* Israel the only country to use a gas buoy
* Supplies can meet 20 pct of country's needs for a week
* Tanker is a potential target for militant groups
By Ari Rabinovitch
HADERA, Israel, Jan 31 Permanently anchored in
the choppy waters of the eastern Mediterranean, the gas tanker
Excellence is in a constant state of alert, waiting for the
phone call that Israel needs fuel.
The only country in the world to rely on a boat for its
emergency energy supplies, the unconventional system proved its
worth last month when a rare snowstorm swept Israel, leading
technicians to call in for help to meet the surging demand.
The gas, imported and stored onboard in liquid form, was
"regassified" and pumped through a special buoy into an
underwater pipeline. In less than an hour, the Israel Electric
Corp (IEC) had received its badly needed boost.
Israel is near a tipping point. Sometime in the next year or
so, gas will surpass coal to become the main fuel for
electricity production, a shift made possible by the discovery
of huge offshore natural gas fields.
The buoy was completed a year ago for about 500 million
shekels ($143 million). Separate from the exploration network,
it offers a back-up in case of a spike in demand or any mishap
in the single pipeline connecting the Israeli fields to shore.
A few other deep sea buoys have been built elsewhere in the
world, but none are in use, officials said. Usually
multi-billion dollar piers and land-based facilities are
constructed to receive the liquefied natural gas (LNG).
But when militants in Egypt's Sinai peninsula blew up a
cross-border gas pipeline in 2011, Israel in an instant lost
vital supplies. IEC was forced to burn more expensive
diesel and fuel oil and the company's already onerous debt
ballooned to 70 billion shekels.
"We needed to find a creative solution that ensured a
reliable gas supply," said Yaron Ronai, head of IEC's gas and
Having the tanker on standby costs $100 million a year and
each load costs $50-60 million, but that is by far surpassed by
the savings in fuel costs, Ronai said.
It is meant to be just a stop-gap solution. Hopefully in a
few years there will be more fields producing gas and a second
pipeline connecting them to shore, he said, meaning the huge,
red-hulled ship will no longer be necessary.
On a clear day from the deck of the tanker, four smokestacks
can be seen towering above the IEC power station in the coastal
city of Hadera about 6 miles (10 km) away.
Floating so close to Israel poses security challenges. The
tanker, like the gas drilling rigs nearby, could be a prime
target for Palestinian or Lebanese militants.
It carries up to 138,000 cubic meters of LNG. When full,
Ronai said, it can provide 3,000 megawatt hours of electricity -
about 20 percent of Israel's total needs - for a week.
Israel's navy has invested heavily to create a defensive
envelope around the natural gas operations and officials say
there is a military response for any possible attack.
But much falls on the companies.
"We reduce the risk by being offshore," said Captain Evelyn
Rogge, the ship's master. They sail under a Belgian flag, but
the tanker is run by Texas-based Excelerate Energy. "We can
leave the area if a situation develops which is not secure
anymore. This is a big advantage."
A private security boat circles the tanker at all times.
Rogge said they keep a relatively large crew on board, have a
heightened monitoring of the vicinity and are constantly
communicating with the relevant Israeli authorities.
Rogge would not address each specific threat, saying only:
"The security challenges are there and are being met".
In an emergency, she said, the tanker can unlatch from the
buoy in five minutes and set sail. Otherwise, the only time it
is not on standby is during the three days it takes to refill
when its cargo runs out.
(Editing by Crispian Balmer and William Hardy)