There is a small war going on in Israel and it has nothing to do with a nuclear Iran or local terror cells. This war is over the sun. Two companies Arava Power and Solar By Yourself represent a new kind of conflict in Israel’s complicated renewable energy landscape.
Solar By Yourself, a company that helps homeowners or businesses install small-scale solar panels on rooftops, says there are “corrupt” clerks in the government approvals agencies giving unfair advantages to certain solar energy companies.
They also believe the Israeli government isn’t standing by its own policies when it hands out licenses for new installations. Israel has offered attractive, but very limited quotas on solar energy installations. While the companies looking to land the licenses are usually operating out of genuine concern for the environment, there is also very big business at stake. Companies are racing for the quotas, trying to get the approvals and licenses as fast as they can.
“In America everyone has the same information and there is no phenomenon that other people know more because they are closer to the plate of food,” says Lior Datz, a strategic advisor who speaks for Solar By Yourself (SBY), although he admits to no longer working for the company in an official manner. No one from Solar By Yourself was willing to speak in an official capacity and my conversation with Datz – where he pretty much lectured to me in high Hebrew which I needed transcribed – left me with some suspicions about the true intentions of the companies’ he represents.
Beyond his suspicions of protekzia –– the Israeli term for nepotism –– SBY’s biggest claim and one they helped push to the Supreme Court in Israel, is that the government electricity approvals body, the Public Utilities Authority (PUA) is not recognizing government policy to give preference to companies building solar panels on rooftops, over those building on open land. This is their issue with Arava Power.
Israel, with not a lot of extra land, needs to build its industry on roofs not on open space, agricultural or anything else, Datz argues.
“The results are that today 65 percent of the projects are on land, and we should remember the recommendations were the opposite,” he says. In regards to this, “Former Supreme Court Judge [Eliyahu] Vinograd said last week [4 weeks ago] on the radio that the Public Utility Authority is not okay. One of the local radio stations quoted him as saying that Israel’s electricity authority stole the sun.”
Datz says that preference to land installations also favors big business over the smaller, private individuals who can invest in rooftop installations. It’s a social issue as well an environmental and economical one.
Oded Agmon, the head of the regulations division at the Public Utilities Authority – which took me a week to get anyone to answer the phone there – tells me that Datz’s claims are untrue. There is no special agenda for favoring land over rooftops, and likewise no such policy is in place. His organization’s main priority is helping Israel create ten percent of its electricity from renewable energy by 2020.
“If it will come from the ground or the rooftop it’s not the issue,” says Agmon: “The issue is how we can achieve this target at the lowest cost.”