Can green energy help Palestinians unplug from Israel?
Green energy proponents hope to convince Palestinians that renewables can give them greater autonomy from Israel and is more affordable in the long run.
Ramallah, West Bank
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By powering this building with cool air piped from deep below the earth’s surface, Mr. Sabawi’s company, MENA Geothermal, is part of a budding green energy movement that could save millions of dollars for the heavily aid-reliant Palestinian Authority (PA), according to Sabawi. In the process, it could reduce emissions and diversify the PA’s energy sources, making it less dependent on Israel and increasing Palestinian autonomy.
“No diesel enters this building,” says Sabawi. “We are saving around 65 percent on our energy bill.”
Despite summer highs in the nineties and winter temperatures that dip below freezing, the temperature is a constant 63 degrees Fahrenheit a few hundred feet below the ground in Ramallah. By tapping the steady sub-surface temperature, the building uses about half the electricity of a conventional cooling and heating system and reduces carbon dioxide emission by 30 percent.
But it’s not just concern for the environment that is sparking the quest for renewable energy here. Power in the Palestinian territories is scarce and expensive, and nearly all of it comes from Israel.
This situation gives Palestinians virtually no energy security – a precarious position in a region with so much political uncertainty, particularly with energy demand growing by as much as 10 percent per year.
"We have no choice but to think outside the box,” says Sabawi, who is part of a small coterie of individuals and organizations hoping to spur a larger movement for independent and sustainable energy in the Palestinian Territories.
Even conventional energy out of reach
The Palestinian territories import more than 95 percent of their electricity and fuel, mainly from Israel with small amounts from Jordan and Egypt. The Palestinians’ only independently produced electricity is generated by a power plant in Gaza City that depends on imported fuel. The Palestinian territories have no conventional energy sources, aside from an untouched gas reserve off the coast of Gaza that was discovered in 2000.
In Gaza, scheduled power outages leave residents without electricity for up to eight hours each day. Though in the West Bank most communities have 24-hour access to power, population growth and economic development are pushing energy demand up by 7 to 10 percent per year.
Palestinians pay about 15 percent more per kilowatt-hour than their Israeli counterparts and as much as double the rates in the US while earning significantly less. The diesel fuel typically required to heat a Palestinian home remains out of financial reach for many who live here.
“Palestine is facing enormous energy problems,” says Sabawi. “We have one of the highest population densities in the world […] and we are paying among the highest energy prices in the entire Middle East and North Africa.”