Sonia Constantin's fridge and water boiler are plugged in. Sitting on her sofa with her sister, she appreciates the rediscovered comfort of her home in Beirut, Lebanon's capital – now fully supplied with electricity.
A Lebanese professor of educational sciences, Constantin decided to invest $6,500 (£5,140) of her savings in nine solar panels and a battery last September. "We are not looking for a life of luxury, we simply want dignity," she tells me.
The investment allowed her to unsubscribe from the privately owned diesel-powered generators which supply power to most households in Beirut. "I have since resumed a normal life: I can charge my phone whenever I want."
Lebanon's national grid has struggled to meet the population's full electricity requirements since the country's civil war began in 1975, forcing consumers to rely on expensive neighbourhood generators to fill the gaps. The civil war ended in 1990 but the grid problems continued. The state provider, Electricity of Lebanon (EDL), ceased supplying power altogether in 2021, when it ran out of fuel, plunging the country into near total blackouts. In Beirut, the blackouts continued for over a year and a half, with EDL only able to provide electricity for an average of 3-4 hours per day.
This was only one symptom of multiple new crises in the country, which started in 2019 with an economic and currency crisis deemed by the World Bank as "one of the top ten, possibly top three, most severe economic collapses worldwide since the 1850s". Inflation in Lebanon reached 171% in 2022.
Amidst the crisis, for many families rooftop solar panels have become a stand-in for both grid-supplied electricity and private diesel generators. While it remains an imperfect solution, Lebanon's situation has shown the power of solar and how it can provide a source of clean and reliable electricity when other electricity systems break down.
Sonia Constantin, who lives in Beirut, invested in her own solar panels, allowing her to unsubscribe from costly diesel-powered generators (Credit: Laure Delacloche)
Solar energy has expanded exponentially across the world over the past 15 years, with capacity increasing more than 50-fold between 2008 and 2021. At the same time, the price of solar energy has dropped significantly. Some 25 million households globally have solar panels on their roofs today, and this is expected to rise to 100 million by 2030.
As well as lowering greenhouse gas emissions by avoiding fossil fuel use, solar power is often touted for its positive impacts on air pollution and health and its flexibility in providing energy access to areas of the world not yet connected to a national grid.
In Lebanon, however, individual decisions to turn to solar are now more a response to the economic crisis than a reaction to climate change and air pollution.
"Before 2021, households were installing solar panels out of ecological concern," says Pierre El-Khoury, general director of the Lebanese Centre for Energy Conservation (LCEC), the country's national energy agency. "In 2021, it became a means to secure energy supplies: EDL's production, which used to reach 1,800 MW, fell below 150 MW." Then, in 2022, the choice began to be driven mostly by economic concerns, he says, as the relative price of electricity coming from generators increased tenfold in Lebanese lira.
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Since 2021, generators, typically owned by private providers, have operated as a nearly full-time substitute for electricity from the national grid, resulting in staggering electricity bills. Constantin says she had to pay up to $100 (£79) per month – a third of her salary in 2022, since the national currency, the Lebanese lira, has lost 98% of its value against the dollar since 2019. Constantin's $100 bill only guaranteed her five amps (A), sufficient to run no more than a few light bulbs and a fridge at once.
According to Human Rights Watch, Lebanese households spent, on average, 44% of their monthly income on generator bills between November 2021 and January 2022. Solar panels, meanwhile, cost at least several thousand dollars, depending on the exact number and quality of the panels and batteries, but ensure protection against blackouts and inflation of electricity bills.
Generators also have other problems. For one thing, they use diesel, causing significant air pollution. They also operate illegally, says Christina Abi Haidar, a legal advisor on energy for UN agencies and the private sector. EDL officially has a monopoly in Lebanon, she adds, but a "de facto monopoly of [private] generators are allowed to exist because those who run them are affiliated to the political elite".
All this has driven a huge shift to rooftop solar in Lebanon. Between 2020 and 2022, the installed capacity of solar energy across the country multiplied more than eight-fold, largely from rooftop solar. Over 650 megawatts (MW) were installed in 2022 alone, says El-Khoury, bringing Lebanon's total solar capacity to 870MW, according to his figures. "Installed capacity should reach 1,000MW in June ," he says. He estimates that the installed capacity of diesel generators, meanwhile, likely amounts to 1,000-1,500MW.
El Khoury estimates that some 50,000 households are now equipped with rooftop solar – that's around 4% of its 1.3 million households.
Pierre El-Khoury stands on the roof of the Ministry of Energy and Water overlooking his Beirut river solar snake project (Credit: Patrick Gaillardin)
Given Lebanon's previous low installation rate and currency devaluation which has made buying imported panels very expensive for locals, the rise of Lebanon's solar is "very impressive", says Alix Chaplain, a PhD candidate in sociology and urban studies at Sciences Po in Paris.
Lebanon has a target to source 30% of its electricity from renewables by 2030. However, some argue that LCEC and Lebanon's government have played little role in the rollout of solar in the country. Few incentives have been provided for solar: one loan scheme implemented over the course of eight months, for example, had received only around a hundred applications as of February 2023, El-Khoury says, while Abi Haidar states the scheme "does not work".
Human Rights Watch has argued that the political influence of diesel importers has undermined previous attempts to reform the electricity sector in favour of renewables. The generator market is valued at $3bn (£2.4bn) per year. Abi Haidar, who contributed to Lebanon's renewable energy and energy conservation law in 2009, says the law "never saw the light and remained in a drawer in Parliament". Other renewable energy regulations have been amended and stripped of their substance or never fully implemented, she says.
Lebanon's Ministry of Energy and Water had not responded to a request for comment at the time of publication.
Solar energy really contributes to solving the problem of electricity in Lebanon – Pierre El-Khoury
Meanwhile, many people now lack a safety net to ensure access to electricity. Malaki Chaddoud, an 82-year-old resident of Beirut, says she cannot afford a generator subscription – let alone to invest in solar panels. This is the case for one in five households among the poorest 20% of the population. "These days, electricity only comes for two hours," says Chaddoud.
The private sector, which faces similar struggles in accessing reliable electricity, is also turning to solar. The private hospital Hopital-Dieu de France spends $500,000 (£401,000) on diesel each month to run its private generators, says director Nassib Nasr. Since 2012, it has invested around $1,000,000 (£790,000) in solar in a bid to decrease the hospital's dependency on fuel, he tells me. Nasr says he wants to cover "each available square metre" of the hospital with panels. "The survival of the hospital depends on it."
In the absence of grid power, however, diesel generators, which can generate the higher amounts of energy needed in operating rooms, need to remain the main source of electricity for safety reasons. In summer 2021, he says, the hospital came close to closing due to fuel shortages. "Our patients are increasingly struggling to pay our bills, and investing in solar panels is a way to keep them as reasonable as possible," Nasr adds.
For Pharmaline, the largest pharmaceutical factory in Lebanon, investing $600,000 (£481,000) in 1,244 solar panels was also a condition of survival. "Initially, this was part of a global sustainability strategy but we are now driven by the necessity for energy independence and cost saving," says Joanne Chehab, chief executive of Malia Group, the parent company of Pharmaline. The company has saved $150,000 (£120,000) on fuel since the installation in 2022, she says, and is considering further expanding its solar park.
Malaki Chaddoud, an 82-year-old resident of Beirut, says she cannot afford a diesel generator subscription – let alone to invest in solar panels (Credit: Laure Delacloche)
Sitting in his office in the Ministry of Energy and Water, lit up thanks to solar panels installed on the building's roof, El-Khoury tells me that "solar energy really contributes to solving the problem of electricity in Lebanon".
However, Abi Haidar argues that the absence of enforced regulation on solar energy means the ongoing shift cannot be deemed "an energy transition". This will only happen "when [the] government implements a plan to reduce fossil fuels and reduce CO2 emissions, not when they take you to total blackout," she argues. She also has concerns that the poor quality of equipment flowing into the country may lead to hazards. She wants a more collective approach, allowing access to solar energy for all, rather than solely private rooftop solar for those who can afford it.
El Khoury downplays these concerns over safety, arguing there are few accidents involving solar panels, but he does also believe in collective projects. In 2014, he designed the Beirut river solar snake, 10,000 sq m (107,000 sq ft) of panels installed along a 325m (1,070ft) stretch of the Beirut river. However, like all on-grid systems, it can only deliver the produced electricity when EDL functions – around four hours a day since February 2023.
Last year, the Ministry of Energy and Water published a plan for restoring electricity supplies, including a plan for importing electricity from Jordan and using gas at one of its power plants. It is also hoping to install considerable renewable capacity over the next five years, namely 680MW of solar, 742MW of wind and 394MW of hydro.
Lebanon's frequent blackouts lead to other difficulties in using solar: when the grid is offline, households and companies cannot sell their surplus of solar energy to the national provider, a process called net-metering. As a consequence, many people and institutions install batteries to stock their own electricity and use it when needed, according to José Antonio Naya Villaverde, head of the Institute for University Cooperation (ICU), an Italian non-profit. ICU is working with local NGOs, using international funding to set up a project to reuse or dispose of batteries safely.
Electricity access is not a commodity, it is a basic human right – Christina Abi Haidar
The dramatic rise of rooftop solar in Lebanon indicates it can play a big part in helping people secure electricity in times of crisis. The technology has provided a lifeline for many in less than ideal circumstances in the country, allowing a semblance of normality – at least for those who can afford it.
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Constantin says transitioning from diesel generators to solar has meant a move away from privately-owned diesel networks and enjoying cheaper and cleaner electricity. "It is a great solution," she says. She marvels at the fact that she had enough electricity throughout the winter – as long as she closely monitored her consumption. Still, Constantin says, she wishes she could rely on a functional grid to sell her surplus of electricity to.
Abi Haidar stresses more generally the need for the rule of law and a solid legislative framework when a national shift to renewable energy happens, in order to encourage the private sector in an efficient way and "to avoid the chaotic development scenario that we see in Lebanon". She also believes collective projects rather than individual ones should be encouraged. "This strategy would ensure everyone has access to electricity," she says. "[Electricity access] is not a commodity, it is a basic human right."
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