity to Israel to export to both. Indeed, the 1994 peace treaty (section 19.24) between Jordan and Israel, signed on the border between Aqaba and Eilat, stipulates the interconnection of their grids. Yet each time a Jordanian energy minister explored that option - and there have been half a dozen energy ministers in the past decade - it was vetoed by both the Syrian and Egyptian members of the Middle East grid. In today's new political alignment, with Syria a regional pariah in the midst of a bloody civil war and Egypt desperate for energy stability, the Quartet could quietly enable this key interconnection. Jordan would be the major financial beneficiary. A deal that would also incentivize the kingdom to greatly expand their modest renewables goals of 10% by 2020 so that solar could drive energy exports to all her neighbors - including the Palestinians.
The West Bank
Leaving Amman, a traveler going west descends and descends toward the Rift Valley and the Dead Sea area, a mirror drive of the steep Jerusalem-Dead Sea route. When you cross the Allenby Bridge (also known as King Hussein Bridge) over the unmighty Jordan River to the Israeli side and turn right on Route 90, the smooth ride north across this Area C road whizzes past Area A Palestinian agricultural fields, dirt side streets, Christian holy sites and the city of Jericho and then leads to the edge of the village of Al Ujja, which is likely to be home to the first Palestinian commercial-scale solar fields. Like in Israel and in Jordan, straight 33 kilovolt lines frame the road, as well as droopier local distribution lines.
The West Bank is a landlocked territory. It receives roughly 95% of its energy as the largest customer of the Israel Electric Company and the rest from an energy-starved Jordan. The West Bank currently needs an installed capacity of 860 MW of power. This number is expected to grow to 1310 MW by 2020. Israel's need to build another conventional power station is largely fueled by its need to meet both peak demand in Israel while also reliably supplying the lion's share of the West Bank's energy. Unlike Gaza and half the countries in the world, the West Bank doesn't suffer blackouts. Israel has been a reliable energy partner, even during the two intifadas.
The sun in this region, sitting below historic Mount Nevo and below sea level, is misleadingly strong. The Palestinian solar program, in the works now for about six years, has also limped along with only symbolic progress. It took a wrong turn for three years when the international community, through the World Bank and others, dangled promises of millions of dollars for solar thermal technology in Jericho. Solar thermal is a bad technology choice here because of the haze below sea level.
It is likely that Dr. Omar Kittaneh, the former head of the Department of Electrical Engineering at Beir Zeit University, knew better. Yet, as the lead energy official in the cash-poor Palestinian Authority, he has to play to the money. On one level, it has been a successful strategy. European donors felt comfortable under former Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and Dr. Kittaneh to pay for increasing electrification of Palestinian villages raising coverage from 65% to 95%, thus making the West Bank what is probably the most electrified Arab territory in the world. Additionally, its proximity to Israel has transformed it to be second (only to Israel) in the world when it comes to solar hot water heaters on residential rooftops.
On the other hand, waiting for the donor community to step up to provide the massive funds needed to ramp up solar in the West Bank has not produced any results. At best there have been occasional symbolic pilot programs here and there, like a Japanese-funded trial of 300 kilowatts in Jericho that ended up taking five years to complete and costing many times what it should have.
Gaza, before the latest war, used about 210 MW of power, which constitutes only half of its total need. Unlike the West Bank, Gaza has historically operated its own lone diesel power plant. The plant has been polluting and expensive and proved vulnerable to violence during Hamas-Israel wars. Israel and Egypt have historically supplied the rest of Gaza's energy, but eight out of ten power lines from Israel to Gaza were damaged during the latest round of fighting, mostly from errant Hamas missiles.
The Quartet's research projects an energy shortage for all Palestinians of about 1,000 MW, or a gigawatt, by 2020.
Answers at the Ready
At a Knesset hearing earlier this year on regional cooperation, chaired by MK Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz) and featuring Silvan Shalom, the minister for both regional development and also energy, outgoing Quartet representative Mark Singleton listened to a critique of the energy plans for the West Bank by the international community. But he missed the main point: There will never be political independence for the Palestinians without energy independence; and energy independence is only possible through renewables, with solar providing the lion's share of the green energy.
It is a simple proposition, whose leading proponents have been Hanna Siniora and Gershon Baskin, co-chairs of the Israel-Palestine Creative Regional Initiatives (IPCRI). There are also over 60 Palestinian graduates of the Arava Institute, many of whom and their contemporaries are Israeli-inspired solar advocates.
"Renewable energy opens that door for businesses in Israel and Palestine to join together," says Nasser Al Amuri, a consultant hired by PriceWaterhouseCoopers to work with the World Bank and the European Commission on a process and report called Institutional Development and Electricity Sector Reform in Palestine. "By doing this, we can enable Palestine and Israel to come closer together in terms of culture and mindset." Al Amuri, has a global MBA from Spain and an Executive Business Development Certificate from the Kellogg-Recanati International Executive MBA Program at Tel Aviv University. He has also been involved in two solar start-ups: the Palestine National Renewable Energy Company and Hanna Siniora's Palestine Power & Light. "Palestine or any state that can't be in control and ownership of their own electricity has no future," he says, "because then you are always harmfully sensitive to energy price fluctuation and lack of electricity supply and capacity."
Blair's Missing Piece, Kerry's Other Initiative and the Quartet's Conventions
When U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry came to the World Economic Forum Middle East conference on the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea in May 2013, he promised $4 billion in American investment to help advance Palestinian economic development. "It is time to put in place a new model of development … that is bigger and bolder than anything proposed since the Oslo Accord (September 10, 1993)," he said. "The intention is not just to make it transformative, but to make it different from anything ever seen before."
Kerry's declaration took policy-makers by surprise and the U.S. government has been in an urgent search of economic projects they can support - energy being paramount. Responding to Secretary Kerry at the Dead Sea, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas welcomed the promise of investment aid but was prescient, when he said: "We all have the chance to be on the right side of history. We must take a collective stand against the status quo. If we don't seize this opportunity, we will fall into the abyss of conflict."
This is a historic opportunity for solar.
The Quartet plan for power is very professional and conventional in thinking and type of energy. While it focuses on natural gas, upgrading infrastructure, pre-paid meters and more, there is also a plan for a modest solar program over the next seven years. This is where the mismatch is between Kerry's vision and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair's team.
Blair's record on renewables as prime minister was lackluster. Kerry, on the other hand, was a staunch advocate of renewables and the fight against climate change in the Senate. Yet he failed to coordinate enough in the State Department between his peace process team and his climate team.
Kerry would like to implement an economic development program, including energy, that is "different from anything ever seen before." He can do it for under $30 million in grant funds.
The Plan - Bridging the Rift, Harnessing the Sun
The international community should support building 1,000 MW of solar in the West Bank in the next three years to meet all their day-time needs. This support should include an understanding that the PA can rely on Israel for day-time backup base-load on cloudy days and night-time use. Another 1,000 MW should be planned in a second phase, for when grid-level storage becomes economical, mostly through Israeli innovations in the field. This would make the West Bank the greenest solar territory on the planet, with enough green power to also fuel electric vehicles at a fraction of the cost of gasoline or diesel - providing additional economic benefit to the people. Palestinians are overall industrious and educated; once they learn how to ramp up solar and electric vehicles, they will be the drivers of renewables throughout the Arab world. They may even successfully shame Israel into increasing their renewables goals.
Gaza, once Hamas is disempowered, could also be a green bastion. Combining offshore wind stations, rebuilding the Gaza power plant to work only on natural gas from the Gaza Marine off shore field, and leasing large tracts of Sinai land from Egypt from which to import solar power would be the center-pieces of an enlightened energy policy for the strip. (None of the above would be financeable under Gaza's current leadership and climate, and verification systems would be needed to guarantee to Egypt, Israel and the international community that power is not being used for tunnels or missile factories).
Through my work in solar, we have already identified the $2 billion needed to invest in West Bank solar projects, from the U.S. government, pension funds and the international community. The financing sources will need to be modest in their expected rates of return (7% on equity and 3.5% on debt) so that the Council of Ministers of the Palestinian Authority will approve 25-year Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs) that do not require subsidy.
Furthermore, the land already exists. The first 1,000 MW can be built on Area A lands throughout the West Bank, as long as the responsible planning authorities cooperate with zoning and building permits and the entrenched interests who have been promoting gas-powered generation plants as the only solution are not successful in sabotaging the process.
So what is missing?
I had the privilege of working with Chaim Motzen to be the first to bring commercial scale solar energy to East Africa. Recently, an 8.5 MW solar field supplying 8% of Rwanda's energy was interconnected after only six months of construction. This was the first commercial-scale solar field in sub-Saharan Africa (outside of South Africa). While there were major financial players in the $24 million deal - Norfund, FMO (the Dutch Entrepreneurial Development Bank) and others - it represented a significant leverage play using about $1 million in Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) and European grant funds for the early, pre-development part of the process. That is a 1:24 leverage play.
In the West Bank, the leverage would be closer to 1:100; meaning that only $20 million to $30 million is needed in immediate pre-development grants for solar developers. However, there are zero dollars available today despite informed requests to the United States Agency for International Development, the Quartet, the European Union and others. That $20 million to $30 million would lead to $2 billion of equity and debt solar financing flowing within the next three to five years. This would bring the West Bank to energy independence during the day through renewables.
Building 1,000 MW of solar in a handful of years may seem fantastical, especially when you consider that after a decade, solar energy in Israel is still shy of a gigawatt. But Israel, intoxicated with the discovery of natural gas and overburdened by 24 uncoordinated government offices that relate to the industry, is not the right model. Italy, Spain and Germany all built thousands of megawatts a year for many years once the regulatory framework was in place and the economics were favorable.
With encouragement from OPIC and others, Dr. Kittaneh has quietly been putting into place the necessary regulatory framework to accommodate solar power, including, most recently, the creation of the Palestinian Transmission Company (PETL), which would sign the power purchase agreements. The donor community, however, keeps leading Dr. Kittaneh to rely on natural gas, particularly a 200 MW generation facility planned for Jenin that will be slow in coming.
The PA's cheapest and fastest route to gas-powered electricity for the West Bank is to purchase power from Israel, like it does today. It will take many, many years before Israeli gas could power Palestinian turbines. Doing so would require overcoming environmental concerns in Israel, permitting challenges and Israel's legendary bureaucracy. In the meantime, 1,000 MW of solar could power the West Bank during the day within several short years. This, coupled with interconnecting the West Bank to the Middle East grid for additional redundancy and base-load, and phasing in storage for night-time and cloudy days would position the Palestinians much closer to energy independence through renewables. Such a grid would also constitute a giant step toward world leadership in the green energy space.
Neither Kerry nor Blair consulted with frontier solar developers about what it would take to create a transformative solar program for the Palestinians. The answer is: not much. Just provide seed grant funding to de-risk the first pre-development stage, extend OPIC and World Bank risk guarantees to equity investors, discount long-term financing through OPIC or development banks, continue to upgrade the Palestinian grid and, finally, clear their calendars for ribbon-cutting ceremonies at Palestinian solar fields.
The Energy of Peace
Instead of an arms race in the Middle East, hopefully significant progress in Palestinian solar development will fuel a regional renewables race. Solar energy is the energy of peace, for the sun knows no borders.
1Bundesministerium ffr Wirtschaft und Energie neErneuerbare Energien im Jahr 2013 (February 2014; provisional data), Bundesnetzagentur unPhotovoltaikanlagen: Datenmeldungen sowie EEG-Verg-Verg-Vergg (in German)