A group of men are gathered around a small structure full of batteries in the South Hebron Hills. It’s part of a solar installation that supplies electricity to seven off-grid herding families in the occupied Palestinian West Bank. A few metres overhead there is an electricity cable, heading off to an Israeli settlement on the nearby hillside.
Elad Orian, a Israeli physicist, is replacing the batteries in the solar PV system, installed six years ago. He is being helped by Mahmoud, one of the Palestinian farmers whose life has been transformed by getting access to electricity.
It’s heavy work and I’m not of much use, so I sit and watch, enjoying the spring sunshine and pondering on the power politics of this disputed territory.
My partner, Kevin Frea, is involved in community renewables in the UK, and has arranged for us to spend a day with Elad, general manager of Comet-ME (Community, Energy, and Technology in the Middle East), an Israeli-Palestinian initiative to bring electricity and clean water to off-grid communities in Area C of the West Bank.
“It’s more than just a workplace, it’s my life,” Elad tells us. “I started it with a friend in 2009. We are both physicists and met as political activists. We decided we wanted to do something a bit more proactive and constructive which used our technical skills.”
Comet’s work is about politics as much as technology. To grasp the politics, you need to understand the complicated patchwork of political control that makes up the occupied West Bank.
Area C is the area under direct Israeli military and civilian control, which means that Israel is responsible for the provision of services to the Palestinian population there. It’s also home to many Israeli settlements built since 1967 which are considered illegal under international law: all settlements have grid electricity and mains water.
“Many Palestinians in Area C can’t get access to basic services,” Elad says. “For the vast majority there is no technical difficulty in connecting them to the grid, which often goes over their heads, it is about politics.”
The politics of occupation is about making life as difficult as possible for Palestinians, Elad tells me. In the 8 years since they were set up, Comet has put in its solar or hybrid solar/wind installations in about 35 different communities – including all the wiring and associated works. These can serve just one family or an entire village of 40 plus households. Half of these installations have demolition orders issued by the Israeli authorities.
“Over the past few years we have had no choice but to step into the field of legal protection as well,” Elad explains. “We have never had to take down an installation yet.”
It helps that installations are protected from demolition while a court case is pending. But the demolition threat has changed Comet’s strategy. Although larger village-scale micro-grids are more cost effective and technologically superior, Comet is now focussing on smaller, household-based installations, which are less likely to attract demolition orders.
Comet relies on support from European Union member states and from private foundations to support its work, while also charging its customers a monthly electricity bill to help support future maintenance costs. Users pay the same tariff as they would for grid electricity; this is another part of Comet’s philosophy.
“Are there other groups installing renewables in the West Bank?”, I ask as we pass a stationary wind turbine on our way back to Comet’s headquarters, ten miles away. “Yes but we are the best,” says Elad, with typical Israeli bluntness. He quickly persuades me as he sets out Comet’s thought-through approach, which is about collaboration with users, maintenance and follow up. All too often, he tells me, well-meaning organisations put in an installation without proper consultation, and then disappear. Within a year or two the installations fail, and no-one has the knowledge to repair them.
“It’s a machine and any machine needs maintenance and management: a large part of what we do is to make sure systems continue to provide the same service. We put in very high-spec systems because, being off-grid, if the system fails there is no fallback. Our systems are built to have less than 3% of the time when they are not working, and many achieve 0%.”
Comet also limits usage to between 2.5 and 3 kWh a day per household (compared to a UK average of 11 kWh), because this extends battery life. And they ask householders only to use machines like butter churns and washing machines when the sun is shining.
Back at Comet headquarters (also off-grid of course), Elad introduces us to some of his Palestinian colleagues: Comet now employs 17 people, mostly Palestinian.
Ahmad Almasry, Comet’s energy project manager, explains the huge difference electricity can make to a family.
“It’s amazing what you can achieve with 2.5 or 3 kWh a day. You can run a TV, a washing machine, a butter churn, a refrigerator, lights and charge phones and computers. It changes people’s lives completely. Having a light outside of your tent gives you a great feeling of security. Women, instead of spending three hours churning butter, can participate in the economy of the family. Children can study in the evening. You can’t count the benefits, there are too many.”
Any surplus electricity (i.e., once a system’s batteries are full), rather than being discarded, is used to automatically power Comet’s household water systems, which pump, store, distribute, and filter water, to provide safe drinking water for the households and the herds. Elad shows us Comet’s microbiology lab – set up in a cave – where they test the water quality to make sure it meets WHO standards.
“The Israelis’ goal is to make the life of people difficult,” Ahmad’s words echo Elad’s. “All the aquifers in the West Bank are controlled by the Israelis, you can’t drill a well without permission, which you won’t get. Electricity and water is a basic right of any person: we are not providing them with big things.”