For Jil Amine, Lebanon is experiencing a “solar revolution.”
“The growth of the technology has been exponential,” said Amine, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Project Manager for the Small Decentralised Renewable Energy Power Generation (DREG) Project. “The trend that we see going forward over the next half-decade should continue the high percentage growth rate.”
For nearly the entire year — other than the rainy winter months — Lebanon is a sun-kissed salient, a resource being harnessed at a rapid rate to provide electricity for commercial and residential consumers.
As technology drives prices down, and government subsidies and loans become readily available, solar power is providing a meaningful alternative to the endemic power blackouts that occur throughout Lebanon.
From the large-scale Beirut River Solar Snake — a 9,750 sq. metre solar farm suspended over the river — to the roofs of the American University of Beirut (AUB) engineering school, solar energy installations have increased among municipalities and residential users.
A recent plan to expand solar usage by state-owned Electricité du Liban drew 265 proposals from local and international companies to develop solar farms in Lebanon. The Ministry of the Environment is seeking to produce 180 megawatts (MW) of solar power throughout the country with approximately 12 solar farms.
A survey released at the end of last year reported that the local photovoltaic solar energy market saw a triple-digit percentage increase from 2014-15. The study added that the rate of growth year over year was forecasted to be even faster.
The “Solar PV (Photovoltaic) Status Report for Lebanon 2015″ report stated that there are robust solar usage trends across all sectors of the economy. The study was conducted by the Small Decentralised Renewable Energy Power Generation Project, a joint endeavour of UNDP Lebanon and the Ministry of Energy and Water.
The survey reported that, in terms of usage, the top four sectors in the solar PV market are the commercial sector with 2 megawatts peak (MWp) at 22%, the residential and agricultural sectors with 1.7 MWp at 18% each and the industrial sector with 1.6 MWp at 17%.
The industrial sector is showing the most rapid growth in conversion to solar energy.
“Private investors are becoming more comfortable with the business,” Amine said.
Kamel Rajeh, the managing partner of Al Nahda Trading and Industry Company in Baakleen, south-east of Beirut, reported that converting to solar power two years ago has made a large cost differential in running the company’s stone business.
“It’s great in terms of cost efficiency if you are using electricity during the day. If you need to store power for the night, it becomes a whole different equation. The batteries are very expensive and their lifetime is only seven years,” he said.
While the upfront cost for powering an entire factory was large, Rajeh said the system ultimately covers its cost.
“The system cost us $84,000 but has a payback period within eight years,” he said. “It generates the equivalent of 39 [kilowatt hours] per day. The cost is covered by savings from not paying electricity bills and by the subsidies we receive from the government.”
The cost to install and operate PV systems has been steadily dropping. The average cost of installing has dropped from $7.20 per watt of electrical power generation in 2010 to $2.70 per watt in 2015, representing a marked drop of 63% during the period.
Amine noted the important role Lebanon’s National Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Action (NEEREA) plan played in the growth of solar power since its introduction in 2010. With the help of soft loans provided under NEEREA, Lebanon’s cumulative investments in solar power grew from $2.3 million in 2010 to $9.4 million in 2013 and $30.5 million by the end of 2015.
The growth is expected to continue in a virtuous upward spiral over the near term as residences, municipalities, factories and retail operations find the lowering cost attractive and become more familiar with the technology.
“The growth year-over-year is expected to continue at an exponential rate,” said Amine.
Timothy Kinahan Maloy is a contributor to The Arab Weekly and deputy editor and correspondent at An-Nahar English.