Solar power in Syria: The energy of choice in light of a wrecked electrical grid and fuel hikes
The outbreak of the Syrian war in 2011 saw the devastation of huge swathes of the country's infrastructure. Power cuts became rampant in many different regions, which have struggled with the lack of a steady electricity supply – the backbone of modern life – ever since.
In addition to the widespread destruction, the Assad regime deliberately targeted power stations as a form of retaliation against civilians in areas which had escaped his control. This situation sparked the search for alternative options – and solar panels today are the preferred option of many.
Their appeal lies predominantly in the fact that alternative fuels are in short supply and expensive; solar panel usage has been proliferating since 2016, spreading through the regions of northwest Syria, then into the northeast, as well as becoming increasingly used in regime-held areas.
Solar: Energy of choice in northwest Syria
Today, solar energy is considered one of life's necessities in northwest Syria, used by everyone from factory owners, to shopkeepers, to ordinary civilians who need it for their domestic electricity needs. The range of solar panel prices and sizes makes them accessible to most people, even those with limited means.
"The outbreak of the Syrian war in 2011 saw the devastation of huge swathes of the country's infrastructure. Power cuts became rampant in many different regions, which have struggled with the lack of a steady electricity supply – the backbone of modern life – ever since"
Solar panels of an array of different models and sizes can be seen along the length of the Syria-Turkey border and cover the northwest region. They are arranged in twos and threes, on the rooves of houses and balconies and in front of the tents of the displaced. Densely packed rows are positioned close to farms and factories.
Most of the population in the northwest – 4.2 million of whom have been displaced by the war – struggle to secure their basic needs. With limited money to spend, they also make do with the limited electricity that can be provided with one or two small panels.
Lama Barhoum (33) doesn't hide her enthusiasm at having obtained a second solar panel after she managed to save enough money – now she has two panels and a battery. She and her family have relied on solar energy for over six years, since shortly before their displacement from their village north of Hama and their resettlement in the Atma camp on the Syrian-Turkish border in northern Idlib.
In the beginning, they relied on one panel and a battery which cost them US$ 200, using the electricity generated to charge their mobile phones, power their lights and use some household appliances like their washing machine.
"I prayed to God to help us buy another panel and this happened recently when, through my work as a seamstress and with my husband's help, we saved up enough money to buy one. This has given us more electricity, with two panels and a battery," says Lama. Now her tent has electricity 24 hours a day in the summer. However, in the winter due to the lack of sunshine, the panels only end up generating half the energy they do in the summer months.
Although it is relatively expensive to purchase and assemble solar panels, alongside electrical cables, an inverter, boost converter and batteries, once the initial cost is paid there will be no further costs for several years, although at some point equipment will need repair or replacing. This makes them cheaper in the long run than paying for subscriptions to diesel-powered generators which charge per ampere, especially when the price of diesel has been rising at times twice a month.
"Solar panels of an array of different models and sizes can be seen along the length of the Syria-Turkey border and cover the northwest region. They are arranged in twos and threes, on the rooves of houses and balconies and in front of the tents of the displaced"
Reviving Syria's farming industry
Solar power is also providing energy to revive agricultural activities and projects in the region after years of stagnation during which frequent power cuts were just one of the many obstacles faced by farmers.
Fuad Hussein (45) was able to start his agricultural project three years after he was forced to flee Kafranbel town in south Idlib, resettling in Maarrat Misrin in north Idlib. He rented farmland, in which he set up plant nurseries and planted different seasonable vegetables. He has irrigated his crops using a solar-powered pump which takes water from an artesian well he dug.
Hussein says solar panels were the perfect means to power his agricultural project and says his experience is shared by many. According to him, the high cost of other types of energy means it is out of reach for most farmers, but solar panels don't need anything "except the sun's rays – which are free."
It cost Hussein US$ 10,000 to buy the panels and batteries he needed and another US$ 3,000 for the mobile iron base. A number of solar panels are installed atop the mobile base which tracks the sun and is, therefore, able to maximise the amount of solar power generated, whereas the stationary panels on the ground perform less efficiently.
Turkey supplying electricity in northwest Syria
In mid-2021, the Green Energy company began providing Idlib province with much-needed electricity, a year after it signed an agreement with the General Electricity Corporation in Idlib, which is affiliated with the Salvation Government. The agreement concerned the distribution of electricity from Turkey within Idlib, however, this electricity still only reaches limited areas, and many camps, towns and villages remain outside its network.
The high price of Turkish electricity, for which a subscription per kilowatt costs up to 4.5 Turkish lira for domestic electricity and 6 lira for commercial, means most civilians are opting for solar energy, which is more readily available and cheaper.
"Solar power is also providing energy to revive agricultural activities and projects in the region after years of stagnation"
Engineer Jumana Hamid (37) won't pay a subscription for Turkish electricity even though it reaches her town Dana in northern Idlib, due to the constantly rising cost, while "you don't need to pay monthly with solar panels."
She points out that when you buy a subscription you also have to buy a pre-pay meter. There are two kinds; a single-phase meter which costs US$ 60 and a three-phase meter which costs US$ 150. These costs are added to the initial subscription fees, which are 100 lira and 400 lira respectively.
Electricity in Idlib province is more expensive than in towns and cities in the north and east Aleppo, where electricity is provided by two companies – AK Energy and STE Enerji. In Azaz, a kilowatt costs 90 qirsh; in Al-Bab, Jarabulus and Afrin it costs 85 qirsh; in Marea, 80 qirsh in Al-Rai and Jindires 75 qirsh.
Opinion: The #UAE’s development of renewable energy in #Iraq is a tactic to “win hearts and minds”, argues Taif Alkhudary. #energydiplomacyhttps://t.co/mdnZqgXE9Z— The New Arab (@The_NewArab) August 19, 2021
Despite the obvious advantages of solar energy in securing electricity for domestic, commercial and agricultural use, it also carries deadly risks. Many have died or suffered severe burns due to misuse of the equipment, for example, when the liquid batteries (one basic component of generating solar power) have exploded after being exposed to excessive heat, or when wired incorrectly causing reverse polarity.
On 23 June 2021, one-year-old Marwa Nawaf was killed when an electrical battery exploded in their tent, close to Hizano village in northern Idlib. A few days earlier, on 18 June 2021, a massive house fire had resulted from a double explosion when a battery exploded at the same time as a leaking home-use gas cylinder. One person was killed in the explosion.
"It was like a bomb," said Samira al-Barr who lives in an IDP camp in Killi, a village in northern Idlib. She suffered burns to her eyes, face and hands when a liquid battery exploded while she was trying to get the boost converter working.
"Despite the obvious advantages of solar energy in securing electricity for domestic, commercial and agricultural use, it also carries deadly risks. Many have died or suffered severe burns due to misuse of the equipment"
Barr believes that recent high temperatures had contributed to the explosion in addition to the fact that she didn't have a circuit breaker, which would have allowed her to preserve battery charge and prevented overcharging. She couldn't afford one, and this led to the accident, she says, adding that others in the camp have been killed in similar accidents.
Electrical engineer Mansour al-Qudour (46) says that liquid batteries are not suitable for domestic use for several reasons. They are highly flammable, composed of lead and sulphuric acid, which is highly reactive and likely to burn or dissolve anything it touches. They are not designed to be charged and drained, he says, instead, they should be fully charged at all times. Despite these drawbacks, their low cost pushes many to buy them.
Qudour advises that precautions are taken to lessen the likelihood of fatal accidents, especially in camps, where there are no basic health and safety regulations in place to safeguard residents. He says batteries should be kept out of reach of children, a circuit breaker should be used, and the battery should be placed in a well-ventilated area away from excessive heat.
Hadia Al Mansour is a freelance journalist from Syria who has written for Asharq Al-Awsat, Al-Monitor, SyriaUntold and Rising for Freedom Magazine.
Article translated from Arabic by Rose Chacko