Broummana, Lebanon – Power outages have hit Lebanon in recent weeks as an entire nation is forced to adjust to life without electricity.
Due to the government’s failure to obtain heavy fuel oil for power plants, electricity supplied by the state-owned Electricité du Liban declined to two hours a day and was completely cut off in some parts of the country.
Private diesel generators, which previously covered a three-hour gap in government-supplied electricity, are now responsible for the remaining 22 hours of the day.
The high demand and lack of imports have led to an extreme fuel shortage and fueled a black market selling fuel accumulated at rates that the majority of Lebanon cannot afford. The government cut subsidies on diesel fuel and decided to allow direct importation, hoping to alleviate this shortage, but the only result was a nearly four-fold increase in prices.
Generator subscription fees have skyrocketed, reaching $ 375 on the parallel foreign exchange market, for enough electricity to keep a family home cool on hot summer nights. Those wealthy enough to afford these high fees still face daily blackouts as generator owners try to conserve fuel.
Sometimes there is just no diesel and they are forced to sit sweating in the dark, wondering if the food in their refrigerators has been cold enough to be safe to eat.
“Definitely a boom”
As a result, there has been an explosion of interest in alternative energies, and thousands of people, mostly wealthy, are now turning to solar power to get rid of an unreliable power grid. In a country that experiences around 300 sunny days a year, affluent residents are appropriating the expensive equipment needed to ensure stable off-grid electricity and give them and their families security and peace of mind.
“From a residential perspective, this is definitely a boom,” said Carla Nassab, program manager at the United Nations Development Program, who is working on several alternative energy initiatives across Lebanon.
“But the boom isn’t just residential, it’s everywhere,” she said. “Industries are turning to solar power or whatever provides them with electricity because it is getting too scarce and getting too expensive. “
The half-dozen Lebanese alternative energy entrepreneurs interviewed for this article agreed, saying they had never seen this kind of interest in solar energy before.
“I would say it’s historically skyrocketing. That would probably be another understatement. We tripled our team in just two weeks, ”said Bassam Karam, Managing Director of Smart Power. “Now it’s not just a question of cost. It’s a question of “Do you have electricity or not? “”
Karam said Smart Power receives over 500 quote requests per week and they are unable to follow up with everyone.
Solar entrepreneurs told Al Jazeera that their new customers come from all over the country, from all religious sects, with nothing in common other than the ability to pay the high price of their new solar power system in so-called “fresh” dollars. , or U.S. greenbacks imported from outside the country after the banking sector collapsed in 2019.
A new system including photovoltaic solar panels, ion batteries and a solar inverter – to convert DC energy captured by the sun into AC current that can be stored in batteries – costs between $ 4,500 and $ 6,000 and increases from of the.
Spending this amount will give a home enough energy storage to last eight to 10 hours after sundown, and will last more than 10 years before needing servicing. But the initial investment is far beyond what the vast majority of Lebanese can afford.
“We’re only taking fresh dollars,” said a representative from Kypros Solar, who said they’ve sold over 100 systems this summer. “Because we bring all the stuff from the outside [the country], mainly from China and USA, so we pay in dollar costs.
In Lebanon, as in the rest of the world, demand is so high that it is becoming increasingly difficult to source the necessary components, and customers must expect long lead times, sometimes up to three months, before their system can be installed.
“Instead of getting our products two or three weeks after confirmation, we now have to wait 20 weeks or 25 weeks,” said George Abboud, COO of Earth Technologies.
“So we started sourcing from other companies, not factories. We started dealing with distributors in the Emirates, Jordan and Europe, trying to find as many products as possible, ”Abboud explained, noting that this was eating away at his company’s profit margins.
“Easier to go green”
Despite growing interest, the cost and scarcity of equipment remains a major problem.
“I got the solar panels and the inverter from a company in Milan,” said a man from Bcharré, a mountain town in northern Lebanon, who asked not to be identified. “I still can’t find batteries and it’s very expensive.
To save money, he decided to stock up and install his solar power system himself. He works as a private physics teacher, taking his salary in increasingly depreciated Lebanese pounds. He said that in order to allow his family’s energy independence, he decided to sell the gold he bought when times were better.
In the end, he said, it was an easy decision to invest in alternative energy. “You basically pay the same amount in US dollars each month [for diesel fuel]. This makes it easier to go green or use solar or wind power to be able to maintain your home.
Chawki Lahoud, owner and managing director of CLEnginering, saw the solar boom coming several months ago and stocked up on batteries and solar panels.
Because of this, he said he was able to complete seven or eight projects per week at an average cost of $ 6,500 each. He said he only takes big jobs and refers requests for small systems to colleagues in industry.
“I’m still marketing to the rich,” he said. “These guys, I can assure you, they have [access to fresh dollars.]”
Last week, Lahoud was in Broummana, an affluent village in the mountains above Beirut, installing a 10-panel, eight-battery setup at Samer Maatouk, CFO of a large company he turned down. to name.
“I didn’t ask him for the price, I asked him for the system,” Maatouk said. “Now, if you don’t have electricity, you have no choice. There are no other options. Or you turn off your generator, throw away your food and live as they did in 1850. ”
Across the street, Maatouk’s neighbor Abdullkhalek Mallah said he plans to hire Lahoud’s company for a solar system soon.
“We pay £ 7 million [$4,600] and that’s with cuts every day, ”he said of last month’s diesel generator bills. “The whole system will cost around $ 4,800, but it’s still more efficient than paying the power producers. “
Although this option is only available to the wealthy, UN Nassab said she sees Lebanon’s solar energy boom as a bright spot in an otherwise bleak outlook for Lebanon.
“What happened was a crisis. It’s very sad, ”she told Al Jazeera. “But I think it will change our behavior for the future.
“This is the push that people needed. Before, no one would have seen the advantage other than that it is good for the environment and eases the pressure on Electricité du Liban.