Generating Solar Power—and Self-Reliance—in the West Bank

February 11, 2020

By Andrew Raven, IFC Communications

Fifteen-year-old Abdullah Yasser was at his desk one December morning in 2018 when the power suddenly went out at his West Bank school.

Blackouts are common in his hometown, Beit Hanina, a cluster of limestone buildings in the rugged hills north of Jerusalem. But this would be different. Power would not be fully restored at Yasser’s school for a week, leaving the 10th grader—and 120 schoolmates—without lights or heat in the dead of winter.

“It was terrible,” he recalled recently.

But those blackouts may soon be a thing of the past. An array of solar panels running the length of a soccer field now cover the roof of Yasser’s school, Al Adhameya, pumping energy from the sun into the West Bank’s beleaguered power grid.

Spreading the “Culture of Solar”

The new solar arrays are a test case for solar energy in the West Bank, which has virtually no domestic power industry and imports up to 90 percent of its electricity.

“It is fundamental that we diversify the sources of energy,” said Education Minister Marwan Awartani. He hopes the project will “spread the culture of solar [and make the West Bank] more self-reliant.”

That self-reliance is a long-term goal of officials in the West Bank and Gaza. Between them, the enclaves have a single, hobbled power plant. That, combined with fuel shortages and aging power lines, has led to widespread blackouts. The effect of power cuts is especially dire in Gaza, where the United Nations has warned of “disastrous consequences” from ongoing electricity shortages.

“There are many challenges in the West Bank and Gaza, but perhaps the biggest among them is energy,” says Youssef Habesch, IFC’s resident representative for the West Bank and Gaza.

Al Adhameya is among the first of nearly 500 West Bank schools that will be outfitted with similar arrays over the next three years. The $32 million project, spearheaded by local power company Massader and financed in part by IFC, will be capable of generating 25 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the equivalent of about 16,000 homes.

Blackouts put a brake on commerce and economic growth, says Habesch, which is something the West Bank and Gaza can ill afford. Poverty is rampant, and more than 25 percent of residents are jobless, one of the highest rates in the world.

That’s why there’s a palpable sense of hope in Beit Hanina. There, like in much of the West Bank, rooftop solar arrays are one of the few practical ways to generate electricity.

Al Adhameya principal Sayyef Mansour says the school is excited by the availability of clean, reliable, and relatively cheap power. The school now spends up to four-fifths of its operating budget on electricity,

“At school and in our village, we all consider this solar project a great achievement,” he says. “This project will ensure that students are comfortable in their learning environment... a right everyone should have.”

Abdullah Yasser’s school was among the first in the West Bank to be outfitted with solar panels.

Generating Power, Generating Hope

The rooftop arrays are the first part of what Massader and its parent company, the Palestine Investment Fund, are calling Nour Palestine, a program to develop 200 megawatts of solar power. Nour, Arabic for “light,” would provide about 30 percent of the West Bank’s power once complete.

“This is potentially a game-changer,” says Muhammad Mustafa, Chairman of the Palestine Investment Fund. “This is a big step forward for reducing dependency, building our own production capacity, and improving the environment, which is a very important component of this.”

For the West Bank it also represents a new way of doing business: private companies, instead of the state, are doing much of the construction work and providing a portion of the financing. IFC’s Habesch says that is key in cash-strapped West Bank and Gaza, which needs to invest upwards of $4 billion in its power grid.

The financing package for the solar arrays includes an IFC loan of up to $8.1 million in addition to loans from the Finland-IFC Blended Finance for Climate program and the recently launched Netherlands-IFC MENA Private Sector Development program. The project is also receiving a grant of up to $2 million from the World Bank’s Investment Co-Financing Facility.

Juman Jad says extreme heat in Jericho makes it hard to concentrate at school.
Juman Jad says extreme heat in Jericho makes it hard to concentrate at school.

The project is part of a larger push by IFC and the World Bank Group to bolster power supplies in the West Bank and Gaza and, in the process, jump-start economic development. In 2018, IFC, the Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency (MIGA), and the World Bank, with the help of donors, including the Government of Canada, supported a $12 million project to help Gaza’s biggest industrial park install solar panels on top of several of its buildings.

The new school top solar arrays are music to the ears of Juman Jad, a 13-year-old student at an all-girls school in Jericho, one of the hottest cities on the planet, where summer temperatures often top 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit). When that happens, Jericho’s overworked air conditioners strain the power grid, leading to several blackouts a day.

“We can’t focus on learning because of the heat—and the smell of sweat,” says Jad, whose school was being outfitted with solar panels in December. “Frankly, I like the idea of the solar arrays.”

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Published in February 2020