Ready to reap a potential windfall

With a commitment to producing 10 percent of Israel’s electricity via renewable energy by 2020, the government is putting its support behind wind farms. Catching the wind on the Golan – the Golan wind farm is set to increase dramatically …

With a commitment to producing 10 percent of Israel’s electricity via renewable energy by 2020, the government is putting its support behind wind farms.

Wind turbines in Golan Heights

Catching the wind on the Golan – the Golan wind farm is set to increase dramatically in size over the next few years.

While gas and oil exploration rigs have been dominating the energy news headlines in Israel of late, at least one man and his company think Israel should try to catch the wind to meet the country’s ever-increasing energy needs.

Zahal (also the Hebrew acronym for IDF – Israel Defense Forces) Harel, general manager of Mei Golan’s Green Wind Energy and the newer Clean Wind Energy companies, says he was so named because “I was born on Independence Day.” A pioneer of wind farming in Israel, he has a vision: he sees dozens of wind farms on the Golan Heights and in the Galilee, providing Israelis with renewable, clean energy.

Local residents thought he and his co-workers had the wind whistling through their ears when, as Green Wind Energy, part of Mei Golan Wind Energy, they established Israel’s first and currently only commercial wind power station at Tel Aseniya in the Golan Heights in 1992; but at the moment no one is laughing.

With the government committed to producing 10 percent of its electricity via renewable energy sources by 2020, 55-year-old Harel who resides in the center of the country in Herzliya, already has the ministers of infrastructure, finance and the interior in his corner.

On their recommendations, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signed a document recently terming the initial portion of Harel and Clean Wind’s plan for an even larger Golan wind farm “a national project” that will see 62 out of 150 projected turbines built by 2012, providing approximately 155 megawatts of electricity. Eventually, there should be 150 turbines working on the farm, on a 140 sq.km. area in the northeastern Golan Heights providing 400 megawatts of power.

Mei Golan has reached a preliminary agreement with the US energy giant AES for an equal partnership in what will eventually be a $600 million wind turbine project. AES has completed its due diligence of the proposed project.

Government support for wind power

The declaration and support from Infrastructure Minister Uzi Landau – whose ministry greased the bureaucratic wheels for the firm because of its belief in the efficiency of wind power and its desire to see such infrastructure products built in the periphery – has speeded up the process of building Harel’s Golan project. That may be good news for other entrepreneurs interested in wind farming, currently huffing and puffing about bureaucratic delays. Landau says his office has declared war on such red tape and is encouraging others to pursue wind power.

Golan wind turbines

Druse farmers have already agreed to site new wind turbines on their land.

The fact that Druze farmers sought Syrian approval before agreeing to proposals from Harel’s company about having wind turbines placed on their Golan land indicates that a political push may also have been involved. Netanyahu signed the document for the Golan farm against a backdrop of ongoing attempts to re-launch peace talks with the Palestinians, with a possible nod to Syria.

And perhaps in a similar vein, Landau recently said, regarding that signing: “I am happy that these efforts have succeeded. The country will continue to develop, and we will continue to build along its breadth and width.” Landau also called the declaration of the wind farm as a national project “a significant step in advancing renewable energy in Israel,” and part of his ministry’s plans to use this “clean and cheap” energy for Israelis.

While the Arava and Gilboa regions have also been mentioned as areas that might do well with wind farming, no wind farm initiatives have been launched there yet. People are starting to choose wind over solar energy according to Harel, because wind energy is cheaper – in some cases four to five times so. Wind farms also take up much less space, and the land that they’re built on can be reused, even 20 years later. Taking all this into consideration, particularly the costs, Landau’s ministry decided to give wind energy production priority over solar power.

Harel’s explanation for the delay in developing the wind power option in Israel: “People know that wind power works, but felt that there are parts of our landscape that should be left untouched. Combine that with some of the bureaucratic problems, and it’s been delayed.”

Still, in the meantime, two companies – one Palestinian and one Israeli – have been integrating wind turbines together in the West Bank and beyond, and Israel’s Coriolis alternative energy company has been targeting the $40 billion medium-scale wind solution market, with smaller turbines that take up less room, are cheaper, and can grow with customer needs.

World’s longest-running wind farm

With financing from AES and Israeli firms interested in buying stock, it’s no surprise that Clean Wind Energy has taken the lead in Israeli wind farming. After all, when the first 10 wind turbines were built by Green Wind Energy, “people weren’t familiar with it, both in the world and here in Israel,” says Harel, but power was supplied by the turbines to the Mei Eden mineral water factory, the Golan Winery and Kibbutz Neot Mordechai, and the remaining electricity produced, about 20%, sold to the electrical grid.

Amazingly, these turbines are still working today and still are at 97 percent availability, according to Harel, who adds: “There are no wind farms in the world that have been in existence for 12-13 years.” But Green Wind Energy isn’t standing still and has obtained approval from the necessary government bodies to replace the old candy-cane colored turbines with new 80-meter-hub-height ones with a capacity of 2MW each, almost tripling the existing farm’s capacity of 4.8MW. Green Wind is in talks with DE Wind, a subsidiary of South Korea’s Daewoo International Corporation, and other vendors to finance the repowering of the original farm. Construction is scheduled for the second quarter of 2011.

As for the new farm that Netanyahu recently signed off on, when the final turbines are set up it will stretch from Majdal Shams to Massadeh, mainly within privately owned orchards, half of which are in Jewish communities and half in Druze villages. Harel explains to ISRAEL21c why Druze farmers are willing to allow an Israeli company to set up wind turbines on their mostly agricultural land:

“We got all the Druze residents together and we explained it to them in a special study day… what wind power is, and what we want to do on their plots of land. Today, the average Druze farmer makes an annual return of about $1,000 per dunam [a quarter of an acre or 1,000 square meters]. We take an area which is about 200 square meters [2,153 square feet] and pay the owner for establishing the turbine on it about five times what he would get otherwise.”

In addition, the farmer can continue to work the land the turbine is situated upon. Indeed, Harel explains, most of the world’s wind farms today are situated on agricultural land “and the farmers earn a great deal more than they would if they worked the entire plot.

“Signing 110 contracts with people, each with his own little desire, his wishes, was complicated, but ultimately they understood and saw they would make money. There was also the issue of the Druze political and emotional connections to their land, largely as part of the political ties to Syria. And the fact that they felt they needed Syrian approval as a precondition and in the end signed, leads me to believe they got this permission.”

Nonetheless, there were some Druze who feared to sign contracts for political reasons, and some who were worried about radiation; Harel’s team was able to show them that such fears were unwarranted.

Reservations from the nature society

As his wind farm project on the Golan advances, Harel and his company are looking at an additional location for wind farms, in the Galilee. “The economic benefit from the Galilee project is slightly less, but still worth it. If on the Golan the wind is eight meters [about 26 feet] per second, in the Galilee project it’s 7.1 or 7.2. So far we have signed 40 contracts, which would provide 100 megawatts of electricity.”

It is hoped that the farm, to be situated in the Yanuh-Jatt local council in the Galilee, with Druze farmers again involved, will be built in 2013. Some 40 to 50 contracts have already been signed there, Harel says.

Still, not everyone is convinced that the wind farms are the answer. Dov Greenblat, spokesman for The Society for the Protection of Nature (SPNI) in Israel tells ISRAEL21c that the Golan plan harms the area’s landscape and “threatens the flight paths of birds and bats.”

Greenblat wrote: “Together with the justifiable goals of improving the quality of our air in Israel and taking into consideration global warming, we must include additional considerations: Proper use of the land available, protecting nature and maintaining biodiversity and protecting unique landscapes, which are used as sites for vacations and leisure activities.”

SPNI plans an evaluation of its own with regard to its final position on the dangers to migrating birds in particular and the wind farm overall, but Harel says the threat to the birds is minimal, as he says that few fly over the Golan, and he dismisses claims that the farm will harm the Golan landscape.

His proof? “There’s no tourist who doesn’t come see it,” he says of the original farm which has become an attraction on its own. “I feel great. I’ve been involved with it for 18 years and I just get a big kick out of 400,000 visitors who visit the Golan wind farm each year. People come to the site and say: ‘Why aren’t there more of these?’ ”

How does it work?

They may look sort of like spinning giraffes on the Golan mountaintops, but the idea behind a wind turbine is really relatively simple. The energy in the wind turns the Golan’s candy-cane striped propeller-like blades around a rotor. The rotor is connected to the main shaft, which in turn spins a generator to create electricity.

To capture the most energy, the turbines are mounted on a tower. At 30 meters (about 98 feet) or more above the ground, they can take advantage of faster and less-turbulent wind.

Wind turbines on the Golan are still providing energy for the Mei Eden factory, Golan winery and Kibbutz Neot Mordechai. Wind turbines can be used to produce electricity for a single home or building, or can be connected to a grid to distribute the electricity more widely.