Solar energy as a lever for progress in Arab society

Solar energy has the potential to stimulate economic and social progress in Israel's Arab sector. Arab communities suffer from long-term institutional discrimination, underdevelopment and lack of resources. At present, they tend towards religious conservatism and self-segregation. Poverty and violence are prevalent and the rule of the families and clans goes unchallenged. Promoting renewable energy in these communities could enhance economic and social progress, helping to integrate them  into the modern world.

by Yoav Gal Tamir and Assaf Adiv

Solar energy has the potential to stimulate economic and social progress in Israel’s Arab sector. Arab communities suffer from long-term institutional discrimination, underdevelopment and lack of resources. At present, they tend towards religious conservatism and self-segregation. Poverty and violence are prevalent and the rule of the families and clans goes unchallenged. Promoting renewable energy in these communities could enhance economic and social progress, helping to integrate them  into the modern world.

The advantages of renewable energy are clear. Following Israel’s ratification of the Paris Agreement of 2015, the Israeli government approved a national program for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, coupled with significant budgets and action plans for promoting renewable energies.

This article summarizes recent work by two organizations, the WAC-MAAN Workers Union and Sindyanna of Galilee, both with long records of promoting economic development in the Arab sector, including workers’ rights and women’s employment. In the past year, the two have become involved in an initiative promoting solar energy and hydroponic agriculture in Arab communities. This article results from the recent experience.

Economic stagnation amid cultural and social conservatism

Arab towns and villages in Israel suffer from the absence of basic modern infrastructures, such as adequate industrial zones, hospitals, universities, theatres and cinemas. Every government since 1948, when the State was established, has promoted policies of institutional discrimination, including transfer of land ownership and resources from Arab hands to nearby Jewish settlements. The results are a high poverty rate and a poor educational system. In recent years social ills like violence have increased, accompanied by the growing dominance of sectarian and clan loyalties.[1]

Paradoxically, these negative trends are accompanied by substantial growth in the number of Arab students in higher education.[2]  There has also been positive change in Arab women’s employment rates.[3] Under pressure of the OECD, which Israel joined in 2010, movement has occurred at the policy level. Although discrimination persists, some policy makers have come to understand that the economic and social progress of Arab communities is essential for Israel’s economy. Aiman Saif, former director of the Authority for Economic Development of Minorities in the Prime Minister’s office, has estimated that exclusion of the Arab population from the workforce costs the country 40 billion NIS per year.[4] As a result, we have seen more budgeted programs than ever for infrastructure in Arab communities.[5]

Renewable energies are a must

Solar energy production is developing fast, against a background of international pressure to move away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy. In November 2016, as part of the Paris Agreement, Israel prescribed targets for promoting renewable energy: It should amount to 10% of total energy production by 2020, and to 17% by 2030. Rony Segoli, an independent solar energy entrepreneur, points to recent changes in policy. These include the cancelling, in 2014, of the requirement for permission to install solar panels,[6] and, in 2016, of a surcharge for home improvement.[7]   Another important change, says Segoli, has been to cancel the requirement that solar panel owners register with the tax authorities. The removal of these bureaucratic hurdles, coupled with reduced installation costs and improvements in the efficiency of solar panels, have made them feasible for residential, commercial and public buildings.

Israel lags behind

Despite all this, renewable energy production in Israel today amounts to only 3% of the total. The slow pace of implementing the national program has been criticised by environmental activists. An important report by the Society for the Protection of Nature, published in October 2017, claims that the potential for electricity production by means of rooftop solar panels is far from realised. The report recommends the diversion of solar energy production away from large scale farm projects, where the panels stand on the ground, towards installation on private roofs. Such a change, according to the report, will reduce the amount of land that is needed for expanding production and will also promote distributive justice, with consumers becoming producers and energy sources being decentralized.

Arab towns can lead the way

The recent easing of regulations for installing solar systems on individual private houses was probably intended to encourage upper middle class Israelis in new suburban communities to take the lead. But the changes also fit conditions in Arab towns: For historical reasons, given a lack of government master plans, the vast majority of Arab towns consist of private houses built on private land.

With around 100,000 private houses in Arab locales, it may be possible to boost the Arab economy by as much as 100 million NIS per month through solar panel installations on private roofs. This sum is currently being paid out in electricity bills for the power produced (with accompanying pollution) by the Israel Electric Corporation (IEC).

There is more to this than a source of income. Such a green revolution could make Arab society a leading force in renewable energy. A family that installs solar panels on its roof increases household income and goes from being a consumer to a producer. At the same time, the family contributes to a reduction in the Greenhouse Effect.

A successful project to promote solar energy in Arab communities will also give a massive boost to those who wish to connect these communities to global technology, creating a positive environment for innovations in recycling, hydroponic agriculture, and women’s equality.

Bureaucratic and political obstacles

For this green revolution to occur, it would be necessary to make major changes, especially at the level of common perceptions within the Arab population. In a stimulating talk with Ashraf Yihyeh, a solar energy entrepreneur and owner of a solar panel installation company from Kufr Qara, he described the hurdles he sees in the face of the needed change. First, technical difficulties: many Arab homeowners don’t have valid building permits and therefore they do not possess ‘Form 4’, which regulates electricity supplies; as a result they cannot connect to the IEC and start a solar panel. Second, finances: many households lack regular incomes and so they are unlikely to get a bank loan for purchasing solar panels (in addition, Israeli Banks are generally reluctant to lend to Arab citizens). Third, the IEC, which is charged with connecting to the solar panels, creates unnecessary difficulties for Arab citizens. Last but not least, says Ashraf, “The Arab public is suspicious of every government-related initiative. Sometimes when I offer the project to an Arab citizen I get the feeling that he suspects I’m trying to expropriate his property. These suspicions have no material basis but they exist and many times cause us to fail.”

To move from above and below

To overcome these hurdles, the government must take decisive action. The report by the Society for the Protection of Nature outlines the necessary steps. However, it neglects to mention the Arab sector. According to Adi Romi, an activist in Green Course, Israel’s potential for solar energy production is much greater than the targets which have been set. It’s unclear, he says, why the target set by the Government for 2030 is only 17% and not 100%. He claims that the promotion of renewable energy is delayed because of a misguided reliance on natural gas, and that the Treasury and Energy ministries are stuck with outdated conceptions. Therefore, he believes, it is particularly important to increase public pressure on the government.

All those involved in climate change initiatives believe there is urgency here: renewable energies are not just a source of financial savings. The imperative to act now lies in the danger of global warming. It is the responsibility of each one of us to contribute towards a reduction in carbon emissions.

If the Arab population becomes a leading force in solar energy production, as we think it can, this will have significant consequences for Arab society, and indeed for the creation of a united platform of Jews and Arabs in Israel. To quote Ashraf Yihyeh again: ‘Whoever understands what is happening in the world today must conclude that our real problems are global, and that the local national struggles which preoccupy most of us are dwarfed by the danger to the human race that is posed by climate change.”

[1]Nohad Ali, ‘Violence and criminality in Arab society in Israel: Institutional conspiracy or cultural criminality?’ Published by Haifa University and the Aman Center, 2014 https://bit.ly/2Su0u1Vhttps://bit.ly/2Su0u1V

[2]Lior Detel, “80% growth in the number of Arab students in higher education,” in ‘The Marker’ (Jan. 24, 2018). https://www.themarker.com/news/education/1.5762853

[3]Taub Centre, “Arab women’s integration in the work market: qualifications, employment and wages.” March 2018 http://taubcenter.org.il/wp-content/files_mf/arabisraeliwomen.pdf

[4] https://bit.ly/2zfceMK. See also research by Prof. Eran Yashiv and Nitza Kasir  https://bit.ly/2Awobz I

[5] Israeli Government Resolution 922 from January 2016 allocated an unprecedented sum of 12-15 Billion NIS in the next 5 years for the development of the Arab sector in Israel. http://iataskforce.org/sites/default/files/resource/resource-1424.pdf

[6] As part of the Pergolas Reform, Clause 24, which came into force on August 1, 2014 –https://bit.ly/2yQg0x1.

[7] As part of the 2017 Budget, a home improvement surcharge is no longer needed when one installs a solar roof of up to 200 square meters – https://bit.ly/2yLsIwN. In February 2018 this was extended to roofs of up to 7,000 square meters –  https://bit.ly/2F5AEPh.

אודות Assaf Adiv