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September 8, 2015 | A Kibbutz is Leading Israel into a Solar Energy Future

Israel is a technologically advanced country with a startup culture that has begun to rival that of Silicon Valley. As a result, one would think that this “startup nation” would be a prime location for emerging solar energy companies. Yet despite this and their abundant solar resources, specifically in the Negev Desert, Israel has continued to lag behind in solar energy development — until now.

Many believe that Israeli government bureaucracy, nationalized ownership of resources, and a legacy of the Jewish state’s socialist past have combined to stall the development of renewable resources; however, according to a recent article from Slate, the solar energy future in Israel is brighter than ever, and ironically, one of Israel’s most socialist institutions, the kibbutz, is leading the charge.

A Kibbutz Building a Brighter Future for Israel

Kibbutzim were developed before the declaration of Israel as an independent state, when it was still a British colony, as collectivist communities in which all property, including farmland, is owned in common. Recently, many of these communities have started delving into capitalist ventures to prosper and thrive. Such is the case with Kibbutz Ketura.

Ketura was founded in 1974 on the western side of the highway that carves through the Arava Valley, between the Dead Sea and Eilat. Ten years ago, with an ideal location for harvesting solar energy and an already-established tradition of Environmental Studies, Ketura formed a solar energy company called Arava Power. Their goal was to build solar energy farms and connect them to the national power grid, in order to offset the use of fossil fuels.

In 2011, Arava established the first commercial solar field in Israel, and since then have built seven additional solar fields across the country, including a new 40 MW project that was just connected to the grid this summer. With 15 additional solar projects in the works, it’s clear that Kibbutz Ketura and Arava Power are dedicated to bringing Israel into the solar future, but their efforts have not been without challenge.

Solar Energy Obstacles in Israel

Despite having abundant solar resources (especially in the Negev Desert), expanding solar energy throughout Israel has been slow, as a result of various cultural and governmental obstacles. Part of this has to do with the lack of incentives for business and individuals to switch to solar energy sources. Unlike in the United States, Israel’s federal government does not offer any kind of tax incentives or rebates to solar ventures, discouraging many from investing in it as a renewable energy source.

The Israeli power grid is also run by a single state-run monopoly, the Israel Electric Company. Until 2009, the IEC exclusively used fossil fuels to generate power for the Jewish state. In recent years, the government has directed the IEC to focus on acquiring a certain amount of electricity from renewable power sources, like wind and solar. But, individuals are still unable to sell any surplus of solar energy back to the IEC.

These factors, combined with a slew of bureaucratic setbacks and a Byzantine political system, continue to be a burden on the growth of solar energy in Israel.

Israel Decides to Amp Up Development of Solar Resources

As a result of a new law mandating that Israel generate 10 percent of its energy from renewable sources, the IEC has become open to buying solar-generated energy from private providers. Arava Power bid on many of the projects and won, and as a result, quickly began developing solar energy farms throughout the country — the first being a facility on the land owned by Kibbutz Ketura. The company has lined up a number of investors and joint venture partners, including the giant German firm Siemens.

Arava has already built six solar power stations that power farming communities similar to Ketura in the Arava Valley and the Negev desert, with capacities ranging from 450 kilowatts to 8.9 MWs.

In 2013, the company was finally able to acquire the permitting and investment for its first large-scale solar plant: a 40 MW facility located 50 km north of Eilat in Israel’s Arava Valley. It has plans for another 11 medium-sized projects and two large ones in the next decade.

Though companies like Arava Power have come a long way in bringing solar energy to Israel, there is still a long way to go. Bureaucratic red tape, political unrest, and more pressing international matters have taken the focus of the Israeli government and are hampering efforts to expand solar development. But although solar energy has taken a back seat for the time being, the momentum is undeniable and, fortunately, unstoppable.