Lebanon's total solar power is set to double this year. Can it solve the country's decades-old energy crisis?
By Timour Azhari
BEIRUT, Oct 22 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - With cuts to state-run electricity in Lebanon at an all-time high and expensive diesel for back-up generators in short supply, an increasing number of Lebanese citizens are turning to solar energy to keep the lights on.
Here is what caused Lebanon's energy crisis and the growing role of solar power in solving the issue:
What's at the root of the power crisis?
Lebanon's power supply has been unreliable since a 1975-1990 civil war and has drastically worsened over a two-year economic crisis, with rolling blackouts now a regular feature of life. The government is short of money to import fuel for the state electricity company and diesel for private generators, while plans to build a new power plant have been held up by political infighting.
Are more people switching to solar?
Private installations have brought almost 100MW of solar online in the past decade, said Pierre El Khoury, head of the Lebanese Center for Energy Conservation, a state-affiliated organisation that oversee renewable energy.
This figure is set to double to 200MW in 2021 as the current outages are driving "a huge boom" in solar, he said.
"They've popped up like mushrooms everywhere," Khoury said, estimating that the number of solar companies has increased to more than 400, up from 130 well-established firms a year ago.
"Many of these are not professional and install equipment in a potentially dangerous way," Khoury added, with users at risk of being electrocuted and of their solar panels being blown away by high winds.
The interior ministry this week said applications to set up rooftop solar installations should be sent to the energy ministry for approval.
"If the (solar) systems are well designed, this will be a long-term solution," said Marc Ayoub, an energy researcher at the American University of Beirut.
"But if we see bad equipment and installation spread, it will create an issue and backfire."
What is the government doing?
Lebanon has 300 days of sunshine a year but less than 1% of state-provided power comes from solar energy, with 95% generated using oil.
Lebanon missed a target of generating 12% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020.
A 180MW government solar project has stalled, with lenders reluctant to finance it and the state power company unable to pay for the electricity that would be produced.
While demand is surging, industry insiders and experts complain of a lack of regulations.
Lebanon does not have a law allowing those who produce solar power to route it into the national grid and earn credits for doing so, known as net-metering, or to sell it to neighbours.
How much does solar energy cost?
The cost of installing solar systems is prohibitively high for families suffering one of the world's worst economic crises.
Researcher Ayoub found that many people keen on installing small-scale solar systems soon give up because of the cost.
"When people see the price, they hit the brakes," said Ayoub, who surveyed 20 companies and found that less than 15% of customer queries led to a sale
The Thomson Reuters Foundation spoke to six solar companies who said they charged between $4,500 and $8,000 for the simplest set-ups that could power a house for six to 18 hours a day.
Suppliers also said they were having trouble securing enough hard currency to import materials due to a shortage of dollars.
Are there success stories?
In Lebanon's remote northeast, about 3,000 people in three villages have been receiving 21 hours of solar power a day since 2019, via a $2 million project by Matrix Power Network, one of Lebanon's leading independent utility installers.
Power is provided through a solar farm, funded privately and paid back by about 500 subscribers - from residents to farmers and businesspeople - over 15 years.
They hope that more villages will join the project, but efforts to expand the business have stalled due to the economic crisis, said Mohammad Husseini, the firm's chief executive.
"I had $20 million worth of projects, many of them large, in 2020, but most of these stopped because of the collapse," he said, highlighting the negative impact of the economic crisis on companies selling medium-to-large scale solar projects.
What is the solution?
The most cost-effective way forwards would be to secure reliable solar power through large-scale projects lauched by the government and funded by the private sector or international lenders, Ayoub of the American University of Beirut said.
But this will not be possible until the government is able to stabilise Lebanon's economy by enacting reforms that will enable it to secure international loans.
"These small project are great - but they're not going to solve a national problem," Ayoub said.
(Reporting by Timour Azhari @timourazhari Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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