Given the troubled state of Gaza’s existing power grid and a chronic lack of electricity, alternative methods of producing energy could be a literal lifeline for the two million residents of the Strip. Solar energy, harnessing the abundant sunshine of the region, could provide significant relief. Gisha investigated the use of solar energy in Gaza and discovered that entrance of solar panels has risen dramatically, in fact doubling within the last year. Yet, like almost everything else in Gaza, the permit regime imposed by Israel limits the growth of this field, creating delays and other challenges for those hoping to develop the use of solar energy in the Strip.
Gaza’s electricity crisis, exacerbated by the reduction of electricity supply sold and provided by Israel in June, implemented at the request of the Palestinian Authority, has encouraged many to look for alternative energy sources. Solar energy can provide an alternative to the use of generators, which, for those who can afford the fuel, can supply electricity during long power outages. Generators run on diesel, which is both expensive and polluting. They are also noisy, wear down easily from overuse, and cause many accidents.
The story of Mutaurin (Arabic for “the developers”), a hi-tech company based in Gaza, provides an example of how solar energy can contribute to economic activity and vastly improve quality of life in the Strip. The owners of Mutaurin, Reem al-Aweiti and Khalil Salim, employ 38 staff who develop applications. With partial funding from USAID, they financed the installment of a 12,000-dollar (USD) solar energy system in their offices, which are, in fact, repurposed warehouses. The company relocated after its previous offices were destroyed in the 2014 military operation Protective Edge. Salim says that with the help of the new solar energy system, the company is able to work without interruption and therefore finish projects on time. The company has received several awards for its work but unfortunately, Salim and al-Aweiti could not obtain the permits necessary to exit Gaza in order to accept them.
Several civil society organizations and banks have started offering low-interest loans for people to install solar energy systems for domestic use. This has sent demand soaring. Muna al Alami, director of al-Faten, an organization that offers micro-financing for social initiatives in Gaza, says her organization offers loans of up to 5,000 USD for the installation of rooftop solar panels and 1,000 USD for smaller systems that do not require roof space, for people living in apartment buildings. All told, solar panel imports into the Gaza Strip shot up by 103 percent during the first seven months of 2017, compared to the same period in 2016.
Household solar energy systems will never fully suffice as substitutes for a stable, advanced power grid, the infrastructure that Gaza so desperately needs. However, these systems can to some extent help to alleviate the hardships suffered by individuals, small businesses and institutions in Gaza due to lack of electricity. Several international organizations have started advancing solar projects to boost power supply to hospitals, schools, universities and service facilities. The Gaza Electricity Distribution Company is currently promoting a pilot project whereby 1,000 households would be connected to solar energy systems.
These positive developments are nonetheless riddled with hurdles. Conversations with suppliers of solar energy systems in Gaza reveal that one major hurdle is restrictions imposed by Israel on the entrance of batteries into the Strip. Though the solar panels themselves can be brought in easily enough, batteries and transformers require special coordination, as they are considered by Israel to be dual-use items. As a rule, Israel prohibits the entry of lithium batteries and other highly efficient batteries. Gaza’s solar energy systems rely then on dry batteries, which are of inferior quality and only last one year, as opposed to the extended life span of the more advanced batteries (10 to 15 years). This causes many to hesitate before investing in solar energy.
In addition, Al Alami says that demand for the loans offered by her organization are far below expectation, partly because of concerns that Israel will delay the entry of equipment. The grim economic situation in Gaza, aggravated even further following the Palestinian Authority’s decision to cut its employees’ salaries and force thousands of others into early retirement, is another challenge. The economic crisis deters many families from borrowing money, even when offered loans with beneficial terms.
Mohammad al Alami, a supplier of solar energy systems in Gaza, told Gisha that when he orders parts from China, he has to wait three months until they reach the Strip. Al Alami and other suppliers say they are discouraged from making large orders for parts, as they fear that customers might cancel their orders by the time the parts arrive and their entry into Gaza is coordinated, putting them at risk of sustaining great losses. Suppliers are also concerned that Israeli authorities might suddenly impose further restrictions on various parts. Trucks carrying panels, transformers and batteries into Gaza are often barred entry to the Strip, turned away on the Israeli side without explanation. The merchandise is either delayed or never reaches its destination. Every one of these delays adds to suppliers’ costs and impedes the use of solar energy as a viable alternative for power in the Strip.
Thus, the use of solar energy, which could theoretically help to address a critical problem that impacts the lives of two million people, falls far short of its potential. And why? Because when it comes to Gaza, Israel’s default is to delay or obstruct, ostensibly but not necessarily for security reasons. In any case, security interests alone can’t justify undermining the use of vital technologies that would improve quality of life and allow people to live in dignity. Despite repeated statements about the importance of mobilizing to allow rehabilitation and development in Gaza, the policy implemented on the ground suppresses entrepreneurship, undermines growth and with it hope.