Bringing Lebanon out of the dark, naturally
At his goat farm in the remote Bekaa Valley town of Qaa near the Syrian border, Hasan Istaytiyyah is enjoying a rare luxury in Lebanon: 24-hour electricity. For the past seven months, the house on his farm has been running on a solar-powered system that has replaced unreliable state-run electricity, which was provided for only six hours per day. He has even discarded his noisy, expensive and polluting generator. Istaytiyyah says his farm’s electricity is “better and cheaper than anywhere in Lebanon. Now, at my remote farm, I can be connected to the world via satellite TV and the Internet, which is only possible through my photovoltaic electricity system.” He adds that despite his farm’s secluded location, the new system has brought him “closer to the civilized way of life.”
Like many other Lebanese, Istaytiyyah lived with daily power outages, typically for 18 hours a day. Without a solid national energy plan on the horizon, he decided to take the initiative himself and install solar panels after seeing an online advertisement for them by Eco Friendly, an environmental consultancy firm that opened two years ago. Patrick Ardahalian founded the company in 2010, having returned to Lebanon from abroad. Although he spent the bulk of his life overseas, Ardahalian never gave up on his ambition to help solve Lebanon’s energy problems.
Similarly, George Abboud, founder of Earth Technologies, makes his clients’ production systems more energy efficient. One of his latest projects was the Dora Flour Mill, where he cut the company’s annual energy costs by $227,000 by replacing their regular lights with LED (light-emitting diodes) bulbs and their refrigerators’ air conditioning with ACs that run on solar technology. “I think the potential in Lebanon is great, because there’s a great need,” Ardahalian says. He points out that this is no longer the case in other countries. “In Cyprus, almost every building has solar panels, so the market is saturated.”
Indeed, while the potential for alternative energy in Lebanon remains largely untapped, demand for electrical power is growing. Ever since the 15-year Civil War ended in 1990, the country has faced daily power outages, which have gotten worse with time, as supply has fallen far behind what is required by the population.
Demand for electricity currently exceeds 2,400 megawatts a day, while production struggles at less than 1,500 MW. Endemic power cuts have worsened in recent months, as maintenance takes its toll on electricity supply. The deteriorating situation has prompted large-scale protests throughout the country, particularly in rural areas where power cuts are most severe. Much of the blame has been directed at Water and Energy Minister Gibran Bassil – like his predecessors – for failing along with the Cabinet to implement the energy plan that would supposedly reduce power rationing.
Today, the country’s energy problems appear intractable, with profound political mistrust between the government and the opposition exacerbating the matter. “What [politicians] don’t understand is that it’s happening with normal people, but they’re treating it as a political problem,” Samir Skaf, national secretary of the Green Party, tells The Daily Star. “Politicians always have hot water.”
At his office in Boushrieh, northeast of Beirut, he pulls up a copy of the government’s latest national energy plan on his computer – at which point the power goes out. He shakes his head in frustration, and proceeds to outline the problems he has found with the plan. He believes that, as it currently stands, the government proposal would not efficiently meet Lebanon’s energy needs, particularly when it comes to green alternatives. It appears to allocate no more than 6.6 percent to renewable energy, far short of the goal set at the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, where Lebanon agreed to reach 12 percent of alternative energy by 2020.
However, Pierre Khoury, manager at the Lebanese Center for Energy Conservation, which is affiliated with the Water and Energy Ministry, says that the plan does cover 12 percent alternative energy because of the possibility of making use of the country’s natural gas resources. He also believes that Lebanon, along with Tunisia, has become one of the most advanced countries in the region in terms of energy efficiency, pointing to low-power public lighting and solar-powered hot water heaters that have been installed in recent years. But Skaf still isn’t convinced of Lebanon’s energy efficiency, nor does he believe the government can deliver on its plan. But he maintains that Lebanon’s potential should enable it to allocate more than 12 percent to alternative energy by 2020 – and that the country had better get started. “By that time , we’ll be well behind Europe,” he says. “Denmark will be at 62 percent [renewable energy] by then, and all of Europe will be at 80 percent by 2050.”
The 39-page government proposal, written in Arabic and issued in 2010, devotes only a small section to renewable energy. In fact, the plan calls for more fuel to be used. Under the renewable energy paragraph, article B, the only mention of solar power refers to studying the possibility of creating solar farms. Skaf wonders, “What happens after that? What’s the impact on our health and the environment? What are they waiting for?”
Ironically, Lebanon, which has one of the world’s worst carbon footprints per capita, has some of the best potential for renewable energy, most of which has yet to be tapped. The country enjoys 300 days of sunlight, ideal for solar power, while in the north strong wind offers the possibility of generating power through windmills. Yet prevailing laws and social norms mean that green energy in Lebanon appears to be a distant prospect.
Abboud founded the company Earth Technologies two years ago after working as a manager in construction companies, and seeing what he describes as “green washing” – public relations spin intended to make buildings appear environmentally friendly, when in fact they are not. His business is doing well, thanks to a growing clientele that comes mainly from abroad, including Africa, where he says there is far more environmental awareness than in Lebanon.
Still, he laments his own country’s lack of investment in green technology. “We’ve done a lot of presentations over the past year and a half. We get standing ovations. But at the end, people can’t sign and invest $70,000,” he says, even if it means a high return on investment in the long term. “The main problem in Lebanon is cash flow,” Abboud says. “People want to pay in installments because they don’t have savings and investments. Companies do their calculations monthly. They work with a short-term mentality.” He also blames the government for such shortsightedness, noting that the customs fees for his energy-efficient LED bulbs are 15 percent, while those for regular bulbs are 5 percent. And last year he was unable to import electric cars for a taxi company he wanted to establish, because he was told that all cars imported into Lebanon are required to run on fuel.
With these basic impediments and an overall lack of awareness among many people regarding the availability and benefits of renewable energy, environmentalists say they will likely continue to fight an uphill battle for the foreseeable future. Abboud says, “Unfortunately, people who can do the most care the least.”