Israel’s hot-cold relationship with solar power

DRIJAT, ISRAEL - I can see them from an ocean away ¬ó my friends in Canada just rolling their eyes when I complain about the cold winters in Jerusalem. And I roll my eyes right back at them.

They just don't understand what it's like to live in a stone house with no insulation, no central heating and temperatures that on many nights dip close to freezing.

Sure my little apartment stays cool during the sticky heat of summer, but in winters it's like living in a little icebox.

Ok, I'm exaggerating a bit. If the truth be told, the weather in Israel is generally quite good, especially when I compare it to my friends living in, say, Edmonton right about now.

In these parts, people like to boast there are many more clear days than cloudy ones.

And in places like the Negev Desert, in Israel's south, there are apparently more than 330 days of sun a year.

That's a lot of sun, and a lot of potential to make a difference in the field of solar energy.

But it looks like I'm not alone in being able to appreciate everything this climate has to offer.

Case in point: what's happening in the sunny little village of Drijat in the northern Negev ¬ó sunny, both literally and figuratively.

Most days here, there's hardly a cloud in the sky. And its residents are almost always smiling.

Even the buildings exude happiness, with their bright pastel paint jobs, a friendly contrast to the drab desert landscape.

Drijat sits in the heart of a region where many Bedouin communities remain unrecognized and unplugged from any sort of Israeli infrastructure.

But in 2004, tiny Drijat receive formal recognition from the state and, a year later, it was chosen to take part in a unique pilot project to connect it with a multi-purpose solar electricity system.

As part of the plan, the sun would eventually help power the entire village ¬ó every home and every building, including what was supposed to become the region's first solar-powered mosque.

That was four years ago and so, as the Copenhagen climate conference loomed, what better place to abandon the relative chill of Jerusalem than for a village where the sun almost always shines?

And where its generous rays have supposedly been captured to help create not just a cleaner environment, but also change lives?

Drijat was a solar success story. Or so I thought.

As we drove up to the village, in the shadow of the Hebron Hills, we could see lampposts fitted with tiny solar panels as well as larger panels dotting a few rooftops. But on closer inspection, this was not the model solar community that had been envisioned back in 2005.

Community leader Ishak Abu Hammad took us on a tour and struggled to explain how the project, which had started with so much hope, had fizzled.

"For some reason," he told us, "it was stopped."

Initially, 20 of the community's 80 or so homes were fitted with a system designed to capture, store and convert the sun's energy into a stable electrical current.

Those 20 households, in turn, were transformed.

Instead of having to rely on a few hours of expensive, diesel-powered generators to provide a bit of light, perhaps in the evening, suddenly there was a cheap 24-hour source of power.

And with that power came all the modern conveniences ¬ó microwaves, washing machines, televisions, computers and more. If you could plug it in, you could now have it.

No one was probably more in need of constant electricity than Taghrid Abu Hammad, a mother of 12.

When the project began, one of her sons was very sick with leukemia. She told us how she couldn't refrigerate his medicines safely or care properly for his other needs, so her home was one of the 20 picked to take part in the pilot.

Her son is healthy now and she has nothing but praise for the power that comes from the sun. "I have everything," she says. "It's very good this solar energy."

Good, yes, but for only a fraction of Drijat's population. More than four years on, the goal to hook up every household in the village to solar power has never been realized.

Seems that while Taghrid's and other homes proved the pilot a success, and despite the fact that Drijat is blessed with a near constant supply of energy from the sun, it takes much more to keep a project like this one going.

In the years since the initial stage was completed, funding that would have kept it going ¬ó whether from government, private, or charitable sources ¬ó has never materialized.

A system thick with bureaucratic obstacles, as well as ongoing disputes over building permits has made things all the more complicated.

So for now, many of Taghrid's neighbours make do with what they always have ¬ó a little old fashioned ingenuity and those dirty diesel-run generator that operate just three or four hours every evening.

Hanin Abu Hammad, yet another of the community's larger Abu Hammad clan, showed us the freezer, where she tries to let the ice build up during the night so it stays cold enough to preserve food during the day.

And Hanin's mother demonstrated the sewing machine she powers with a foot pedal. "It's normal," says Hanin. "We have no other choice. But we wish we had solar power."

Ishak Abu Hammad is more blunt. "This is a limping project," he says.

"You have about a quarter of the village that's green. And if we listen to what's happening in Copenhagen, how important it is to keep our world clean, we are not on the right track."

Indeed, as an acknowledged world leader in certain areas of solar technology, Israel should be on the right track. But the UN recently criticized it for being "near the bottom of the list in terms of producing solar electricity for its own use."Less than one per cent of Israel's electricity comes from renewable resources, which leaves it behind even poor African countries such as Eritrea and Senegal, says the UN.

And so Drijat waits.

Raising his hand to his forehead, Abu Hammad gestures frustration, "We have sun up to here and we don't use it as a replacement to become green and clean."

He sighs, looking towards the sky and wondering about the government and all its agencies and projects.

"It's a pity. Why are they wasting this resource? It's a gift for free from God."

It's dark when we leave Drijat and the desert climate does not disappoint. The air is just as chilly as outside my Jerusalem apartment.

I think about how most of the residents here will stay warm by using heaters powered by those diesel generators I can hear in the distance.

But then I look at the mosque, the green glow of its minaret illuminating the night sky. It is green in colour, green in promise.

The mosque is, indeed, solar powered. And as we drive away, it shines as a beacon of what many hope is still to come.


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