A river-spanning solar farm in the heart of Beirut is stoking hopes that renewable energy can play a key role in solving Lebanon’s power problem.
Built on time and under budget at just more than $3 million, the Beirut River Solar Snake Project is claimed by its creators to be the only one of its kind. The government-funded project is set to be completed in a matter of weeks as part of a drive to make 12 percent of the country’s energy renewable by 2020.
Pierre El Khoury, director of the Lebanese Center for Energy Conservation, explained that the 300-meter-long structure is both a practical response to a problem and an effort to spur the solar industry.
“Solar farms are very important but solar farms use a huge amount of land, and land in Beirut is extremely expensive,” he said, adding that “the idea is to give a strong signal that Lebanon is really committed to producing electricity from renewable energy sources.”
But although the Solar Snake will produce roughly enough electricity for 1,000 homes, millions more households will still be victims of a failing energy grid.
Power outages are experienced by many across the Middle East, and Lebanon's residents are no exception.
A legacy of underinvestment, inefficiency and corruption that date to the country’s civil war make power cuts an endemic part of daily life, with many parts of the country getting just a few hours of grid electricity a day.
The country does not have enough power stations, and efforts to build new ones are making slow progress.
Reports estimate 1,600 megawatts of power is produced, thought to be roughly 900 megawatts short of what is needed.
Though there are plans to increase its output to as much as 10 megawatts, the Solar Snake is set to contribute just 1 megawatt in its current form.
But despite its small scale relative to the national problem, Khoury said, the impact of the Solar Snake goes beyond its immediate ability to generate electricity.
He called the project a “landmark” in the effort to increase interest in solar power, and there are hopes that solar farms will be able to contribute more than 200 megawatts of output within five years.
“Lebanon has witnessed a huge increase and boost in the renewable-energy business, thanks to the encouragement and strong signals that the Beirut Solar Snake has given to the private sector,” he added.
Among those to have spotted a growth in demand for solar energy is Leon Kradgian, who set up a solar heating business in 2009.
He said that although it has been present in Lebanon for decades, the solar industry really saw increased use after the 2006 war with Israel, when Lebanon’s power stations were bombed.
Since then, he said, the industry has seen a growth in interest among the public and business, partly spurred on by interest-free loans for renewable-energy projects from the country’s central bank.
“When I started, there were about 20 companies [in the solar energy business], but now there are 50 or 60," Kradigian said. "Before, there was not education around the issue, but now you see electives to study it in universities.”
Although the government has helped stimulate the market, it has not gone as far as many would like in helping the private sector address Lebanon's electricity woes.
Only the state-run EDL can lawfully generate electricity on a large scale for the public, with the company subsidized by the government to the tune of $2 billion a year.
Power from generators
There is a growing market in off-grid electricity, with many people relying on diesel-powered generators. But those who use them must pay both for state and private power, leading to greatly inflated bills, plus high levels of pollution from the generators.
Ayline Safarian works in the suburb of Bourj Hammoud, near the Solar Snake, and is set to benefit directly from the power it produces. As the owner of a nail salon, she is one who has to pay twice just to keep the lights on.
“If [power from the grid] cuts a lot, you have to pay more," she told VOA. "Every time it cuts more, your bill goes up.”
Safarian welcomed news of the Solar Snake and its promise of more regular electricity from the grid.
“Of course, that will have an influence on everything: on you and on those around you, on your work. You will have a little more money for yourself," she said. "My family dwells here, so they will as well benefit from this."
People will be able to "at least relax a little,” she added.
Hopes are that soon, other communities will benefit from state-backed solar power boosting the grid supply.
The Lebanese Center for Energy Conservation is looking at the possibility of a new solar farm in south Lebanon, as well as examining less densely populated parts of the country like the Beqaa Valley.
However, for the renewables market to truly flourish and benefit the Lebanese people, some argue that the private sector must be allowed to generate electricity to feed into the grid.
Raymond Ghajar, a professor at the Lebanese American University and an advisor to the government, told VOA that the state “doesn’t allow the private sector enough safety or security” to emulate large-scale renewable projects like the Solar Snake.
But for Ghajar, opening up the renewables market is part of the far bigger picture of moving away from EDL in generating electricity and toward the private sector.
“All new projects should be owned and operated by the private sector, but the private sector will not come to an entity that is broken,” said Ghajar, who claimed that efforts to begin reforming the sector that began in 2010 had been stalled in parliament.
“We need a legal and administrative framework for the private sector to be comfortable, and this has not happened yet," he said. "However, I can assure you the private sector is more than interested and willing to invest.”
Even Solar Snake evangelist Khoury acknowledged that “the real solution is in the update and in fixing the problems of the traditional power sources in Lebanon.”
But he warned against underestimating the role solar power and renewables could play in Lebanon.
"This is a first step in a long journey to achieve our objectives in renewable energy," Khoury said. "Renewables are a clean source of energy, and are becoming a cheap source of energy, and we are committed to pushing these technologies into public use.”