With electricity becoming a scarce commodity, thousands of well-off Lebanese rush to alternative energy.
By Adam Muro
Broummana, Lebanon – Blackouts have gripped Lebanon in recent weeks as an entire nation is forced to adjust to life without electricity.
Because of the government’s failure to secure heavy fuel oil for power plants, electricity provided by the state-owned Electricité du Liban has dwindled to two hours per day, and has been shut off completely in some areas of the country.
Privately owned diesel generators, which used to cover a three-hour gap in government-supplied power, are now responsible for the remaining 22 hours of the day.
High demand and a lack of imports have led to extreme fuel scarcity, and fed a black market selling hoarded fuel at rates the majority of Lebanon cannot afford. The government has reduced subsidies on diesel fuel and moved to allow for direct importation, hoping to alleviate this scarcity, but the only result has been near four-fold price increases.
Generator subscription fees have risen to astronomical levels, as high as $375 on the parallel currency exchange market, for enough electricity to keep a family home cool through the hot summer nights. Those wealthy enough to accept these high fees still face daily power cuts as generator owners attempt to conserve fuel.
Sometimes there just is not any diesel to be found at all, and they are forced to sit sweating in the dark, wondering whether the food in their refrigerators has been kept cold enough to be safe to eat.
‘Definitely a boom’
As a result, there has been an explosion in interest in alternative energy, and thousands of mostly wealthy people are now turning to solar power for independence from an unreliable power grid. In a country that sees about 300 days of sun per year, well-off residents are snapping up the expensive equipment required to secure 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, a programme officer at the United Nations Development Programme, who is working on several alternative energy initiatives across Lebanon.
“But the boom, it’s not just residential, it’s everywhere,” she said. “Industries are looking into solar energy or anything that actually provides them electricity, because it’s becoming too scarce and it’s becoming too expensive.”
The half-dozen Lebanese alternative energy contractors interviewed for this article agreed, saying they have never seen this type of interest in solar power before.
“I would say it’s historically skyrocketing. Probably that would still be an understatement. We tripled our team in just two weeks,” said Bassam Karam, general manager of Smart Power. “It’s now not just a matter of cost. It’s a matter of, ‘Do you have electricity or not?’”
Karam said Smart Power is receiving more than 500 requests for quotes per week, and it is impossible for them to follow up with everyone.
Solar contractors told Al Jazeera their new customers come from all over the country, from all religious sects, with nothing in common other than the ability to pay the steep price tag for their new solar power system in so-called “fresh” dollars, or US greenbacks brought in 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 the direct current power harvested from the sun into alternating current that can be stored in the batteries – costs between $4,500 and $6,000 and increases from there.
Spending this amount will give a home enough power storage to last from eight to 10 hours after the sun goes down, and will last upwards of 10 years before needing an overhaul. But the initial investment is far beyond what the vast majority of Lebanese can afford.
“We only take fresh dollars,” said a representative from Kypros Solar, who said it has sold more than 100 systems this summer. “Because we bring all the stuff from outside [the country], from China mainly and the US, so we pay in fresh dollars.”
In Lebanon, as is the case the world over, demand is so high it is becoming increasingly difficult to source necessary components, and customers are being told to expect long waiting times, sometimes up to three months, before their system can be installed.
“Instead of getting our products two or three weeks after confirmation, now we need to wait 20 weeks or 25 weeks,” said George Abboud, chief operating officer of Earth Technologies.
“So we started sourcing from other companies, not factories anymore. We started dealing with distributors, from the Emirates and Jordan and Europe, trying to find as much product as we can,” Abboud explained, noting this is eating into his company’s profit margins.
‘Easier to go green’
Despite the growing interest, cost and scarcity of equipment is still a major problem.
“I got the solar panels and the inverter from a company in Milan,” said a man from Bcharre, a mountain town in the north of Lebanon, who asked not to be identified. “I still can’t find batteries and it’s very expensive.”
To save money, he decided to source and install his solar power system himself. He works as a private physics tutor, taking his salary in ever-depreciating Lebanese pounds. He said to afford energy independence for his family, he decided to sell some gold he purchased when times were better.
In the end, he said, it was an easy decision to invest in alternative energy. “You’re basically paying the same amount in US dollars each month [for diesel fuel]. So it’s easier to go green or use solar energy or wind energy to be able to sustain your house.”
Chawki Lahoud, owner and general manager of CLEnginering, saw the solar boom coming several months ago, and stocked up on batteries and solar panels.
Because of this, he said he is 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 smaller systems to colleagues in the industry.
“I’m always marketing to rich people,” 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 the home of Samer Maatouk, a chief financial officer at a large firm he declined to name.
“I didn’t ask him the price, I asked him for the system,” Maatouk said. “Now if you don’t have electricity, you have no choice. There’s no other options. Or else you will shut down your generator, you will throw your food away, and you live as they did in 1850.”
Across the street, Maatouk’s neighbour Abdullkhalek Mallah said he plans on hiring Lahoud’s company for a solar system soon.
“We’re paying 7 million pounds [$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 electricity generator people.”
Though this option is only available to the wealthy, the UN’s Nassab said she sees Lebanon’s solar power boom as a bright spot in an otherwise bleak outlook for Lebanon.
“What’s happened, it’s a crisis. It’s very sad,” she told Al Jazeera. “But I feel it’s going to change our behavior for the future.
“This is the push that people needed. Before, no one would have seen the benefit other than that it’s good for the environment and alleviates the pressure on Electricité du Liban.”