How Lebanon's electricity crisis sparked a solar power revolution
For decades, paying two electricity bills in Lebanon has been the norm: one for state-provided electricity and another for a subscription to a private electricity generator.
Since 2019, Lebanon has been facing a severe financial crisis that the World Bank has called one of the worst in modern history. The country’s already struggling electricity sector has felt the impact of the economic downturn, and has become notoriously dysfunctional.
Today, residents of Beirut only receive two to three hours of state electricity per day. A few years ago, many would rely instead on private electricity generators. But with rising inflation, many were forced to reprioritize needs, laying aside their generator subscriptions.
Instead, solar panels now dot rooftops, parking lots, and balconies, allowing for a return to normalcy.
"The soaring demand for solar installations, according to Khoury, explains where the country could potentially be heading in terms of renewable and clean energy"
“Lebanese are increasingly turning to the sun to meet electricity needs, and solar power has become a must to secure a supply of sustainable electricity,” Ramzi Salmen, an environmental engineer, told The New Arab.
“The positive environmental outcome is the production of clean, renewable, and emission-free power,” Salmen emphasised.
According to the IMF, electricity accounts for almost half of Lebanon’s USD 85 billion of public debt. The government has been subsidising Electricite du Liban, the national electric company, for years, accumulating to USD 35 billion.
Sustainable electricity experts say that the Lebanese government needs to build new power plants, shut down inefficient old ones, and utilise renewable energy to provide 24-hour electricity at lower costs, reducing public spending and debt and increasing productivity. This, in turn, would generate “green jobs” in the renewable energy sector and contribute to economic growth.
“People are switching to solar for two main reasons: one is the security of the power supply as it is one of the most convenient options, but also because it is the cheapest source of electricity now compared to conventional energy sources that use diesel fuel,” Pierre Khoury, president of the Lebanese Centre for Energy Conservation (LCEC), told The New Arab.
This solar boom, according to Khoury, has a positive impact on the environment by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and if the market continues this way, they hope to report this reduction soon.
“It is important to look at the interesting figures. Between 2010 and 2020, Lebanon witnessed 100 megawatts of solar installations. Just in 2021, another 100 megawatts of solar installations and by the end of 2022, we are expecting to have 250 megawatts,” said Khoury.
The soaring demand for solar installations, according to Khoury, explains where the country could potentially be heading in terms of renewable and clean energy, but he admits that Lebanon cannot achieve its energy targets without large solar and wind power plants, which the government must implement.
Today, the solar industry has grown from 130 companies to 800, according to Khoury. At LCEC, they work on improving and monitoring the quality of products imported to Lebanon.
Khoury estimates that the burgeoning solar market has created between 5000 and 6000 new jobs in the past two years.
The desperation for solar is drastic: people are selling their jewellery, cars, and plots of land to afford solar panels on their rooftops as they have become exhausted by the lack of electricity that halts everyday life.
Although some professionals are optimistic about the future of solar and clean energy, others remain sceptical due to the fragility of the Lebanese state, which makes it hard for sustainable and environmentally friendly solutions to be implemented.
“Even if more people are relying on renewable energy, the positive impact on the environment on a national level is still minimal as generators that use fuel diesel are still turned on for about 15-16 hours per day, emitting a lot of toxic emissions, which is more compared to what is being deployed by the renewables,” said Marc Ayoub, an energy researcher and associate fellow at the American University of Beirut, to The New Arab.
"Lebanon gets about 300 days of sun every year and has lots of available land suitable for solar panels and wind turbines. The only aspect that is missing is an organised implementation of a large-scale project"
For Ayoub, in the long run, more renewable energy initiatives must be implemented on a community and national level, not just an individual residential one. He believes that the data is promising, but is driven by the crisis rather than by government-led initiatives.
A report by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) predicts that Lebanon could cost-effectively obtain 30% of its electricity supply from renewable sources by 2030, if the proper plans were implemented to make this a reality.
Lebanon gets about 300 days of sun every year and has lots of available land suitable for solar panels and wind turbines. The only aspect that is missing is an organised implementation of a large-scale project.
At first, people were not convinced that solar energy could power their entire house during the hot summer days and cold winter nights, but they soon found it does. Now, local village councils are stepping in with subsidised schemes to help people afford an investment in solar power.
'A crazy boom'
The New Arab spoke with three renewable energy contractors who described a skyrocketing interest rate, something they had never witnessed before, and booming demand for installation requests, especially before winter approaches.
“People have little choice but to take matters into their own hands,” said Fouad Shamoun, a solar engineer in Lebanon and owner of a solar company.
Shamoun said they have four to five projects daily and a high number of weekly requests.
The contractors told The New Arab their customers come from all over the country, but they all agreed that the Bekaa region of Lebanon has witnessed the highest number of solar power installations within a short period as private power generators there are barely turned on, leaving people no other choice.
"'People have little choice but to take matters into their own hands'"
“What is life without basic commodities like electricity?” said Salmen Al-Hajj, a resident of Bekaa who has installed six solar panels following the recommendation from his neighbour.
“We were forbidden from it by our corrupt government, and we had to make tough choices to afford solar energy,” he added.
But in Lebanon, nothing comes easy and everything is scarce, and after having his money frozen in the bank, Al-Hajj had to sell a plot of land to fund the solar project that cost him USD 5400.
“It is going great and I’m so thankful that I took such a decision as I could no longer afford to pay for the soaring monthly bill for the private electricity generator,” Al-Hajj said.
Rodayna Raydan is a Lebanese British journalism graduate from Kingston University in London covering Lebanon.
Follow her on Twitter: @Rodayna_462