Since its devastating port explosion in August of 2020, Lebanon has been making headlines for its failing currency and pervasive corruption. Since 2020, the country has been struggling with significant electricity cuts from its state electricity supplier EDL – Electricite du Liban – and shortages of diesel for generators that serve over a million customers. In the wake of this crisis, the Lebanese people are doing the same thing they’ve done for as long as most Lebanese can remember: taking matters into their own hands. Solar power has proven to be a powerful tool for energy independence, and it has seen unprecedented growth in Lebanon since the onset of these tough times. Could solar power be the solution to Lebanon’s decades-old energy problem?
How we got here in the first place
Even before the current economic crisis, EDL could only supply about half of the population’s energy needs. Rolling blackouts are now pervasive throughout the country. Fortunate areas in Beirut only lost power for 3 hours per day; others in the country had blackouts for up to 17 hours. EDL is famously riddled with debt and corruption which siphons funds away from much-needed investment into the grid. Power stealing is another problem. While walking the streets of Beirut, it is common to see power lines with multiple illegal connections precariously hanging from power lines.
If you’ve been to Beirut, you may not have noticed these blackouts. Masking the problem are a network of lucrative private generator companies that offer power seconds after EDL cuts supply. Most middle class and wealthy Lebanese and businesses pay two electricity bills—one to EDL and one to the generator company. Private generator companies are also blamed for the energy crisis, as they flouted their political connections to divert investment away from EDL to keep demand high for their private supply.
Since the beginning of the crisis, the situation in Lebanon has gone from bad to worse. Lebanon’s currency has devalued by nearly 95%, causing cash flow problems at already-struggling EDL. Parts of Beirut which previously had 3-hour blackouts per day now only have electricity for 3 hours a day. The generators cannot come to the rescue this time. As fuel prices reach record highs, customers lucky enough to have generators cannot access diesel or afford it (especially as government energy subsidies have been removed).
One can only imagine the impact that this energy crisis has had on Lebanon’s former middle class. Restaurants and supermarkets cannot keep food fresh, meaning they are forced to throw away valuable supplies. This summer saw a spike in food sickness, as refrigerators in homes were frequently interrupted. Since the beginning of the crisis, hospitals have been struggling to provide to keep operations running smoothly. In 2021, the prestigious American Hospital of Beirut sent out a plea that it would need to shut down its operations in 48 hours due to fuel shortages.
The sunny side
In the midst of this crisis, solar power has perhaps been the only bright light. Lebanon has 300 sunny days per year, and tens of thousands of Lebanese have turned to solar power to provide a reliable and clean source of power. Installations are popping up everywhere, from urban rooftops to rural monasteries. The Lebanese Center for Energy Conservation has estimated that about 350 MW of solar power have been added to the country’s energy landscape since 2020, and that solar will represent 5-7 percent of Lebanon’s annual energy needs — by the end of 2022. About 700 companies are licensed to provide solar power (up from 130 in 2020) according to LCEC.
Large-scale installations are also on the table. According to a report by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), “Lebanon could realistically and cost-effectively obtain 30% of its electricity supply from renewables by 2030.” But it added that for this to become reality, however, the government would need to implement existing plans and policies. Approximately 11 solar energy programs are already in the pipeline for Lebanon, but are dependent upon financing from international banks, and in particular a $3 bn rescue package proposed by the IMF. However, these projects (among many others) will not be unlocked unless EDL and other Lebanese institutions commit to undertaking serious anti-corruption reforms. Unfortunately, no progress has been made on this front.
Lebanon’s solar resurgence is also spurred on by economics. A basic household set-up could cost between $2000-$3500 and have decreased 15-20% since 2020. One developer charges $3,000 for a 5-amp system or $9,000 for a 20-amp system. One grocer in a town 20 km of Beirut paid $3700 for a 2 kw system with a battery—enough to provide electricity for 24 hours a day. The major cost advantage of solar systems is that their operational expenses are limited; customers would no longer need to be expensive fuel from a volatile market. The prices for installing these solar systems could have been within reach for most Lebanese families before the devaluation of their currency. Today, they pose a significant financial hurdle. Some families need to borrow money from families abroad in order to buy even small installations. And large installations can reach up to $15 000. However, the upside is interesting. Solar offers energy resilience as well as independence from a corrupt system that has been robbing Lebanese people for decades.
Solar power can only grow in Lebanon. It is not subject to the whims of international commodity markets that are pegged to the dollar and increasingly unaffordable for Lebanese people. And its frequent strong sun means strong potential.
However, like all energy systems, it is very difficult to develop a full-fledged energy system independent of the government. Marc Ayoub, a senior researcher at American University of Beirut said “People still need electricity from EDL. The solar component helps the transition to renewable sources; but that doesn’t mean we don’t need a central solution from the government.” Some systems can also be optimized to interact with grid power and diesel generators. For example, a Beirut Arab University is building a $400,000 photovoltaic-diesel (PVD) hybrid system. Comprised of 920 panels, it is expected to supply 20-40% of the campus’s energy needs. Unlike tradition systems, PVD systems do not require batteries and instead, solar energy is used in combination with diesel generators (that provide power when the sun isn’t shining). While an attractive solution for working within Lebanon’s existing energy system, it would perpetuate the influence of the wide network of private generators that have a history of holding the electricity system hostage.
In conclusion, Lebanon’s story is an encouraging example of how the energy transition can take hold in times of crisis. To be successful, it must professionalize itself quickly, especially as unexperienced individuals trying to profit from the solar boom have tried to pass themselves as solar installers. But without the proper training, installers often ineffectively fit solar systems, a problem that could even slow the growth of the sector. Finally, and importantly, the solar power industry must survive the pervasive corruption that has characterized the energy sector for generations. If it manages to do so, it will become a much-needed force for reformation in the country, affecting life beyond the energy sector.