Lebanese turn to solar power as government fails to provide electricity
Hussein Shaker sat outside of his small shop in the Azmi neighbourhood of Tripoli, surrounded by solar panels of all sizes that were on sale.
The 65-year-old engineer returned to Tripoli from Kuwait several years ago and opened up his store in 2015 but had a hard time making many sales as solar technology was relatively unknown in the city at the time.
"It was only natural for people to find a new alternative given the high price of paying for a private generator subscription and the government's inability to provide more than a couple of hours of electricity per day"
"Before the crisis, when I first opened the store, solar panels were not that well-known in Lebanon," Shaker told The New Arab. "It was only known a little. But slowly, slowly they started to be used more in the north [of Lebanon]."
However, once Lebanon's economic crisis began in late 2019 and quickly deteriorated, more and more people started to gravitate towards solar panels in order to ensure that they have a steadier stream of electricity at their homes or businesses.
Jessica Obeid, an independent energy policy consultant and non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington DC, was not surprised by this shift toward solar, saying that it was only natural for people to find a new alternative given the high price of paying for a private generator subscription and the government's inability to provide more than a couple of hours of electricity per day.
"This is gaining momentum because people have zero trust in the state and so this is mostly due to the failure of energy policies and energy institutions," Jessica told The New Arab. "It’s not incentive driven. It’s not because there is financial support for it. It’s mainly just [based on] need and people have completely lost faith that the state could provide any electricity provisions."
A history of alternative solutions
Lebanon is no stranger when it comes to its people looking for alternative solutions when the government fails to meet their needs.
For years following the end of the Civil war in 1990, politicians have repeatedly promised that the government would provide the country with 24 hours of electricity per day. However, the closest they ever got was, at most, 21 hours per day in the capital with more rural villages receiving significantly less.
Since the government was not going to be able to provide for them, the people found an alternative: private generators.
These generators allowed for people to fill in the gaps left by the government.
But once the economic crisis deepened and the price of fuel skyrocketed, this one-time solution became more of a burden.
Since the government was incapable of providing electricity to the country, people became increasingly reliant on private generators, meaning that they required more fuel, raising the cost of a subscription.
In Tripoli, the cost of one ampere is $30 (£24.70) per month. Most households require around 10 amperes to be able to use the majority of their appliances normally without having to worry about the power cutting.
Now solar systems have become the new alternative for the absent state and private generator costs.
"What we’re seeing is just a continuation of how this started, how this got bad and how it’s getting worse because instead of citizens requesting accountability and a functioning power sector, they’ve constantly been looking for alternatives for the state"
"People did exactly what they did in 2000 and the early 90s and sought alternatives to the state by going solar," Jessica explained. "What we’re seeing is just a continuation of how this started, how this got bad and how it’s getting worse because instead of citizens requesting accountability and a functioning power sector, they’ve constantly been looking for alternatives for the state."
Those selling solar systems confirmed that there has been a significant uptick in business since the crisis worsened with Hussein saying that people would rather pay the $2,000 (£1,650) for solar panels once rather than $150 to $300 (£124 to £247) per month every month for a private generator subscription.
But even though solar systems have been marketed as the solution to people's electricity problems, Jessica says that the solar market has many problems, particularly a lack of awareness and people being sold faulty equipment.
Maher Saade, 46, bought his solar panels almost four months ago after deciding that it was better to sell his car since there was no fuel so that he can have more stable electricity at home.
Now, after paying $1,700 (£1,400), Maher has stable electricity at his home in Akkar, an area north of Tripoli, for the vast majority of the day all the while saving the $75 (£62) he had to pay each month for the generator.
"The situation since I bought them has been so much better," Maher told The New Arab. "Before if you bought vegetables or anything and put them in the refrigerator, it is off most of the day because there is no electricity so you would have to throw them out. Now if I want cold water, I have cold water."
"Because the market is booming, if you talk to anyone and if they can afford it, they are installing solar systems and because the economy is so bad, almost everyone is a solar supplier"
While Maher has had no issues so far with his solar panels, Jessica says that others may not be so lucky.
"Because the market is booming, if you talk to anyone and if they can afford it, they are installing solar systems and because the economy is so bad, almost everyone is a solar supplier," she explained.
"They don’t necessarily have the qualifications in terms of technical capacity or engineering capacity to install solar systems but probably your average neighbour is now selling solar systems and they think it is just as simple as going online, finding a system and the supplier and shipping it to Lebanon. A lot of safety measures are not in place."
She also added that because people were significantly more limited financially because of the ongoing economic crisis, people would just get whatever they could afford, not knowing whether or not the systems are of good quality or not.
According to Hussein, he uses the connections that he made in Kuwait while working as an engineer to import solar systems to Lebanon but understands that not everyone can afford to buy from him given the high costs.
"It’s not an easy situation and the banks have stopped [allowing people access to their money]," he said. "There is the crisis with the wheat, the crisis with the fuel, the crisis with the electricity. The most important thing for people is to be able to eat and I understand that."
Given the lack of awareness, though, Jessica says that some people sell systems that did not meet quality standards abroad, so sellers import them and sell them on the Lebanese market where people do not know the differences between batteries if the panels are good quality and if they were mounted and installed properly buy them.
"What we’re going to end up with is a lot of people ‘Well this solar thing doesn’t work and it’s not because the systems don’t work," Jessica stated.
"It’s mostly because of the equipment that they’ve been sold. They’re going to pay a lot in maintenance and replacement costs that they could have saved if they just had awareness or some financial incentive from the government to do this."
Nicholas Frakes is a freelance journalist that reports from London, the Middle East and North Africa.
Follow him on Twitter: @nicfrakesjourno