GOLAN HEIGHTS (Reuters) - On a gusty hilltop standing between deserted army trenches and rolling mine fields, seven Israeli wind turbines tower above the landscape like aging giants.
The 18-year-old turbines, using outdated technology, are Israel’s sole effort in harnessing wind energy on a large scale.
But that is about to change.
After decades of focusing on solar power, a natural enterprise for a country two-thirds desert, Israel is starting to pour resources into developing its wind energy industry.
Much of that potential, it says, is in the Golan Heights, a strategic and windswept plateau captured from Syria in the 1967 war. Once the focal point of fierce tank battles, the future of the territory will make or break any peace deal with Syria.
Israeli Infrastructure Minister Uzi Landau told Reuters that projects like the turbine field would have to be included in any negotiations with Syria.
Two companies are leading the wind energy push and plan to replace the aging towers with what they say will be the region’s largest wind turbine farm. The project is headed by Israeli firm Multimatrix, which is in the process of buying half of Mei Golan, the company operating the wind turbines.
The deal, to be closed in the coming weeks, will cost $20 million to $25 million, Multimatrix said.
Together with U.S.-based AES Corp, the group hopes to build 160 turbines that will generate about 450 megawatts of electricity. AES declined to comment on the project.
The first seven turbines will be built in 2011 for about $27 million, said Mei Golan Chairman Zahal Harel. The rest will be erected over a period of two years, depending on the final permits, for a cost of about $800 million, he said.
The companies estimate the project will eventually bring in about $150 million in revenue a year.
The Infrastructure Ministry, which set a target of generating 10 percent of Israel’s energy from renewables by 2020, said permits have already been granted for 200 megawatts.
The rest of its energy sector will be split between natural gas from its new off-shore wells and imported coal.
Over the next decade, Israel plans to more than triple its use of wind energy, while increasing its still dominant solar energy production by only 40 percent.
Landau said this was a cost saving decision. While Israel has been a world leader in solar technologies -- namely solar thermal and concentrated photovoltaics -- neither is at the point where it can mass generate electricity cheaply.
“Even in the past few months there has been progress made in the efficiency of wind turbines which are very suitable to our conditions,” Landau said.
Compared to solar, the wind farms will need minimal government subsidies and take up less land, he added.
Virginia Sonntag-O‘Brien, executive secretary of the renewable energy policy network REN21, said Israel has huge potential for wind power and that the shift is not surprising.
“Wind is the flavor of the month these days, with the sector being the hands down renewable energy leader in 2009,” she said.
Israel is exploring options for a number of wind farms across the country, including in its southern Negev desert and along the border in cooperation with Jordan.
But the greatest potential is in the Golan Heights, said Multimatrix Chairman Uri Omid. The group has already leased land for the turbines from the area’s Druze residents.
And the uncertain diplomatic horizon doesn’t worry Omid.
“If the land is returned to Syria in a peace deal, we will be compensated,” he said. “Regardless, this project can work for us or work for them. Someone will always need the electricity.” (Editing by Michael Hogan)