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Lebanon turns to solar amid power crunch

Dario Sabaghi Beirut
August 17, 2022

Facing a severe energy crunch, Lebanese are increasingly turning to the sun to meet their electricity needs. But high costs remain a barrier to widespread adoption of solar power systems.

Solar panels on the roof of Beirut Arab University
Solar panels are increasingly seen on the rooftops of buildings in BeirutImage: Dario Sabaghi/DW

When Patrick Ardahalian moved from Saudi Arabia to Lebanon in 2010, he was shocked at the frequent power outages in the country's capital, Beirut. 

"Power outages are something I had never experienced," he said. But for the Lebanese people, the situation was different, he added. "They never experienced stable electricity in their life."

To address the country's energy crisis, Ardahalian, who is of Lebanese origin but grew up in Greece, decided to pick up solar power. 

"Lebanon is a very sunny country, and we needed electricity. I asked my dad to help me financially, and he agreed," he said. "I started from scratch. I had a marketing background, so I went to a technical school to learn about electricity. Within a few months, I launched my company: Eco Friendly." 

Ardahalian, now 48, recalled that people were initially skeptical of solar power, and did not believe it could resolve their energy problems. 

"Some people didn't believe that I could provide them electricity from the sun ... They said I was lying, and I couldn't continue the discussion," he said.

Lebanon's power crunch

Lebanon is currently battling one of its worst economic crises in decades. The country defaulted on its national debt in 2020, and its currency has collapsed in value.

An acute energy crunch is compounding problems, with households nationwide grappling with long power cuts — some regions face blackouts for up to 23 hours a day. 

The state-run utility Electricite du Liban (EDL), which accounts for about 90% of the country's electricity production, has been plagued by dire cash shortages, and has only been able to provide power to households for a few hours a day. 

Faced with power outages, many Lebanese have resorted to using expensive private diesel generators for electricity. 

Due to the nation's economic turmoil and surging fuel prices due to its weak currency, along with removal of government subsidies and the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the finances of many Lebanese households are hurting, forcing them to seek alternatives. 

Solar panels in downtown Beirut
Solar panels are meant to stabilize Lebanon's shaky electricty supplyImage: Dario Sabaghi/DW

Suffering in darkness

Mohamad Mahmoud Hariri, a 43-year-old living in the nation's third-largest city of Sidon, told DW that although he had suffered power outages for years, now things are far worse than in the past. 

"Without electricity, everything stops. I am convinced that things are going from bad to worse, and that the state cannot solve this problem," he said.

Hariri said that electricity prices soared following the onset of the economic crisis, pointing out that monthly rates now equal or exceed the average monthly salary of many Lebanese. 

That's why he chose to invest in renewable energy by installing a solar panel system three months ago. Hariri paid $3,000 (€2,900) for the system, which allows him to consume around 10 amps of electricity in the morning and 3 amps at night. But in winter months, he will be forced to decrease consumption as the system produces less energy. 

Hariri is not alone, as Lebanese companies and households are increasingly turning to the sun to meet their electricity needs. Banks have even begun offering loans to those looking to install solar power systems. 

However, not everyone has been able to afford solar energy, even though prices have dropped significantly over the past decade. 

Ardahalian said that he charges about $3,000 for a 5-amp system or $9,000 for a 20-amp system; prices that are out of reach for most Lebanese. 

Bilal Alabaas, an energy technician who has been active in the solar industry for the past decade, underlined how most people cannot afford those prices. He also pointed out that even after installing such a system, people still needed diesel generators, as solar panels alone cannot supply the entire energy required by a household at all times. 

Marc Ayoub, an energy researcher and associate fellow at the American University of Beirut, shares a similar view. 

He said that solar alone couldn't provide a definitive solution to the energy crisis. "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," Ayoub stressed.

"Renewable energy starts to become a solution at the national level when communities install projects, solar farms with hundreds of megawatts. But now, people are installing solar panels for their own energy security only."

An employee from the Beirut-based company Mashriq Energy
Employees at Beirut-based Mashriq Energy provide turnkey solar photovoltaic solutionsImage: Dario Sabaghi/DW

Boosting solar power capacity

Mohamad Mneimneh, founder of Mashriq Energy, a company providing turnkey solar photovoltaic solutions, described how there are some solar initiatives at the community level.

However, such projects require several permits and coordination between many different stakeholders, while red tape and the lack of a distribution system hinder their development, he added. 

Mashriq Energy recently won a tender worth about $400,000 to build a photovoltaic-diesel (PVD) hybrid system to supply the campus of the Beirut Arab University. Technicians are installing 920 solar panels that will cover from 20% to 40% of the campus' total energy requirement.

Unlike traditional solar energy systems, Mneimneh said, PVD systems don't necessarily require the use of batteries as solar energy taken from panels is used in combination with diesel generators. 

"Large energy consumers can't afford to have only a solar energy system, because this would require so many solar panels and batteries. Instead, PVD systems are attractive because they don't need batteries, which cost from $600, and you would need more than one," Mneimneh said.

Although Lebanon has yet to come up with a feasible plan to boost energy production using renewable sources, it has adopted an ambitious target to cover 30% of its energy consumption from renewables by 2030. 

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, which are already in the pipeline.

Lebanon's fuel crisis

Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru