Power plants and renewable energy farms are replacing agriculture throughout Israel.
In recent decades, awareness has been growing, including in Israel, of the importance of switching to renewable energy produced from solar radiation, wind, water, and other non-fuel and non-perishable natural resources. Israel stands with the other OECD countries that have made this an important goal. It requires a great deal of area for new facilities, however, most of which are located in the outlying areas, and a wave of protests against the stationing of renewable energy facilities has recently been sweeping through regional councils in northern Israel. The heads of the Gilboa, Lower Galilee, Jezreel Valley, Megiddo, and Valley of Springs Regional Councils, which have an aggregate area of one million dunam (250,000 acres), claim that private companies are tempting impoverished farmers to set up renewable energy infrastructure facilities on their land, while excluding and bypassing Local Planning and Building Commissions.
“Not an excessive target”
Oved Nur, head of the Gilboa Regional Council, located between Afula and Beit Shean and including the Harod Valley, the cradle of pioneering settlement in Israel, is worried that infrastructure facilities are taking over the agricultural landscape. According to him, new power stations are being promoted through the National Infrastructure Committee, a super-committee that bypasses the ordinary planning system with a complete absence of transparency. “The north is become Israel’s garbage can. All the energy ventures are being shunted to the north. They’re saying, ‘Let’s see how we can make as much electricity as possible.” Actually, it’s by no means certain that it’s a matter of electricity; someone is trying to promote gas interests.”
“Globes”: What is planned in the Gilboa Regional Council area?
Nur: “Everything from power plants to wind turbines to photovoltaic solar energy farms. The state is responsible for the initiative, which is going ahead through private developers. Some of them are cooperating with our communities, but most of the plans are being pushed through over our heads through the District Planning and Building Commissions, or usually through the National Infrastructure Committee. We have the right to oppose it, but no one’s listening to us.”
What’s the problem with infrastructure facilities?
“At the Gilboa Regional Council, we went through a process of examining all the plans submitted in our region from a spatial and strategic perspective. We divided them into two categories: renewable energy, such as wind and sun energy, and energy produced by burning gas or fuel. In accordance with the conventions signed by the state, we are in favor of renewable energy, but intend to oppose power stations in the area. The wind turbine is significant from a landscape viewpoint, but also the hardest thing to talk about, because it’s a matter of taste. It’s important to realize that it’s not something that will influence the landscape; it will be the landscape. Six plans for arrays of wind turbines with a total of 22 turbines are being promoted in the Gilboa area. Think about it – when you stand and look at the Harod Valley, you’ll see 22 turbines the size of the Azrieli towers. What we can talk about is the health and environmental aspects. We’re demanding distance from the communities, protection against noise, and monitoring.”
Honi Kabalo, head of renewable energy at the Public Utilities Authority (electricity), which is responsible for regulation and supervision in the Israeli electricity sector, believes, however, that the strong opposition to wind turbines does not balance environmental concerns against economic ones. “Israel has a target of 10% of total energy production from renewable energy by 2020,” he says. “The target for 2030 is 17%, which is not excessive or exceptional in an international comparison. We have no water energy, because we don’t have the waterfalls that other countries have. Electricity production from waste both arouses a lot of opposition and is expensive. All we have left as principal sources for reaching the target are sun and wind. If it is carried out, the current quota for wind will bring us to two terawatt hours, compared with the 2030 renewable energy production target of 15 terawatt hours for 2030. All the rest will come from solar energy.”
Kabalo says that he has been following the wind energy issue for many years, and that this issue has been discussed by the various planning authorities. According to him, the ministerial committee for finding places to put wind turbines, which functioned in 2010-2012, with participation from representatives of environmental organizations and the Ministry of Environmental Protection, ruled out most of the places in the Galilee because of landscape damage or the presence of birds. Only in late 2014 was a national outline plan for wind turbines approved in a drawn-out and difficult process.
Why do you think the regional councils have woken up only now?
Kabalo: “I think that there are many concerns stemming from uncertainty and lack of knowledge, some of which are unjustified. The same problems exist all over the world, and wind farms are being built all over the world.”
But you cannot compare tiny Israel to large countries like Spain and Germany.
“Of course not, but the quantities of our wind energy are also relatively small. This is a small part of the plan, most of which will be achieved from solar energy.” Kabalo emphasizes that it is impossible to rely exclusively on solar energy, saying, “Electricity production from wind energy is divided among all hours of the day, even in winter, and it is concentrated in the north. Solar energy is produced only during the day, and is concentrated in the south. This means that at peak hours, both in winter and summer, the solar farms need a backup. In order to produce the same amount of renewable energy from the sun, you need 20 times as much land area as with wind energy. This means that without a wind quota, it would be necessary to find tens of thousands more dunam for building solar farms. Isn’t saving on land an environmental consideration?”
“What has that got to do with agriculture?”
The real struggle right now, however, is over power stations. Van Leer Jerusalem Institute researcher Amnon Portugali is angry about how gas ventures and turbines are being promoted. “I think that the private electricity producers and gas suppliers are the ones who submitted the cabinet’s proposal in April 2017 (Cabinet Resolution no. 2592, which declared a state of emergency in the natural gas sector). This made it possible to build 15 power stations along the gas line. Every such station took up 100 dunam (25 acres), and the government divided the booty among the developers,” Portugali says.
Where is the problem?
Portugali: “Along comes the cabinet decision, and says that there’s no need to plan where the stations will be. The developers can choose where they want to build them, while bypassing the regional councils and district planning and building commissions and going straight to the National Infrastructure Committee. They skipped over the high road and took a shortcut. Only an idiot will go the regular way.”
Dr. Yossi Kaminchik from Moshav Moledet has been fighting against the gas-driven power stations for a long time. “The Agricultural Development Association decided to bring a power station here, in the middle of the fields. However clean it may be, it still emits carbon oxides, which you can’t get rid of, and there’s a little sulfur oxide. It causes skin irritations, asthma attacks, and the worst thing is particle matter. If it has metal, it grabs your lungs and gets into the bloodstream. These power stations work on both gas and diesel fuel. For example, we have a power station in the Alon Tavor industrial zone (near Afula) that worked on diesel fuel for two weeks, because there was a malfunction in the gas pipeline. There’s an Arab community here named Tamra, and when they work with diesel fuel, the entire place stinks.”
These facilities are not huge.
Kaminchik: “It’s not Hadera, but these are large buildings. The building is 30 meters high, and it has two 60-meter chimneys, so you can see the chimneys in front of you from every window in the community. When the private developers come to someone and offer him or her a power station, they go with him or her to the fields, and choose the bit of land that is farthest away from the community, but it’s 400 meters away from another community.”
Moti Dotan, head of the Regional Council of the Lower Galilee, which stretches from the Beit Netofa Valley to the Yavne’el Valley, is worried mainly about the destruction of agricultural space. “Over the years, we have learned that they are planning various types of quarries and wind turbines for us, and also the natural gas pipeline. They have taken the beautiful northern region, and made it into a site for all of Israel’s national infrastructure. Still, I want to single out the gas power plants, which were the straw that broke the camel’s back. We can’t have the government telling private developers, “Go get agreements that include the land.’ They start going around and causing upheaval within our community, with everyone chasing money. It’s creating planning and social chaos.”
But these are legitimate sources of income.
Dotan: “The government is doing it deliberately in order to make farmers abandon agriculture, which I think is a very serious matter. I’ve never heard of a country relying on imports for all of its food. Someone who doesn’t understand that land is preserved through agriculture, not through installations, doesn’t realize that we won’t be here. Power stations are industry. What has that got to do with agriculture? We shouldn’t have to fight against water prices and imports, and we’re going to introduce industry on agricultural land.”
Green Energy Association of Israel founder and director general Advocate Eitan Parnass, who is pushing for construction of renewal energy facilities, has criticism for the residents, “the opponents,” but attributes the delay in carrying out energy ventures to the government’s clumsy and negligent management. “There was a planning process. The problem is that it took a long time, and people stopped paying attention. In Israel, the failure of the planning system is so deeply rooted that building turbines in Maalei Gilboa took over 10 years. When a plan is dragged out indefinitely, entire generations pass, and people are no longer aware of it. The bottom line is that Israel is developing with its energy needs, and a place has to be found. When you go looking for a place to put a power station, you are restricted to places near the gas pipeline. You can’t do it on land with protected value (nature reserves and the like), so you go to the Agricultural Association’s land. Why there? Because any area that is not on a kibbutz or a moshav requires an Israel Land Authority (ILA) tender. The ILA is an undeveloped entity, and doesn’t know how to work with developers, so everything there takes many years, and that’s the reason why developers are going for the Agricultural Association’s land.”
Does this mean that all agricultural land will become a place for energy infrastruture?
Parnass: “The government’s handling of agriculture is criminally negligent. We first of all need agriculture, and where there is no agriculture, in the Negev and the Arava, we should build solar infrastructure. In the north, wind turbines fit in with agriculture. Power stations with gas have larger footprints, but the state’s interest is not to put up a large number of small power stations. I face off with people from northern Israel in the planning committees, and tell them, “You need to give up your landscape. There’s a child in Hadera breathing in smog. Black rain is falling on people in Heftziba from the power station in Hadera. You sit there in the north, look and the wind turbines, and complain. It’s a moral issue: will you obstruct environmentally friendly energy in Israel?”
The Ministry of National Infrastructure, Energy, and Water Resources said, “The cabinet resolution in April (no. 2592) for encouraging small and medium-sized reservoirs allows private developers to ask landowners for their consent in order to submit national infrastructure plans. Developers have filed a number of requests to date, for which planning processes have been started in the National Infrastructure Committee framework in the area of the Lower Galilee regional councils. These processes were designed to facilitate a competitive process that will benefit the public and reduce the price of electricity.” The Ministry of National Infrastructure, Energy, and Water Resources also emphasized that the planning process would be conducted “in accordance with all the prevailing criteria in the Planning and Building Law, including environmental impact reports, an examination of alternatives, depositing the plan for objections by the public, and so forth.” The The Ministry of National Infrastructure, Energy, and Water Resources added that it was going ahead with the national outline plan for finding potential future sites for building natural gas power stations, “and when plans are deposited, if they are deposited, it will be possible to raise objections.”
“The community has fallen apart, and the social rift is yawning”
The initiative to build infrastructure facilities is exposing the existing conflict in rural communities. A minority of members of the agricultural development associations, who have voting rights, have more than once imposed the building of infrastructure facilities on the new residents, many of whom moved there from other places in order to enjoy a better quality of life and a pastoral landscape, by force. The new residents find themselves facing the threat of power stations, which are like small factories, or wind turbines as tall as the Azrieli towers. The fact that these facilities are usually located in the new parts of the communities makes the conflict more acute, because the new extensions are usually located on the edges of the old community. G, a resident of one of the Harod Valley communities who does not wish to reveal her name, tells about a conflict between the old members and the new residents. “The community in Moledet has fallen apart. Young people, who bought homes in the new part of the settlement, or who have been living here for 10 years, came and said that the agricultural committee had signed with a developer without asking them. They spent their money, and feel that they have been sold down the river. There was a yawning social rift here, with mudslinging and threats. In Kfar Yehezkel, a moshav founded in the 1920s, the agricultural committee signed for a wind turbine. Those who bought a plot said that it was unacceptable that they had not been asked and that they were not part of the decisions.”
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