Samar Monzer has connected her refrigerator and illuminated her house. As she stands in the kitchen, baking a cake for her three children, she savors the renewed sense of comfort in her Aley residence-nestled in Mount Lebanon, now completely powered with electricity.
In late 2021, Monzer, a Lebanese homemaker and mother, opted to allocate $4,000 from her family’s savings to acquire a photovoltaic (PV) electricity system of eight solar panels and six batteries. “Our aim is not to lead a lavish life; we merely aspire to live with dignity,” she tells Executive.
This financial commitment enabled her to discontinue her reliance on privately-owned diesel generators, which typically provide electricity to the majority of households in Mount Lebanon. She expresses, “I have now returned to a routine life—I can do laundry, cook, enjoy TV, and charge my phone at my convenience.”
The struggle for a stable and reliable national grid has been a saga spanning decades, tracing its roots back to the onset of the Lebanese civil war in 1975. At the center of this quagmire stands the state provider, Electricité du Liban (EDL), grappling with financial tribulations and political entanglements that hamper its ability to ensure an uninterrupted power supply. The consequence? Rolling power cuts, interspersed with irregular blackouts, became an exasperating norm, catapulting the nation into an even more pervasive reliance on private generators. Yet, this makeshift and not actually legal solution turned into an entrenched system, bringing its own host of challenges, including intransparent and sometimes extortional usage charges and grave costs for environment and air quality.
After the dual system — of nominal monopoly provider EDL and powerful generator operations with political tutelages — had been dominating the provision of electricity to Lebanese households for many years, October 2021 plunged the country into complete darkness in a stark manifestation of Lebanon’s economic crisis that had been raging already for more than 18 months. The main government-controlled power stations, Deir Ammar and Zahrani, ran out of fuel. This catastrophic, EDL-wide blackout rendered private generators the sole lifeline for power. In the capital Beirut, the scenario of long daily blackouts lasted for over a year and a half, with EDL managing to provide a mere three to four hours of electricity per day, as confirmed by a policy statement published by the Lebanese Ministry of Energy and Water under the title “Setting Lebanon’s Electricity Sector on a Sustainable Growth Path.”
This energy predicament was just one facet of Lebanon’s crisis, which unfurled in 2019 with an economic and currency collapse labeled by World Bank Group researchers as “one of the top ten most severe economic collapses worldwide since the 1850s.” The repercussions reverberated with an inflation rate soaring to 171 percent in 2022, according to the Central Administration of Statistics in Lebanon. One curious outcome emerged, however: the collapse of public electricity has prompted an accelerated shift to solar energy.
Broad flight into private solar
Prior to 2021, the installation of solar panels in Lebanese households was largely motivated by ecological concerns, akin to trends observed in European countries. However, beginning in 2021, the landscape shifted dramatically, transforming solar panels from an environmental statement to a pragmatic means of securing energy. “This shift is a direct response to the challenges stemming from the diminished output of both Electricité du Liban and private generators. This underscores the significant evolution in solar capacity, starting at a cumulative total of 100 megawatts (MW) in 2016 and experiencing a remarkable surge, reaching an unparalleled 1,000 MW in 2023 within just seven years,” says Walid El Baba, an engineer and the president of the Lebanese Solar Energy Society (LSES).
Starting in 2021, generators, often under private ownership, had functioned as a nearly constant replacement for electricity derived from the national grid, leading to exceptionally high electricity bills. Monzer reveals that prior to adopting solar energy, her monthly experience felt like an unending, increasingly painful negotiation with private generator providers. These providers consistently escalated the monthly bill to provide a mere five ampere, which proved sufficient only to power a single light in one room and the refrigerator. Any additional load would cause the generator to abruptly cut off.
In 2022, Lebanon witnessed a continued transformation favoring renewable energy sources, as solar energy projects, as reported by the Lebanese Center for Energy Conservation (LCEC), achieved a cumulative capacity of approximately 870 megawatts. Notably, 663 megawatts were added in that year alone, pushing Lebanon beyond the 1,000-megawatt mark. This milestone comes as the country struggles to function under a total electricity demand of 1,700 megawatts, as estimated by the LCEC in June 2023.
According to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), Lebanon has the potential to derive 30 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030. The shift towards solar energy has had a profound impact, reducing dependence on generators—a significant revelation emphasized in the Human Rights Watch’s March 2023 report. The report reveals that, between November 2021 and January 2022, Lebanese households allocated 44 percent of their monthly income to meeting their electricity needs, mostly by paying generator charges. In contrast, investing in solar panels provides a long-term solution safeguarding against blackouts and escalating electricity prices.
Solar energy, though effective, has a substantial upfront cost with a broad range depending on quality and quantity that renders it inaccessible to some. Post-installation, continuous monitoring incurs ongoing expenses, extending the financial commitment. “Investing in solar energy is not just about installation; it’s a commitment to consistent maintenance. The more care you put into it, the more sustainable and cost-effective it becomes,” Joseph Al Asmar, an energy expert and faculty member at the Antonine University (UA), tells Executive. This commitment includes regular inspections of PV panels, cleaning to remove dust or debris that may hinder efficiency, checking electrical connections, and ensuring the proper functioning of components like inverters.
“The cost of a solar energy system varies based on factors like panel quality, battery efficiency, and optional features,” says Al Asmar, adding that, “it’s a personalized calculation to meet specific customer needs and ensure a cost-effective and efficient solution.”
Safety in Lebanon’s Growing Solar Industry
The propulsive surge in Lebanon’s solar energy industry has led to an increase in haphazard and unskilled installations, resulting in frequent safety incidents across regions. Al Baba highlights challenges in installation processes, noting that “around 30 percent of energy installations face issues, posing potential dangers, including fires.” These problems stem from flawed connection methods, the use of unsuitable cables, the absence of the MC4 connection leading to panel ignition, and improper panel placement causing defects in energy production. Al Baba stresses the significance of PV training sessions offered by the LSES for workers to tackle challenges and guarantee the safety and efficiency of solar energy systems. Additionally, he stresses the LSES acknowledgment of Eco Truck since 2012. This mobile sustainability classroom, designed for students in both private and public schools, has hosted numerous visits. Al Baba notes, “The truck is equipped with PV panels, a wind turbine, solar heating, and various other features.”
To prevent accidents, strict adherence to precise technical conditions, use of high quality equipment, and enlistment of experts to assess loads, ensure proper cable connections and undertake appropriate installation is crucial. Al Asmar underscores the significance of experience and knowledge in this domain, emphasizing that “the installation is not akin to ordinary electrical devices; it involves an intricate energy production system that necessitates adherence to scientific and engineering conditions.” This entails coordinated efforts among dishes, cables, transformers, and batteries to align with the engineering carrying capacity of the house.
Highlighting the importance of protection and safety measures, Al Asmar sees a priority need of proper maintenance in future dealings with already installed solar PV systems. He further evisions for all systems, those yet to be installed as well as those installed during the demand surge of the past three years, the implementation of regulation to shield each system from lightning strikes, high currents, and excessive traction beyond the system’s capacity.
While Al Baba expressed optimism regarding the future of PV solar installations in Lebanon, he emphasizes a dual need for intelligent utilization and the importance of a well-planned network that caters to the needs of every user, from the smallest to the largest. His concerns about the RE sector’s development in the coming years originate in the unregulated infrastructure as well as the behavior factors, namely the perceived selfishness of the Lebanese population, expressed in what he views as a tendency to prioritize individual interests over the collective good.
In regard to regulatory concerns, which are shared by many experts on RE in Lebanon, the current bottomline of Lebanon’s compulsive rush towards renewable energy in the past three years points to a strong legal foundation as the linchpin for future RE success. The failures of EDL and the parliamentary and ministerial failures to rapidly exert governance and order over the wild environment where the urgent need for affordable electricity could lead to reckless installation of solar PV, have resulted in a practical and moral imperative of a collective effort from government, private sector, and civil society to invest in and adopt sustainable energy practices. For Al Baba, what is most needed now is a focus on legislation to streamline the transition, warding off chaos. He emphasizes: “electricity isn’t just a commodity; it’s a fundamental human right.”