Let the sunshine in

Lebanon’s electricity plan comes up short on renewables

Greg Demarque/Executive

Anyone who has lived or spent time in Lebanon is aware of the chronic gaps in the electric grid, which have resulted in regularly scheduled power cuts of three hours a day in Beirut and as much as 12 hours a day outside the capital.

The government has persistently pursued stopgap measures, such as renting power from Turkish generator barges, rather than dealing with the failings in the national grid or looking to increase the country’s use of renewables. The latest plan put forward by Lebanon’s energy ministry to address the country’s electricity woes by 2030 again relies on expensive stopgap solutions while failing to capitalize on the country’s considerable potential for renewable energy generation.

At the moment, private diesel generators cover the daily power cuts, generating about a third of the country’s total electricity. This solution to the chronic power shortage comes with its own set of problems: Consumers often pay inflated prices to private generator owners, and emissions from the generators contribute substantially to the dangerous levels of air pollution in Beirut and other urban areas.

The situation is not sustainable, but neither is the government’s current plan to address the country’s power shortage, which would perpetuate Lebanon’s reliance on polluting fossil fuels to an unnecessary degree and undervalue its true potential for renewable energy.

Polluting proposals

The current plan, prepared by Dar Al-Handasah, an engineering consulting company based in Beirut, and put forward by the Ministry of Energy and Water to the Capital Investment Plan, aims to increase Lebanon’s renewable energy output to 12 to 15 percent of the country’s total by 2030. The modesty of this goal ignores the ideal conditions for renewable energy generation in Lebanon. With about 300 sunny days a year, moderate temperatures, and low levels of dust and sand, Lebanon is very well situated for the development of large-scale solar photovoltaic farms.

A recent study by the Energy Policy and Security Program at the American University of Beirut (AUB) and the National Council for Scientific Research (CNRS), which I co-authored, proposed that Lebanon could build a capacity of at least 1,000 megawatts of solar photovoltaic energy.

From an economic perspective, the benefit of investing in renewables is certainly greater than that of continuing to rely on two rented power-generating barges stationed off the coast, as the energy ministry proposes to do through at least 2022. The total cost of this plan, which has a capacity of 825 megawatts, would be around $2.25 billion.

The same sum could fund the construction of a 3-gigawatt solar power plant equipped with state-of-the-art energy storage technology, which would be able to produce more than three and a half times what the rented electricity barges are capable of. But while the energy barges would remain for only three more years under the energy ministry’s proposal, a solar power plant would continue to generate power over a lifespan of 25 years. (Batteries for storing solar energy would have to be replaced after 15 years.)

Furthermore, the government’s plan will exacerbate Lebanon’s already substantial issues with air contamination and other environmental problems. Under the current plan, seven new fossil-fuel-based power plants will be constructed along the Lebanese shore by 2030, worsening the environmental impact of the existing heavy-fuel oil plants and backup diesel generators. Even if fueled with natural gas, which is considered a relatively clean fossil fuel, when these seven plants are all operational, they will emit around 1.3 million tons of carbon dioxide per year as well as a substantial amount of smog-forming nitrous oxide.

Filtered potential land areas for solar PV farms in Lebanon

One proposed site for a thermal fossil fuel-fired power plant, Selaata, is particularly problematic. According to a 2014 report by Mott MacDonald, a British consultancy firm, the site is nominated as a marine protected area with sensitive ecosystem. Moreover, the proposed location is adjacent to archeological sites, which could be rendered inaccessible if the plan materializes.

Lebanon should not give up thermal, fossil-fuel-based electricity generation completely. This is neither reasonable nor practical at present, due to Lebanon’s urgent need to bridge the widening gap between electricity supply and demand, and the need to meet demand around the clock—not only when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing.

However, the government’s arguments against using more renewable energy fall flat. Lebanon’s energy officials generally make two main claims to explain their lack of ambition in this regard: that there is not enough available land suitable for harvesting renewable energy, and that the grid would be unable to handle large loads of the intermittent power generated through renewable sources.

The claim that land is in short supply was debunked by the recent AUB–CNRS study, which showed that there are about 60 square kilometers of suitable land with high levels of solar irradiation (sunlight) that can be used for both solar photovoltaic plants, which directly convert the sun’s light into electricity, plants, and solar thermal, which provides electricity by first converting the sun’s light into heat (see map). The area estimate is actually a conservative one, and the true scale of available land could be double the current estimate.

As for the claim that the grid is not able to carry large loads of intermittent renewable energy, experts who have worked on the grid confirmed that as currently configured, it is suitable to carry renewable loads of up to 300 megawatts in one location. Above that level, upgrades to the grid and the installation of a fiber-optics-based system would be required, but the technology and expertise to do so are available.

Furthermore, as noted in the AUB–CNRS report, given that Electricité du Liban currently provides less than 70 percent of the country’s total energy, with the remainder coming from backup generators, any additional sources of energy—even if intermittent—would be an improvement.

Finally, energy-storage technology is rapidly improving, and its costs are falling. As this trend continues, the intermittency of renewables will become less of an issue, because energy stored in batteries can help cover gaps in energy production during adverse conditions—like cloudy days.

The government plan could be realistically modified to include the construction of at least one large solar photovoltaic power plant by 2020. This would save around $800 million per year in imported electricity from barges and eliminate the need for one new thermal fossil-fueled power plant.

By doing this, Lebanon would save around $3 billion by 2030, increase renewable energy production to 24 percent of the country’s total, produce less harmful and polluting emissions, and improve energy security.

Ali Ahmad is director of the Energy Policy and Security Program at the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs.