Lebanon is going through one of its worst energy shortages in years. Even the most electrified part of the country, central Beirut, is experiencing more than the usually standard three-hour outages. Tires have been burnt in protest and people's tempers are rising along with the mercury.
While wrangling at Électricité du Liban (EDL) over contract workers has caused interruptions of late and the state electricity provider has undoubted culpability in the chronic shortages, the rise in energy demand is also to blame. Last year, EDL produced the same amount of electricity as now — some 1,600 megawatts (MW) — while demand rose to over 2,300 MW. And what has caused more frequent and longer blackouts this summer is not the tourism season, weak as it is, but a surge in the use of high energy usage appliances.
One of the biggest energy guzzlers are widescreen LCD televisions, which have become so affordable to be almost ubiquitous, glaring away in so many homes, offices, restaurants and stores. For instance, a 40-inch LCD TV uses 240 watts per hour, and a 50-inch screen 400 watts, compared to 42 watts for a 28-inch LCD, and 87 watts for a conventional TV of the same size. While such wall-dominating screens are a drain on energy, watt usage rises again when coupled with air conditioning (A/C) units, which have risen in popularity in Lebanon as in much of the world, with global sales up 13 percent in 2011 on 2010. There are no accurate local figures, but in neighboring Gulf countries A/C accounts for a whopping 70 percent of annual peak electricity consumption and is expected to triple by 2030 to require the equivalent of 1.5 million barrels of oil per day to power.
In Beirut demand for A/C is driven in large part by what is called the “urban heat island effect,” where buildings retain heat and warm up the surroundings, which then increases humidity. On average, A/C units use 900 watts per hour, although more energy efficient ones use around 800 watts when initially turned on, then consumption drops to 600 watts and can drop to less than 80 watts if set at a high temperature. By comparison, a ceiling fan, at full power, uses just 75 watts per hour.
So what to do about this surge in energy demand? Widescreen TVs can of course be turned off or watched selectively, but turning off A/C in the height of summer is not an option for most, especially if there actually is electricity. Pleas for people to turn off A/Cs and use fans instead will no doubt fall on deaf ears — even though fans can make the temperature feel four to eight degrees cooler — as once people have made the switch to A/C it is hard to go back. But more efficient usage of A/C is possible, as was demonstrated in Japan a few years ago when the prime minister, expecting energy demand to spike in the summer months as A/C usage rose, suggested workers don more practical summer outfits, of short sleeved shirts over suits and ties, and set A/C units at 26 to 28 degrees instead of the temperature of a warmish spring day of 16 to 18 degrees. Although it is hard to judge the success of the initiative, according to one government survey, 43 percent of employees did lighten up on the office A/C. Another technique called district cooling, using available sea water, could also offer a cheap and affordable option to knock off as much as 30 percent of consumption during peak hours.
Lebanon, however, is not renowned for successful collective efforts ‘for the good of all’. Even if the president, prime minister and speaker of the house all gave a joint press conference uniformly dressed in short sleeved shirts, shorts and sandals with a message to encourage people to turn off the widescreen and set their A/Cs at 28 degrees, it would be unlikely that people would follow suit.
But the private sector could be encouraged to adopt a summer uniform and lower the A/Cs. One, it would reduce overheads through lower electricity bills; two, companies could tout such a move as part of a “going green” policy of corporate social responsibility; and three, staff will be more relaxed in the office. Even a partial reduction in energy use would help to keep the lights, fans and yes, even A/Cs on for just a bit longer in what is going to be a hot and humid few months ahead.
PAUL COCHRANE is the Middle East correspondent for International News Services