Energix Faces Opposition in Syria and Virginia

In early December hundreds of Syrians gathered to protest the Israeli company Energix as it began construction of massive wind turbines in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Energix is also facing growing community opposition across Virginia as it lobbies to secure permits to build solar energy utilities on mostly agricultural parcels with cultural, forest and natural land designations. In Golan Heights, Energix freely wields the power of Israeli police and courts to transcend community opposition. In Virginia, Energix steamrolls community opponents empowered by massive federal and state subsidies and a curious state agency – the Virginia Israel Advisory Board – that exclusively promotes Israeli business ventures.

Israel has occupied the Golan Heights ever since launching the 1967 Six-Day War and expelling 100,000 Syrians from their homes and properties. Efforts toward the "Israelization" of Golan include Israel’s unilateral declared annexation of territory in 1981 followed by an inpouring of Israeli settlers which today number 22,000 in 33 colonies. In 2019 Israel and its U.S. lobby convinced President Donald Trump to declare, "the US recognizes that the Golan Heights are part of the State of Israel." This proclamation was immediately rejected by the European Union and no other countries followed suit.

Israel’s settler-colonization of Golan includes winemaking and tourism ventures. Exploiting Golan’s renewable energy resources is a relatively new venture made easier by a key comparative advantage. Well-capitalized Israeli companies like Energix Renewable Energies, which is listed on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange, do not have to compete with local agricultural, cultural and historic preservation interests. Instead, Energix obtains permits from Israel and then attempts to divide and conquer the local Syrian community by signing secret leases with landowners. When the community began mobilizing opposition via Al-Marshad, Energix sued the nonprofit organization in an Israeli court where it was accused of an illegal boycott of Israel. When Energix got wind that another organization, the Al Sham Center called for a protest earlier this month, it made sure Israeli police were present to counter hundreds of protesters and ensure Energix construction proceeded without interruption.

Energix also plans to build 700 megawatts of solar energy utilities across the state of Virginia but faces similar opposition. Aided by the powerful VIAB, which counts the new speaker of the state house Eileen Filler-Corn as a former member, Energix has received massive state and federal subsidies. However, in Virginia the county boards of supervisors – not Richmond politicians – have final say on special use permits required to build solar arrays. VIAB’s power to promote Energix in Virginia counties is less potent than Israel’s promotion of Energix projects in the occupied Golan. One case study is Greensville County, in southern Virginia bordering North Carolina.

A representative of MDB Strategies, which works as an outside lobby firm for VIAB, visited Greensville County in June of 2019 to press for fast-track county permits to build a sprawling 82.5-megawatt utility which would have been Energix’s largest. But Greensville County had already been hobbled by another VIAB sponsored project – Oran Safety Glass. The county gave away millions in subsidies and assumed more millions in loans to bring the Israeli military contractor from an Israeli kibbutz to the economically depressed city of Emporia in 2006. Oran Safety Glass knowingly delivered substandard, out-of-spec bulletproof glass to its main customer, the US Army and after being heavily fined has not received US military contracts since 2018, imperiling county finances. Perhaps cognizant of the inherent risk of VIAB-sponsored projects, Greensville County ultimately turned down Energix’s pre-permit application. Although this "Energix Jarrat" utility appears on the 2020 Energix map the project now appears to be dead. Other projects such as a 20-megawatt New Kent County solar utility appearing on earlier project maps Energix touts to county officials – though curiously not to its own shareholders – are also now dead, having been successfully derailed by local communities more interested in preserving cultural landmarks, key watersheds, and zones slated for preservation and sustainable housing.

In Rockingham County in the Shenandoah Valley a local "Eject Energix" group formed consisting of landowners and tourism businesses surrounding two large parcels of land in the scenic valley below Endless Caverns. Energix wants to build a 31-megawatt solar utility on prime agricultural land near sensitive ecosystems, possibly razing buildings eligible for protection via the National Register of Historic Places. Though not against solar energy, most neighbors would prefer utility scale solar arrays be built on coal mine wastelands which at 71,000 acres Virginia has in abundance. Energix would prefer to build at Endless caverns, regardless of the impact to nearby hotels and tourism businesses because a large Dominion Energy substation abuts the properties. Since 2018 neighbors have beat back multiple Rockingham County Board of Supervisor attempts to give away special use permits for the Energix site, most recently in October.

The negative local economic impact of most Energix sites is clear. They produce no permanent local jobs for counties or even local energy capacity. Nearly all of the generated electricity is sold off to the PJM regional transmission network. According to a peer-reviewed academic study, nearby landowners face average property value declines of $26,000 each, which Energix never offers to make whole. In many cases, the downward spiral in property values near Energix solar utilities such as Rives Road, touches off further solar expansion into adjacent woodlands and other natural areas. Like its secret deals with property owners in Golan Heights, Energix quietly offers Virginia county boards of supervisors various sweeteners. In Chesapeake, it was a $50,000 payment for an "Open Space and Agricultural Preservation" program. In Campbell County, it was $50,000 for a housing program, which the county attorney flatly rejected as being "illegal."

As in the Golan, Virginia communities battling Energix are vastly outgunned in financial terms. In 2019-2020 Energix raised $208 million in new stock sales on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange. Energix is also awash in federal tax subsidies. In 2019 Energix obtained an option to purchase $120 million in solar panels from the US manufacturer First Solar. Energix claims this single transaction allows it to obtain Solar Energy Investment Tax Credits at the maximum rate of 30 percent of its capital expenditures indefinitely, even though the US program is phasing out. According to its financial filings, Energix and its tax partner Morgan Stanley executed $48 million in tax credit transactions in 2020. Unwitting US taxpayers, including communities opposed to Energix sites, are therefore subsidizing Energix’s buildout from Virginia to the Golan through the "tax gap" created by this subsidy.

Earlier in the year, Energix claimed its US payroll had miraculously jumped from 9 US employees at year end 2019 to 152 this spring, allowing it to obtain a $2-5 million Payroll Protection Program forgivable loan as reported by the SBA. This represented 33 percent of all $350,000 and above category loans going to Virginia solar companies. Not to be outdone, in August the Virginia Governor’s office promised to subsidize each hire at Energix’s new Arlington headquarters to the tune of $1,000, a subsidy given to no other solar company in the state.

Like their counterparts in Golan Heights, Virginians fighting back against Energix are opposing a form of Israeli colonization. In Golan it is open, raw settler colonization of land and natural resources backed by a crushing foreign police and military power. All relevant decisions are made and disputes "resolved" by unrepresentative government entities in Israel to the exclusive benefit of Israelis.

In Virginia it is a stealth VIAB and Israeli colonization of state and local governments to expropriate public resources for Israeli companies and select members of the state and national Israel lobby. The Virginia power and resource grab involves equally unjust and unrepresentative government resource allocations riddled with corruption. It remains to be seen whether Virginians – themselves descendants of settler colonists who successfully expelled distant British colonial masters – can rise up against a new kind of foreign meddling.

Grant F. Smith is the director of the Institute for Research: Middle Eastern Policy in Washington and the author of the 2019 book, The Israel Lobby Enters State Government: Rise of the Virginia Israel Advisory Board, available in paperback and audio book.