Nearly three years into Lebanon’s trifecta of economic, social and political crises, many Lebanese are desperate for solutions. With no reliable source of electricity, those who can afford it are leading a shift toward green energy, predominantly solar.
As Lebanon’s energy crisis paralyzes the country’s infrastructure and the daily lives of the Lebanese, citizens are finding new ways to govern.
Mohammed Nehme, a high school teacher from southern Lebanon, asked his brother in Germany to lend him a few thousand dollars to install a solar energy system for his household.
“The situation became unbearable,” Nehme said. “My daughters studied for their high school exams during a total blackout with flashlights from their cellphones.”
“We reached zero hours of electricity from the state earlier this summer, and local private generators also curtailed their supply — all while prices were rising,” Nehme said.
“I don’t want my daughters to live the same way we lived during the civil war; I had to find an escape from the darkness,” he added.
The current economic crisis in Lebanon is the worst in recent times, with 2020 seeing a default on the nation’s debt and the value of the currency falling.
The government-run Eléctricité du Liban (EDL) generates about 90% of the country’s electricity, but has only been able to supply power to homes for a few hours a day. Homes are experiencing prolonged power outages, with some areas experiencing power outages lasting up to 23 hours a day.
Many Lebanese have resorted to using expensive privately owned diesel generators. But the use of generators has also been complicated by the economic turmoil, including sharply rising fuel prices – partly due to the Russia-Ukraine conflict and exacerbated by Lebanon’s weak currency – as well as the withdrawal of state aid.
Many Lebanese households’ finances are going beyond that, forcing them once again to look for alternatives, and many are turning to solar energy. But the lack of regulation in the burgeoning sector also means that prices fluctuate significantly between providers and regions.
Samir Haj Ali, a local solar energy system provider in southern Lebanon, told FRANCE 24 that he charges at least $2,500 for a modest 5-amp energy system – a price that is out of reach for most Lebanese.
However, a lack of regulation has given rise to a new series of problems. Ali said many of those now working in Lebanon’s solar industry are not specialists, and their installations have led to technical problems, including fires.
Jessica Obeid, an energy expert, said Lebanon’s solar market suffers from a “lack of regulation, quality control and awareness”.
The result is significant safety risks, low-quality equipment, and installation of solar systems that will cause many consumers to pay huge sums of money for maintenance and equipment replacement.
“Eventually the market will improve, but it will take years and be expensive,” Obeid said.
Lebanon has set a goal of getting 12% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020. However, many experts say this goal is unlikely to be met given the collapse of the national electricity grid, although official data is lacking.
Nevertheless, the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) estimates that Lebanon can cost-effectively source 30% of its electricity supply from renewable sources by 2030 – if the right plans are made.
Lebanon has a large amount of land suitable for solar and wind energy and receives about 300 days of sunshine annually. But there is a lack of large-scale solar energy projects designed to exploit this resource.
Obeid noted that a large-scale transition to solar energy would have to involve action at the individual, community and municipal levels. In addition, it would require the construction of utility-scale plants—solar systems large enough to generate enough power to flow into the grid.
Utility-scale plants require access to the grid, a means of storing energy, financing, private sector engagement, independent regulation and dedicated institutions, Obeid explained, adding that none of this is currently on the horizon. Furthermore, she said utility-scale renewable energy projects have so far been hampered by issues with procurement and overall oversight of the industry.
“I have been calling for decentralized hybrid renewable energy systems for years as I don’t believe in any reforms coming out of central government,” she said.
The switch to solar energy in Lebanon raises the question of whether a feed-in-tariff model could be implemented, whereby households would receive payments for the excess electricity generated by renewable sources, such as solar cells or wind and hydro turbine systems.
But Obeid said such a model is unlikely to work in Lebanon under current circumstances. The main driver behind small-scale renewable energy, she said, is nationwide policy-making and the institutions needed to provide essential services — both of which Lebanon currently lacks.