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Israel, Cyprus, Greece advance underwater power cable project

Israeli, Greek and Cypriot energy ministers signed last week an agreement to advance the undersea Euro-Asia Interconnector electricity cable.
Delegations from Egypt, Israel, Cyprus, Italy, the Palestinian Authority, Jordan, France, the US and Greece attend the East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF), in Cairo on January 16, 2020. (Photo by Khaled DESOUKI / AFP) (Photo by KHALED DESOUKI/AFP via Getty Images)

The ministers of energy of Israel, Cyprus and Greece took a major step March 8 toward bridging Asia and Europe, inking an agreement on connecting their national electricity grids through some 1,500-kilometer (932-mile) underwater Mediterranean cable. At a maximum depth of 2.7 kilometers (1.7 miles), the 2,000 megawatt Euro-Asia Interconnector will be the deepest and longest submarine electricity cable in the world.

The so-called electricity highway is designed to provide energy security for each of the three countries, using clean energy sources. It will span some 310 kilometers (193 miles) between Israel and Cyprus, 900 kilometers (559 miles) between Cyprus and Crete, and an additional 310 kilometers between Crete and Ithaca in Greece. Construction of the 2.5 billion euro project will be co-financed by the European Union, which has designated it a Project of Common Interest, and the partner states. Completion is scheduled for 2024.

The memorandum of understanding signed by Energy Ministers Natasa Pilides of Cyprus, Israel’s Yuval Steinitz and Greece’s Kostas Skrekas calls for cooperation in planning, developing and implementing the project. The sides have committed to share information and harmonize standards in keeping with the goals of the Paris climate accord on decarbonizing the global economy.

“The cable will provide us with emergency backing from European electric grids; more importantly, it will help us expand significantly our reliance on solar energy in keeping with the government’s solar energy goals,” Steinitz told Al-Monitor.

Israel has committed to generating 30% of its electricity from clean energy sources by 2030. To achieve this ambitious goal, the government has issued tenders for the construction of solar panel fields in the Negev Desert and is taking steps to encourage the installation of rooftop solar panels, the development of power storage capacity and the penetration of electric cars into the Israeli market. It also plans to increase public investment in renewable energy research and development.

Following the signing ceremony in Cyprus, Steinitz headed for a meeting in Cairo of the member states of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum formed in 2019 in the wake of major gas discoveries in the region. It consists of Israel, Egypt, Cyprus, Greece, the Palestinian Authority, Jordan, Italy and France, and the United States as an observer. The Emirates are also seeking to join the group with a view to transporting gas from the Persian Gulf to Europe in the future through a proposed gas pipeline from Egypt, through Cyprus to Greece and Italy.

Steinitz presented the forum with his vision of turning the Mediterranean Basin into a cleaner area by replacing maritime oil transportation with natural gas. Meeting participants approved the initiative and agreed to form a working group to advance the idea in cooperation with the EU.

According to Steinitz’s long-term plan, the entry of commercial and tourism vessels into the Mediterranean will be limited unless they run on liquefied natural gas or hydrogen. Such a move is expected to reduce considerably air pollution in Mediterranean coastal cities from Syria to Egypt, including the cities of Haifa and Ashdod in Israel.

Steinitz told Al-Monitor his plan would also reduce the threat of polluting oil spills of the type that occurred in February 2021, causing one of Israel’s worst ecological disasters in decades. The oil reportedly leaked from a vessel transporting fuel from Iran to Syria. The Emerald allegedly turned off its transponders when it sailed in waters off Israel’s coast, making it hard to pinpoint the source of the leak.

The claim by Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel that the spill was a terror attack has not been substantiated by security agencies. Rather, it appears to have been caused by a fault in the old and poorly maintained tanker. In any case, even if Steinitz’s proposal is adopted, enforcing it would be difficult as proven by Iran’s constant evasion of international economic sanctions on its oil exports.

The natural gas fields in the Mediterranean are spread over the territories of various countries, prompting disputes over gas production rights. One such conflict pits Lebanon against Israel. A US-mediated attempt in October 2020 to resolve the dispute has failed. Given the proximity of those talks to the US presidential elections, further discussions were postponed.

At least one dispute has now been resolved. Following more than a decade of negotiations, Steinitz reached an agreement last week with his Cypriot counterpart Pilides over the natural gas field that lies in the territorial waters of both countries — named Aphrodite by Cyprus and Yishai by Israel. As part of the agreement reached by the two ministers in Nicosia, the companies engaged in gas exploration in Cypriot waters will enter talks with those on the Israeli side to finalize the manner in which Israeli firms will be compensated for their share of the reservoir.

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