When I first sought out Muhammad Salem, he was awaiting the birth of his fourth child, a girl, at Al-Makassed hospital in East Jerusalem. The baby’s name would go through several iterations in the course of the night. First it was Luna. Then Natalie. Eventually the family would settle on Dina.
In retrospect, the event seems like a symbol of the region’s rebirth: as Muhammad and I chatted in the waiting room of the maternity ward, a TV news report showed Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, just a day from being driven from power as president of Tunisia, condemning violent protests that had broken out in that country. Neither of us could anticipate what would unfold in the Arab world in the months to come.
“We hope for a good future for her in this land,” Muhammad said of his baby daughter.
Muhammad, a Palestinian engineer who designs and installs small wind turbines for homes in the territories, had recently forged an unusual alliance: he partnered with an Israeli engineer, Yanir Avital, with the goal of manufacturing and selling wind turbines together in both Israel and the Palestinian territories. They do not share a common cultural background, but they share a deep interest in wind energy as something that can benefit their peoples economically and environmentally.
In the Palestinian territories, the main obstacle to a booming renewable energy sector is a general lack of knowledge, Muhammad said. “If I speak about the environment or renewable energy in Palestine, they don’t understand exactly what it is,” he explained. “It’s not that nobody cares; nobody knows.”
To increase awareness, Muhammad built a portable model home on a central street in Bethlehem, his hometown, complete with a computer and a small refrigerator powered by solar panels and a wind turbine. The goal was to engage curious passersby and demonstrate the difference that renewable energy could make in their daily lives by either supplementing the electricity they now draw from the grid, or by entirely powering their rural homes.
“Electricity without money,” reads the banner on the outside of the portable home that he created.
Muhammad and Yanir usually hold their business meetings at a restaurant in Beit Jala, a West Bank town just outside Bethlehem, a 6o-mile commute from Yanir’s home in a settlement near Nablus.
“Mabrouk!” Yanir said as he greeted Muhammad there, referring to Dina’s birth. He used an Arabic word meaning “congratulations” that is commonly used in Israel as well.
For Israeli wind entrepreneurs, Yanir said, the main barrier to growth has been bureaucratic obstacles to obtaining permits, especially because some of the best sites for harnessing wind are in the heavily contested Golan Heights.
“It’s actually easier on the Palestinian side,” Yanir said. Yet there is another dividend: “If I want to sell a turbine to countries that are hostile to Israel,” he said, “it will be easier to sell if the turbine will be produced in the Palestinian territories and not in Israel.”
While Israel is an emerging leader in the clean technology field, it has invested less in wind technology than other renewable energy sources because the potential for wind power in Israel is rather limited, experts say.
According to the Israeli Ministry of National Infrastructures, Israel and the West Bank could eventually rely on wind for a maximum of 5 percent of total energy, although this estimate does not include offshore potential. “We have been blessed with wind, but in very isolated places,” said a ministry researcher. “We are more blessed with sun than wind. Not that wind energy efforts are not growing, they are just growing much slower in Israel than biomass and solar energy.”
The researcher said that Israel aims to draw 10 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020, and that legislation is being considered to ease the way for more wind turbine installations.
The New York Times