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Awakening Decentralised Photovoltaic Solar Power in Lebanon

Back in 2008, engineers from a United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) project in Lebanon visited a remote public school in the northern most region of the country, known as Rajem Issa Public School. The school catered to approximately 150 students from pre-school to the 9th grade, who spent their morning without power -- the school turns off the diesel backup generator to save on fuel costs during electricity outages. After the engineers assessed the school's facilities, lighting fixtures, IT equipment, and deteriorating electricity supply, utility electricity returned to its insufficient and unreliable supply of 120 Volts, when it should be 220 Volts.

Rajem Issa Public School was a perfect example of rural public schools in Lebanon, but now it exemplifies a renewable energy-supported rural facility powered by a 1.8-kW peak donated photovoltaic system with storage capacity that provides electricity for lighting, a few computers, and a photocopier. This system quickly attracted other schools in the area that suffered the same poor electricity supply, and made Rajem Issa a hub for photocopying and exam preparations – tasks that area schools used to accomplish by driving at least 30 minutes. 

Many developed and developing nations are working to obtain substantial penetrations of renewable energy within their respective energy portfolio mix in the near future as a means to ensure a more diverse and secure energy system and to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. For example, the European Union (EU) has pledged that 20 percent of its gross final consumption of energy is to come from renewable energy sources by 2020, allocating various shares for each of the 27 EU Member States to reach this target. Feed-in tariffs, green certificate schemes, tendering systems, and/or tax incentives are used in European countries to various degrees in order to reach this target. 

Yet  European countries set these 2020 targets for renewable energy penetration with a cushion. This safety net is characterised by the current reliability of electricity supply in Europe, which is characterised deterministically by capacity margins between 15–25 percent. In other words, renewable sources may penetrate slowly into reliable electricity systems and play a role in preserving the required capacity margins in the face of growing demand for electricity and the retirement of aging power plants. The reassessment of the entire ‘passive’ energy system would be bought under scrutiny only when a certain threshold of renewable energy penetration is nearing and an ‘active’ energy system would be called for.

An evolutionary pathway towards this objective would be possible in principle,  but imagine a country where network losses are approximately 40 percent, where the average cost of power generation is $c26/kWh due to the use of expensive fuel oil yet where average tariffs collected are just $c10/kWh, and where annual subsidies from the national treasury to the electricity sector is 15-20 percent of collected state revenues. Imagine a country that has at least three hours of blackouts in the daytime in the capital city, yet six to nine hours of blackout and more in other cities, and in the rural regions residents are burdened with paying for expensive diesel self-generation to cover this blackout. Imagine Lebanon. Within this insecure reality, can power from photovoltaic systems have any importance? 

Ultimately it is up to the determination and effort of Lebanon’s current energy policy makers and various players in the sector. Two main initiatives are leading the way in decentralised photovoltaic power in Lebanon, both under the direct or indirect auspices of the Lebanese Ministry of Energy and Water (MEW) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). The Lebanese Center for Energy Conservation (LCEC), initiated back in 2002 by the UNDP, is currently on the road to becoming Lebanon’s main independent institutional reference in terms of government renewable energy and energy efficiency policy. The CEDRO project, initiated in 2007 with a $9.76 million grant from the Government of Spain to the UNDP via the Lebanon Recovery Fund, was established to implement renewable energy demonstration projects across public sector buildings.

To date, over 100 kW of PV systems have been uniquely designed for Lebanon and installed by the CEDRO project, which is distributed over 71 public facilities across the country, including municipalities, public school and community centres. The donated PV systems are composed of mono-crystalline panels, controllers, data loggers, lead batteries for blackouts, and dual-mode inverters (which work both in island mode, when there are blackouts, and grid-connected mode, when there is electricity from the grid). These installations in and by themselves are not much, yet they have sparked the Lebanon PV market. In 2008, a 2-kW PV system with storage was approximately US$28,000. Four years later, the current cost is US$12,000. In 2008, only a handful of contractors installed PV systems, but now at least 30 companies are in the business. The LCEC and the CEDRO will be obtaining funds of at least US$10 million in the coming three to five years to continue the promotion of PV systems across the country.

This work is not enough. The market S-curve of technology adoption tells us, in general, that a technology starts in research and/or a lab, followed by a few demonstration projects and pre-commercial support, then it moves to market policies of support until the technology is competitive on its own. In the same faith, CEDRO and the LCEC are pushing forward PV power in the country beyond the demonstration phase. On the technical side, they have succeeded in making the national utility implement ‘net metering’, or the quantitative exchange of electricity between an RE generator and the national grid. On the financial side, the LCEC has embarked on the NEEREA, a national energy efficiency and renewable energy support action that offers low-interest loans as low as 0.6 percent with a repayment period of as long as 14 years for decentralized PV systems.

The efforts of LCEC and CEDRO have created momentum and helped support the market at the planning and execution levels. These initiatives have been backed up with national policies and action plans adopted by the Ministry of Energy and Water and the Council of Ministers, which are committed to a renewable energy production target of 12 percent by 2020. Lebanaon will continue to develop initiatives to further push the implementation of decentralized renewable energy systems as clearly prioritized in the Ministerial Policy Paper of 2010 and the National Energy Efficiency Action Plan for 2011-2015.  

The Lebanon PV market is expected to be very interesting in the years ahead. Going forward, industry players will strive to up-scale PV systems for the commercial and industrial sectors, as well as open the floor to utility-scale PV systems, which is currently being done for large wind. 

Lead image: Lebanon flag via Shutterstock

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