Lebanon’s failed state forces unplanned switch to solar power

Customers buying dairy products made Lebanese shopkeeper Sabah Hashem nervous.

By spring, the refrigerators in his mini-market were typically off for more than half the day: utility power had nearly shut down and his backup generator operator was rationing supplies as costs diesel increased.

“I had to open the yogurt in front of customers before selling it to them to make sure it hadn’t soured,” Hashem, 39, said at his shop in Hasbaya al-Metn, a village 20 miles away. km east of Beirut. “I was up all night worried about making my customers sick – you can’t run a business like that.”

As another summer without electricity loomed, Hashem had had enough. He pooled his savings and borrowed money from a friend living abroad to install a 2kW solar power system on the roof of his shop – enough to power lights and two fridges 24 hours a day. out of 24. It cost $3,700, but the expense was well worth it: “Now I sleep easy. »

Lebanon is mired in an economic crisis that has seen the lebanese pound lose more than 95% of its value against the dollar since October 2019. Rising fuel import costs, exacerbated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, have contributed to the inability of Electricity du Liban , run by the state, to provide regular electricity.

Hashem is one of tens of thousands of Lebanese who have turned to solar power in the absence of a reliable electricity supply from EdL. Signs have sprouted everywhere, from urban rooftops to rural monasteries and on electric scooters, to take advantage of from Lebanon 300 days of sunshine a year.

“It’s sad to say, but a shift to cleaner energy is a benefit of complete state collapse,” said Wael Bitar, managing partner of EbCo Bitar, a contracting firm that has diversified. in the facility solar energy in 2020.

An employee of Rebirth Beirut, a Lebanese non-governmental organization, installs solar panels on traffic lights © Mohamed Azakir/Reuters

The solar boom is a by-product of Lebanon crisis. Private installations in businesses and homes since 2020 will have added 350 MW of renewable energy – about 5-7% of Lebanon’s annual energy needs – by the end of the year, said Pierre El Khoury, director of the Lebanese Center for Energy Conservation, affiliated with the state. Small-scale projects, many by the UN and NGOs, added just 100 MW of solar power between 2010 and 2020, he added.

At the COP27 climate conference in Egypt, Lebanon reaffirmed its pledge to source 30% renewable energy by 2030. But industry experts say international funding for 11 solar projects approved in May depends on the finalization of a $3 billion bailout package from the IMF. The package is itself conditional on reforms, including to the EdL, which have yet to be passed by the caretaker government. Since 1992, electricity expenditure has accounted for 40% of the public debt, according to a 2021 study.

EdL announced a price hike last week, a step officials say will eventually help the state secure fuel to fire up power plants and increase supply.

Some 700 companies are now allowed to install solar power, up from 130 in 2020, according to the LCEC. Installs account for 20% of Bitar’s revenue. “When the state subsidized renewable energies before the crisis, most of my clients were not interested. Electricity was cheap and nobody cared,” he said. “But now everyone is doing solar.”

A basic home setup sufficient to run multiple appliances such as refrigerators costs between $2,000 and $3,500, down 15-20% since 2020 due to a glut of panels and increased competition, according to many. installers. Prices can reach $15,000 depending on the size of the property and the quality of the system, while commercial projects can cost up to $200,000.

Prices are still prohibitive for many, leading to an increase in unauthorized and unsafe installations. “Your vegetable seller, your taxi driver, your young unemployed man – they watch YouTube videos, buy signs and offer cheaper services,” Bitar said.

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Meanwhile, generator operators, long Lebanon’s only alternative energy providers, are struggling. Jammal Amer, who runs neighborhood generators in the southern district of Zahrani, said he started the year with 1,000 customers, including municipalities, but lost more than 700 since the spring – “90% of them on solar” as fuel prices rise.

Amer charges £1 million (about $25 at current market rates) a month for four to five hours of electricity a day, half the monthly salary of most of its customers, who cannot afford the initial costs of solar energy.

The lack of a legal framework is hampering the wider adoption of renewables, experts say. Although small-scale use is permitted, solar power producers are prohibited from connecting to EdL’s grid or selling reserve electricity to neighbours. A bill to solve this problem is blocked in the Lebanese parliament.

“We need serious reforms for a good energy transition. It will take years to integrate all of these individual systems into the grid,” said Laury Haytayan, a Lebanese energy expert at the Natural Resource Governance Institute in New York.

Haytayan added that Lebanese citizens’ unplanned switch to solar “means that we are removing the pressure on our government to do its most basic job.”

The lack of state supplies exacerbates inequalities for those who cannot afford other energy sources. Mariam Hassan, a beautician living in a slum in southern Beirut, has been without power since May. Her monthly salary, equivalent to $150, can no longer cover her children’s tuition and generator fees.

Hassan’s siblings bought her a small solar battery this summer so she could charge her phone and keep her business afloat. But when it broke, she couldn’t afford the $100 to fix it. His neighbors took out interest-free loans from Hezbollah’s microfinance arm, al-Qard al-Hasan, to install solar systems, “but you have to back them with gold and I’ve already sold everything”, she said.

“All we’re talking about today is solar. But for those of us who cannot afford it, we live and die in darkness.

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