Inside the courtyard of the Mawasem El Dayaa Cooperative, overlooking the small village of Deir Qanoun-Ras al-Ain in southern Lebanon, there was a palpable sense of excitement about the solar panels that had recently been installed on the roof. This relatively minor addition to the architecture will have an outsize impact for the cooperative. “Today we are celebrating a positive change to our lives and our community that will last forever,”
Daad Ismail, president of the cooperative, told The Daily Star. “Electricity shortages have hurt our productivity, our working hours and our personal lives. Solar energy will not only generate more income, but it will make our production more sustainable and environmentally friendly.”
Power outages have plagued Lebanon since the Civil War. The country now has the third-highest number of monthly electricity cuts in the world, with an average of 50.5 cuts per month, according to a World Bank report published in 2016. Intermittent energy provision is a troublesome reality across the country, particularly for low-income households for whom generators are unaffordable. But alternative energy solutions are slowly taking root across the country.
The 23 women who work at the cooperative, which was founded in 1998 and produces organic local biscuits, jams and preserves, received their crowdfunded solar panels, led by a Greenpeace campaign, last week with relief.
“At times, the women were only getting two to three hours of electricity a day,” said project manager Julien Jreissati from environmental NGO Greenpeace. This region, he added, experiences severe electricity cuts that have left residents heavily reliant on unaffordable and high-polluting generators.
“We had all sorts of machines that were rusting here because we couldn’t use them,” Ismail said, gesturing toward machinery acquired with funds from the United Nations Development Program and the European Union. “We had to do everything by hand. We had sore backs and we just weren’t able to produce as much.”
The installation of the solar panels cost $12,000 but will ultimately cut the cooperative’s energy bill by two-thirds, Jreissati said. “The women will never have to use the generator again.”
The result will be increased productivity and lower costs, according to Nader Hajj Shehadeh, the independent energy consultant who advised and led the installation of the solar panels.
Beyond assisting the women’s cooperative, this pilot project is intended to act as an example, promoting solar energy as a viable alternative to generators in lieu of a reliable national electrical supply.
Residents of Metn’s Burj Hammoud, like others around the country, are weary of the ongoing struggle to provide energy for their families. Jacques, who chose not to provide his last name, was waiting for customers inside his small auto shop when The Daily Star visited and asked him about his electricity costs.
“I live in a small flat with my mother in Sin al-Fil,” he said. “I pay LL30,000 ($20) per month for government electricity. But there is only electricity here for a few hours a day. So we rely, like everyone else in Lebanon, on a generator. I usually pay around LL90,000 ($60) per month. In the summer, the price doubles. Then I have to pay for LPG, LL18,000 ($12) per month.”
All told, Jacques has calculated that he spends over a quarter of his income on electricity. Further up the street, Gregory, who also chose to be referred to by his first name only, gave similar figures. “It’s always been like this,” Jacques added. “The price of oil has fallen, but the [energy] prices haven’t. But that’s just the way it is.”
The heavily subsidized national entity Electricite du Liban has a monopoly on the provision of electricity, but deteriorating state infrastructure means the public grid is unable to reliably service the country. Lebanese households typically spend two-thirds of their total energy allowance on generators, according to a 2013 World Bank report.
Controlled by private, largely unregulated groups, generators retail for excruciatingly high prices, Professor Roland Riachi of the American University of Beirut said.
UNDP’s EU-funded CEDRO project – an initiative designed to help the Lebanese government implement a national sustainable energy strategy – is in the process of distributing solar home systems to households in rural areas, allowing low-income families to meet their basic electricity needs, according to Hassan Harajli, a project manager with CEDRO. The new systems will replace inefficient and unsustainable technologies such as kerosene lamps, candles and battery torches.
Access to energy has slightly increased since 2013, Harajli said, but there is still much to do, particularly as the Syrian refugee crisis has imposed additional pressure on Lebanon’s energy supply and infrastructure in general.
Lebanon currently hosts over 1 million Syrian refugees as well as at least 400,000 Palestinians. However, displaced people’s access to energy remains substandard, according to Nancy Hilal, who manages a UNDP project intended to improve living conditions in Palestinian communities and host communities. Hilal’s project is looking to install a large, low-maintenance photovoltaic solar panel system within a Palestinian community on the outskirts of Tyre, which would provide energy for the community’s 1,000 households. “[Solar panels] present solutions that can be used even when the refugees leave,” Hilal said.
Although upfront costs remain high, solar installations can cut generator bills extensively and reduce pressure on the national grid. Currently, 18 percent of Lebanon’s total solar capacity is installed in the residential sector, according to Jil Amine, co-author of Lebanon’s first Solar PV Status Report and project manager of UNDP’s Small Decentralized Renewable Energy Power Generation Project. Although solar energy systems able to meet households’ total energy demands remain expensive and unfeasible, there are micro wind and solar applications that can help produce some energy, pushing down household expenditure on energy.
“These systems are present in Lebanon and they are usually sold and sized just like private generator subscriptions,” Amine said.
Energy efficient technologies at the household level are also available in Lebanon, Amine said. “What is lacking is the awareness [required] for the people to adopt them.”
The organizations behind the sustainable energy pilot projects sprouting up across Lebanon are hoping to prove that individuals, neighborhoods, schools, religious institutions and businesses don’t have to pay extortionate amounts for generators while waiting for the national grid to improve.
According to CEDRO, 94 percent of energy production in Lebanon is reliant on fossil fuels. Adopting more sustainable solutions to the current energy crisis will be less detrimental to people’s wallets and the environment.
Alice Rowsome is a Freelance Reporter, currently reporting on the environmental impact of conflict and climate change on communities, specifically indigenous peoples and farmers.