Gaza's Solar Power in Wartime

In the aftermath of Hamas’s October 7 attack, the Israeli energy minister vowed “no electric switch will be turned on, no water tap will be opened, and no fuel truck will enter [Gaza] until the Israeli abductees are home.” Gaza is heavily reliant on Israel for the delivery of both electricity and diesel expressly for electricity generation, and it is experiencing widespread power outages as a result of Israel’s blockade.

In recent years, Palestinians and international actors have sought to enhance the resilience of Gaza’s electricity sector. In fact, they have installed so much solar energy for critical infrastructure, businesses, and domestic usage that the authors estimate that Gaza likely now has the highest density of rooftop solar systems in the world. Renewable electricity provides more reliable power to Gaza than is otherwise available, and it is not subject to the politicization of fuel and energy exports from Israel.

The current conflict has taken its toll, however. Israel has argued that electricity can be diverted from civilian to military purposes, and it has destroyed a significant proportion of Gaza’s burgeoning solar infrastructure during the current war. Still, solar power has provided a lifeline for Gazans when all other electricity infrastructure has failed. Gaza demonstrates both the potential of solar power in conflict-affected environments and its limitations.

Gaza’s Electricity Sector

Prior to the outbreak of war on October 7, Israel directly or indirectly supplied most of Gaza’s electricity. About half came through 10 Israeli power lines, supplying 120 megawatts (MW). While Israel charges the Palestinian Authority (PA) for this, the PA often has refused to pay, and Israel periodically has erased the debt. Gaza also had a single diesel power plant that generated an additional 65–75 MW, with fuel purchased from Israel and financed by Qatar.

The arrangement did not always work smoothly. In recent years, Israel blocked deliveries of fuel for Gaza’s power plant in August 2020, May 2021, and August 2022. Israeli strikes during past escalations also damaged electricity infrastructure, and Hamas was slow to repair it. Even in normal times, electricity demand far exceeded supply, and most Gazans reportedly only received power from the grid for six to eight hours per day.

Because of persistent shortages, Gazans innovated with different methods of electricity generation and distribution. These informal private systems provided the remaining 25 percent of electricity supply. A recent internal survey by an international humanitarian organization identified 23 different technical setups of power systems that operate beyond the grid (either entirely off-grid or hybrid). These systems include small generators and solar systems. Because Gaza has 320 sunny days a year and many buildings have flat roofs, it has ideal conditions for rooftop solar panels. The Israeli government sporadically restricted their importation, but even so, solar uptake increased dramatically.

At the household level, Gazans who could afford solar panels rapidly purchased them. The number of solar installations in Gaza grew exponentially from 12 in 2012 to 8,760 in 2019, according to a 2021 study. CSIS analysis of satellite imagery from May 2022 found at least 655 rooftop solar systems in a one square mile sample area of Gaza city, likely representing the highest density of rooftop solar panels in the world. Estimating the total number of rooftop solar systems in the Gaza Strip today is challenging, but preliminary analysis indicates that there are likely now more than 12,400 rooftop solar systems in the Gaza Strip. Land use classification conducted by He Yin at Kent State University shows that in 2023, the Gaza Strip has an area of 140 square miles, of which 38 square miles is developed. Even if the sample area studied had twice the number of rooftop solar systems as the average for developed land in the Gaza Strip, we would expect there to be a total of roughly 12,445 systems. An electrical engineer for a solar panel business in Gaza corroborated the high deployment of solar power in Gaza, estimating that at least a third of Gaza’s population and more than 50 percent of its businesses used solar panels in March 2023.

Will Todman
Deputy Director and Senior Fellow, Middle East Program
Jennifer Jun
Project Manager and Research Associate (Imagery Analysis), iDeas Lab and Korea Chair
Remote Visualization

In addition, international donors have funded solar power for critical humanitarian infrastructure, including hospitals and water systems. An $11 million World Bank project that began in 2018 provided loans to households and businesses, as well as grants for essential public services such as hospitals, to install rooftop solar panels. A separate $2 million United Nations Development Program project installed solar systems in four Gaza hospitals. Germany provided $92 million for the Bureij Central Wastewater Plant, which is energy self-sufficient due to a 4 MW solar and biogas plant. Meanwhile, the International Finance Corporation structured a debt financing package for a project to install solar panels in Gaza’s industrial estate. The International Committee of the Red Cross also enhanced the synchronization of generators in hospitals, facilitating the integration of solar power, limiting fuel consumption, and providing more reliable electricity supply.

While the environmental benefits of solar systems for Gaza are clear, donors sought to use solar systems to advance energy security. Their logic was that distributed solar infrastructure limits single points of failure in the electricity sector, reduces reliance on fuel imports, and can be repaired more quickly than large power stations.

Remote Visualization

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The Impact of the War

The current war has crippled Gaza’s electricity grid. Rockets that Hamas fired at Israel on October 7 destroyed some of the electrical lines that supply Gaza from Israel, and workers from the Israeli electricity utility refused to repair them. That same day, the Israeli government cut off the direct electricity supply and blocked diesel imports, arguing that it would be diverted to Hamas for military purposes. As a result, Gaza’s sole central power plant shut down on October 11. UN agencies reported that their stockpiles of fuel were running out about a month later, forcing hospitals and desalination plants offline. On November 17, Gaza’s internet and telephone services collapsed due to a lack of fuel, forcing the United Nations to halt aid deliveries. The blockade of fuel imports also prevented many private diesel generators from operating, as only generator owners with their own stockpiles of fuel could continue their services.

The fighting has also destroyed solar systems on critical infrastructure. Satellite imagery shows evidence of damage from Israeli strikes to larger scale solar infrastructure, including the German-funded Gaza wastewater plant, which had only opened in April 2023. Al Jazeera reported that Israeli strikes destroyed rooftop solar panels on Gaza City’s al-Shifa hospital on November 6. The Israeli military denied targeting the solar panels at the hospital, and satellite images from November 11 showed extensive damage in the vicinity of the hospital, including to solar panels, but did not appear to show external physical damage to either of the solar systems on the main hospital complex.

Remote Visualization

Photo: Copyright © Airbus DS 2023

Fighting has also destroyed smaller rooftop systems. Satellite imagery of a one square mile sample area in Gaza city taken on November 11, 2023, showed that 17 of the 29 largest rooftop solar systems (100 m2 and larger) had either been completely destroyed or showed external damage. Rooftop systems are vulnerable to the effects of fighting as they are often on elevated frames that are exposed to shrapnel from nearby.

The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) have argued that solar panels serve potential military purposes. Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari, an IDF spokesperson, showed an embedded CNN journalist how rooftop solar panels near a hospital connected to an underground tunnel, which he said Hamas used. The general director of hospitals in the Gaza Strip, Muhammad Zaqout, denied the tunnel was connected to Hamas and said it was “actually an electrical wire assembly point.” Without seeing where the cables terminate, it is impossible to determine their use.

Some solar systems that remain intact have been unable to function due to the lack of fuel. Institutions’ rooftop solar systems often require drawing a small amount of electricity from the grid to function, and the grid has now collapsed. Small off-grid systems can provide limited power, but they are often inadequate for refrigeration and can merely charge mobile phones or turn lights on.

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Lessons from Gaza

Because of the fighting, much of Gaza’s critical infrastructure is now offline. Humanitarian officials told CSIS that they never expected to deal with this intensity or duration of violent conflict, even in Gaza. This war has revealed the vulnerability of electrical grids that have external dependencies, and it has also demonstrated the limited utility of diesel generators that depend on fuel.

Even though it is badly damaged, solar power remains a lifeline for many Gazans. It has slowed the depletion of critical fuel reserves, extended the ability of hospitals to function, and allowed civilians to charge their phones. Humanitarians have also been able to repair damaged distributed solar infrastructure more easily than centralized infrastructure. When Israeli shelling destroyed part of the Gaza power plant in 2014, it took a year before it was up and running again. Today, humanitarian officials have used network analyses to identify where the focus of maintenance should be and have managed to repair some solar systems using pre-positioned stockpiles of spare parts in just days.

Solar systems in Gaza have demonstrated the resilience of small-scale systems in conflict zones. When conflicts are still raging, though, adversaries see those same systems aiding their enemies and prolonging conflict. Electricity supply is by its very nature “dual use,” and it is difficult to separate electricity for humanitarian purposes from that used by fighters. For that reason, future combatants may seek to reduce adversaries’ access to solar power, at the same time that vulnerable populations seek increased access to solar power to help them survive conflict.

Will Todman is deputy director and a senior fellow in the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Jennifer Jun is a project manager and research associate for satellite imagery analysis with the iDeas Lab and Korea Chair at CSIS. Joseph S. Bermudez Jr. is senior fellow for imagery analysis with the iDeas Lab and Korea Chair at CSIS.

Special thanks to William Taylor from the CSIS iDeas Lab for imagery markup design and to Rayna Salam for editing and publication support.