Middle Eastern off-grid PV garnering unwanted attention

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Hebron, and the region surrounding it, has long been the site of controversy in the West Bank. An article in Germany’s Der Spiegel from September 23, 2010, went as far as to call it "the West Bank in Miniature."

Its religious association with the patriarchs and matriarchs of Judaism, as well as Abraham of Islamic tradition, makes it the second most contested site between the two religions, after Jerusalem. In modern terms, this has resulted in Hebron becoming the hub of Zionist settlements in the West Bank, resulting in a web of restrictions and legislation to control movement and access, in order to keep the lives of the settlers and Palestinians as separate as possible, some would say with limited success.

A cluster of villages named Masafer Yatta in the South Hebron Hills provides proof of how this conflict quickly becomes the politics of resources, with photovoltaics now providing the frontline of the debate. The communities lie on land classed as "Area C" under the 1993 Oslo Accords, putting them under full Israeli civil and security control. This means that residents have to apply for planning permission to build on their land, including the majority of construction to connect to the grid.

According to local news agency, Ma’an, permits are granted to an average of one percent of the total land, most of which has already been built on. Ala Qawasmi, an engineer with Comet-ME told Ma’an that "the land area is limited, and it would be easier to connect to the grid than, for example, in African communities, but the problem here is political."

The Ma’an’s report stated that "during one month in 2011, Israeli forces tore down two attempts to connect to the PA electricity grid in Masafer Yatta." Electricity supplied by the Palestinian Authority does not service Area C areas, although all electricity in the West Bank must be purchased from Israel. There is grid electricity in the area, however, running from Israel to the six Zionist settlements, which began cropping up in 1981.

Many communities began installing a variety of renewable technologies, particularly off-grid photovoltaics, to circumvent the problem. Yet many solar developments were also demolished after being ruled as "illegal" by COGAT, the section of the Israeli Ministry of Defence that presides over civilian life in the West Bank.

In September 2011, Israeli authorities issued demolition orders for a Spanish-government funded community solar project in Masafer Yatta, and in the months since, six solar and wind power systems in the area, all funded by European governments and development groups, have received demolition warnings.

Even in the face of these restrictions, there are still companies working to provide solar installations to communities living in Masafer Yatta. The Applied Research Institute of Jerusalem has been providing off-grid solar installations for Bedouin communities living in Masafer Yatta for three years, careful to keep each installation small enough to avoid the restrictions governed the planning regulations that dictate life in Area C.

ARIJ has installed between six and ten of these household-size installations since 2009. Each comprises photovoltaic panels, a battery and an inverter controller, and generates one kilowatt of power – enough to provide power to one family. Rula Rizik of ARIJ told pv magazine, "We are using the best technology of solar panels manufactured by Chinese factories with European specifications. It is with [sic] reasonable price and good technical specification with guarantee for the efficiency of the solar for 25 years."

"The goal is to make life easier, better for these people, and to try to help them in their work," Rizik explained. "These people are marginalised, they are so poor, but it’s impossible to connect them to the grid or to electricity from villages or from Area A."

The solar power provided by ARIJ in the case of the Bedouin helps them to power schools, houses and even local businesses, which produce and store traditional cheeses, thus allowing them to generate a small income. Previously, the cheeses had to be produced by hand and couldn’t be refrigerated, but the power produced by the solar installations allows more wide-scale production and storage of the products, which aids business. "The idea is to make essential daily life easier for these people," she emphasized.

However, even on such a small scale, these installations are still under threat. The size of the installations are deliberately designed not to contradict any part of the planning regulations specified under the 1993 Oslo Accords, but according to Ms Rizik, "that doesn’t mean that if they don’t want to remove them, that they won’t."

ARIJ began working with off-grid photovoltaics specifically, because they allow for smaller installations of this type, as previous wind-powered projects had been pulled down due to their size. Even so, Guy Inbar, the spokesman for COGAT who spoke to Ma’an, said that the entire area "is missing any legal status" – an issue which could even affect such small installations.

Nonetheless, Ms Rizik is convinced that photovoltaics can provide a new golden age of energy independence for Palestine – one which allows it to break away from buying Israeli energy. "Palestine as a country gets 320 days of sunlight per year, but we have no source of electricity, apart from Israel. So we thought, why not use the resources we do have?" she said.

Rizik and her colleagues at ARIJ are currently pushing for the introduction of a feed-in tariff in Palestine, where grid electricity is available, as she feels that the end-user drop in cost will incentivise a potentially huge market. Here, the issue of energy independence is about more than freedom from fossil fuels, it becomes freedom to generate and exploit energy in a political sense.

With the abundance of solar radiation present in the country, it is hoped that photovoltaics can help power this freedom in Palestine.