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Could Solar Power Solve Lebanon’s Electricity Crisis?

Lebanon solar energy farm
A solar farm in Lebanon. Photo mwessale/Flickr

On 28 March 2017, the Lebanese cabinet approved a plan to reform the national energy sector, which was devastated during the 1975-1990 civil war and has been plagued by corruption ever since. One of the measures requested by Cesar Abi Khalil, Minister of Energy and Water, is the generation of solar power via facilities on the coast. These facilities should reinforce a growing interest and market in solar power in Lebanon.

The story of solar power in Lebanon starts in 2010, with the launch of the 2011-2015 National Energy Efficiency Action Plan (NEEAP). This encompasses 14 initiatives, half of them for renewable energy including solar power. In 2011, the Lebanese Center for Energy Conservation (LCEC), a government advisory body that was initiated in 2005 as a joint project between the Ministry of Energy and Water and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), became independent. The LCEC drew up the original NEEAP and, in 2015, a new national plan that comprised the NEEAP 2016-2020 and the National Renewable Energy Action Plan 2016-2020 (NREAP), officially launched by the new government on 12 January 2017.

“Our objective is to reach 12 per cent of renewable energy by 2020, and we are already at 6.7 per cent,” Pierre El Khoury, director of the LCEC, told Fanack. “The national plan has a budget of around $1.7 billion, with 70-80 per cent of it targeting the private sector. It’s the ministry’s first target to include the private sector in all the activities.”

The four points of the national plan are based on hydroelectric power, wind turbines, solar water heaters and solar photovoltaic (PV – solar panels and the equipment to connect it to the electricity network). In 2010, the Lebanese Central Bank (BDL) offered five-year, interest-free loans to help people buy solar water heaters. This is still the case, with the ministry now contributing an additional $200 to cover the purchase costs. “We have an objective of one million square metres of solar water heaters by 2020,” El Khoury said. “Following massive demand, we are already way over our annual targets.”

Solar PV currently generates more than 40 megawatts (MW), thanks to incentives such as the National Energy Efficiency and Renewable Action (NEEREA), a national financing mechanism that allows private sector entities to apply for subsidized loans for renewable energy projects. “We aim to reach 150MW by 2020 with these rooftop installations,” El Khoury said. “But for more significant results, we are directing our efforts towards solar power stations and solar fields. In open spaces like the mountains and Beqaa Valley, we could build 12 solar power stations that we can connect to the national electricity network with a total capacity of 180MW. The minister has already called for offers from private companies and received 265 tenders. We are now writing the specifications for the project, which will help these companies to submit serious proposals.” He hopes that the constructions will be complete by the end of 2018.

These various initiatives and incentives seem to be paying off. According to the UNDP’s 2016 Solar PV Status Report for Lebanon, ‘solar PV electricity capacity in 2015 was 0.47 per cent of EDL’s [Electricité du Liban, state-owned company in charge of national electricity distribution] total electricity capacity and 0.11 per cent of EDL’s total annual electricity generation’. The report also stated that ‘from 2010 until the end of 2015, cumulative installed solar PV electricity capacity has grown by an average rate of 101 per cent per year’, and that ‘the number of new solar PV projects increased from 18 in 2011 to 94 in 2013 and to 259 in 2015’.

The projects are much needed in a country where electricity rates are high and the supply insufficient. Daily power outages range from three hours in Beirut to 18 hours in the mountains, forcing those who can afford it to buy personal generators. A 2011 article published in the journal Energy Procedia states that ‘it is obvious that EDL suffers a great shortage in its generating capacity and human resources and would not be effective without conducting a national strategy that includes radical solutions’. As a result, more and more companies, individuals and health institutions are turning to solar power as a cheaper and more reliable alternative.

“There has been a strong increase in demand in renewable energy since 2010, especially for hospitals, factories and businesses,” Maroun Charabati, president of Beeatoona, a company specialized in renewable energy, told Fanack. “Thanks to the incentives provided by the UNDP and the government through subsidized loans, more people are able to switch to solar PV technology.”

He added: “People are aware about pollution and the environment and are careful about their carbon footprint. The savings you could make on the long-term (in terms of electricity costs) are still not good enough because the technology is very expensive, but it will decrease with time if more people use it.”

“It’s a booming business,” El Khoury agreed. “Lebanon is among the top ten countries for solar water heater use and our yearly growth for solar PV is among the highest in the world. I am really proud of what is going on.”

It is a pride shared by Charabati, who underlined the fact that “spending money on renewable energy instead of heavy fuel is good for the environment but also for people’s health” – a major benefit in a country that ranks 13th in the 2017 Pollution Index.

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