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Cleaning up and going green

The sustainable energy market in Lebanon: an unexpected uptick

by Pierre El Khoury

Between 2011 and 2015, the overall direct investments in renewable energy, energy efficiency and green buildings in Lebanon exceeded $450 million. According to Riad Salameh, governor of Banque du Liban (BDL), Lebanon’s central bank, more than 10,000 direct and indirect jobs were created in this sector during that same period. The records of the Lebanese Center for Energy Conservation (LCEC) at the Ministry of Energy and Water echo the statement of Governor Salameh: the number of companies working in the very specific field of solar water heaters rose from 25 in 2010 to more than 170 today. The number of companies working in the green or energy audit business, meanwhile, rose from four to more than 30 in 2015. Finally, the number of companies working in the solar photovoltaic sector increased from around five in 2010 to more than 70 today. Most of these companies are expanding their activities, thus offering new job opportunities to engineers, technicians and administrative staff. There is no doubt that the sustainable energy market in Lebanon is booming.

There is no magic recipe making this sector evolve, but rather a set of well-orchestrated national steps and initiatives that have paved the way toward its development. For once – or at least rarely for an economic sector in Lebanon – there is a vision, a strategy and an action plan for the sustainable energy sector.

Back in 2009, the Lebanese government had committed itself to reaching 12 percent renewable energy by 2020 and to curbing the demand on energy by introducing energy efficiency measures. This political commitment announced by former Prime Minister Saad Hariri during the Conference of the Parties climate change meeting in Copenhagen set a clear vision to develop the sector. One year later, the Ministry of Energy and Water developed a national strategy for the electricity sector in the country, setting renewable energy and energy efficiency as key milestones in the implementation of the strategy’s initiatives. Based on these two cornerstones, LCEC built the National Energy Efficiency Action Plan (NEEAP) for the years 2011 to 2015. The NEEAP was approved by the Council of Ministers in 2011, making Lebanon the first Arab country to develop an NEEAP.

This public framework opened the door for a vibrant private business sector in the country. A new kind of public-private partnership was on the rise. While the energy ministry, through the work of LCEC, strived to develop policy support actions, capacity building activities and awareness raising campaigns, the private sector was developing capacities, establishing companies and looking for investments. It soon became clear that the real development of the sustainable energy sector needed financing.

While BDL issued Circular 197 in June 2009 to help finance environmental projects, a more dedicated approach was needed. The real breakthrough came in 2010, when BDL issued Circular 236, and then in January 2013 with Circular 313, laying down concrete plans for the application of the National Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Action (NEEREA) – the government’s approach to finance energy efficiency and renewable energy projects to reach objectives set out on the NEEAP plan.

Between October 2012 and October 2015, NEEREA alone has financed more than $350 million worth of investments in sustainable energy projects. More than 321 projects used the subsidized loans of NEEREA. On the request of BDL, LCEC has worked to set high quality measures to monitor and control the market.

A spark of renewable energy

In 2015 alone, around 20 megawatts (MW) of solar photovoltaic systems were installed, mainly thanks to NEEREA. Large and small systems are being installed all over the country, and LCEC expects that more than 50 MW of new projects will be installed in 2016. In that specific sector, the government is leading by example. The first phase, comprising 1 MW from the Beirut River Solar Snake (BRSS), is now connected to the national grid, setting it as the landmark project for solar development in the country. Since the launching of the BRSS project in 2013, the market has witnessed big momentum. The 1 MW BRSS has stimulated more than 20 MW of solar photovoltaic installations within the private sector.

Meanwhile, green buildings are also expanding. While in the past many real estate developers would avoid adding environmental and energy-saving measures to their projects, the new subsidies by BDL have created a huge shift in that regard. More and more investors are now implementing the American LEED or the British BREEAM certification systems, environmental and sustainable assessment methods, in the construction sector. Currently, the annual green building investments in Lebanon exceed the $60 million ceiling.

On the other hand, the solar water heater market continued to evolve throughout 2015, with the involvement of more than 170 companies. The annual market size is currently estimated at around $20 million.

In 2009, Lebanon launched a national initiative aiming to install 190,000 square meters of solar water heaters over a period of five years. The initiative was launched by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Ministry of Energy and Water, with funding by the Global Environment Facility. The initiative received the full support of the ministry, and by 2011, then Minister of Energy and Water Gebran Bassil launched the much-publicized slogan “a solar water heater for every house”. By 2014, the installations of solar water heaters exceeded the 190,000 square meter target.

The European Union has also contributed a great deal to the development of sustainable energy in Lebanon over the past few years. Whether through regional projects and initiatives, or through the projects managed by the EU delegation to Beirut, the impact of the EU has clearly been highly positive. Among the EU initiatives and projects implemented were MED-ENEC, SISSAF, MED-DESIRE, SHAAMS, SOLAR MED, Foster-in-Med, CES-MED and SUDEP. All these acronyms may seem a little incomprehensible, but needless to say the efforts and activities of these projects have resulted in a positive environment toward the development of the sustainable energy market in Lebanon.

For instance, the MED-DESIRE project has supported LCEC in the development of solar ordinances to be adopted by local authorities and municipalities. Another activity by MED-DESIRE has echoed the work of BDL to develop a special financing vehicle dedicated to municipalities.

According to LCEC, 2016 will witness concerted efforts to target municipalities and their unions. In fact, the EU recently launched a new regional initiative called SUDEP, offering financial support to municipalities around the Mediterranean area. Out of the 12 projects awarded under the SUDEP initiative for all cities in the Mediterranean, Lebanon was awarded four projects (in the regions of Akkar, Koura, Chouf and Zgharta). This is quite an achievement for one country alone, and is an indicator that sustainable energy is indeed becoming a priority for Lebanon.

While the current year witnessed an unprecedented growth of decentralized renewable energy systems (in hospitals, industries, residential houses and commercial buildings), the potential for major renewable energy power plants has not yet been explored. The energy ministry is striving to encourage private entities to invest in independent renewable energy power plants. For instance, three years ago, former Minister Bassil launched an invitation to bid for wind energy development investments. Following a thorough analysis by an inter-ministerial committee of the different offers received, the current minister of energy and water, Arthur Nazarian, forwarded the report of the technical committee on wind to the Council of Ministers for its consideration. Ideally, the government would sign three agreements with three different private sector entities to build wind farms in the country. It is expected that these wind farms would add between 150 and 180 MW of wind energy capacity to the national grid.

Helping hands supporting the change

Similar efforts are also being invested to promote privately-owned large solar photovoltaic farms. While little progress has been achieved so far, there is certainly great potential in the field. 

With 2015 coming to an end, the sustainable energy market has proven to be growing rapidly, gaining a good reputation and positive feedback. While LCEC is now in the brainstorming phase of its 2016 activities, the outlook seems promising, especially considering that the main players are on board, including the energy ministry, BDL and the EU. During a session in November 2015, the Lebanese Parliament ratified two agreements with the European Investment Bank and the French Development Agency (Agence Française de Développement), to receive a new credit line of 80 million euros to be added to the NEEREA financing mechanism.

In 2016, more international agencies and institutions are expected to join the national momentum of sustainable energy in Lebanon. In his statement in late November 2015, Governor Salameh committed to offer a ceiling of $1 billion in 2016 to support the productive sectors of the economy, including sustainable energy. Realistically speaking, the sustainable energy market will not reach this mark by the end of 2016. LCEC believes the market size will be around $300 to $400 million in 2016 alone, which should still be considered a very healthy target.

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Pierre El Khoury

Pierre El Khoury is general director and president of the Board of the Lebanese Center for Energy Conservation (LCEC) - Ministry of Energy and Water

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