L'Orient Le Jour : The Risks of Lebanese Bulimia for Solar Energy

L'Orient Le Jour : The Risks of Lebanese Bulimia for Solar Energy

ME Green Team |

The projects launched over the last two years are not all up to standard, which could have problematic consequences in the medium and long term.

Faced with the energy crisis that has juxtaposed itself with that of the Lebanese economic and financial system, many households and entrepreneurs living in Lebanon are rushing to install solar panels to get power when Électricité du Liban and private generators are rationing their production.

Pierre Khoury, President of the Lebanese Centre for Energy Conservation (LCEC), reports that between 2021 and the end of 2022, 350 million dollars will be invested or is in the process of being invested in the private sector, for 250 megawatt-peak (i.e. the maximum power) installed over the last two years, in addition to the 100 megawatts already installed. The installations range from small back-up residential facilities to larger structures for industry, farming and even shopping centres.

This Lebanese frenzy for green energy coincides with the extreme worsening of EDL's fuel supply problems over the past two years, and with the lifting of the subsidy on fuel oil used by generator owners, which began over a year ago against a backdrop of a depreciating pound that caused prices to soar.

Lebanon Solar Energy: The risks of Lebanese bulimia for solar energy

The cost advantage

On Wednesday, at a conference organised in Beirut as part of the Middle East Clean Energy trade fair, the Minister of Energy and Water, Walid Fayad, pointed out that the Lebanese currently pay 55 cents on the dollar per kilowatt-hour for generators using the Ministry's tariffs. This compares with 22 euro cents in Europe in 2021, according to Eurostat (and is set to rise in 2022 as a result of the repercussions of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict on gas supplies to EU countries). Public electricity tariffs, for their part, have been frozen since 1994 on the basis of a lease of around 23 dollars (compared with around 90 dollars at present).

In this context, the cost argument works in favour of renewable energies in general, and solar power in particular. "The production cost determined for the photovoltaic park projects launched under the aegis of the government is 5.7 cents per parkWh. But it is difficult to generalise this figure because, in practice, the cost of an individual installation varies according to a number of factors (sunshine, yield, battery depreciation, etc.) and is therefore higher", explains Pierre Khoury. The actual yield of a panel also depends on its location, local weather conditions and the tilt of the module, which in any case will not produce electricity when there is no sunshine. But despite these variables, the cost of solar power will always be lower (6 cents per kWh without batteries, between 25 and 30 including the cost of storage).

The fact that EDL's setbacks, combined with the rise in generator tariffs, have encouraged the deployment of photovoltaic systems in Lebanon seems, on the face of it, to be good news. But the reality on the ground is much more mixed, says Philippe el-Khoury (no relation to the LCEC chairman). "The country is missing out on a golden opportunity to build a viable ecosystem based on renewable energies, and the backlash is likely to be violent", says the dejected co-founder of ME Green, a Lebanese company founded long before the crisis and specialising in the installation of photovoltaic panels, which is present in Lebanon as well as in certain European and African markets.

Lebanon Solar Energy: The risks of Lebanese bulimia for solar energy

The risks of poor workmanship

He condemns the fact that a large proportion of the projects launched over the last two years have been rushed through by companies driven by greed and lacking the necessary qualifications. "There are a lot of bad investments, both in terms of the equipment chosen and the way it was installed", Philippe el-Khoury sums up. These shortcomings expose buyers to the risk of fire, as in the case of a fire in Bchémoun, in the caza of Aley, which made the rounds of the social networks last July.

"A fire can be caused by incorrectly installed protection devices, such as fuses or lightning arrestors, or by a photovoltaic panel not being earthed, or by the wrong cross-section of cable linking the panel to the solar inverter (a device also known as a solar regulator, charger or converter, whose role is to adapt the current produced so that it can be used)", explains the specialist.

The risk of fire is not the only one, and technicians have to take into account other essential parameters, such as the load of the installation on the structure that houses it and the strength of the fastenings on the modules. Last May, several poorly attached panels were blown off by strong winds in a district of Beirut. "The proportion of incidents of this type is not marginal, and is likely to increase over time", says Philippe el-Khoury.

Finally, errors in the sizing of installations (i.e. the unsuitability of batteries in relation to identified needs) as well as errors in parameterisation can accelerate wear and tear on the various components that make them up. "With the wrong parameters, a battery can be thrown away after six months, when its average lifespan is much longer," adds the expert.

As an indication, solar panels last between 25 and 30 years, batteries between 3 and 10 years, depending on whether they are lead-acid (less durable) or lithium-acid, while good quality inverters are generally guaranteed for 10 years, but can operate for 15 (many inverters imported into Lebanon have a lifespan of between 3 and 10 years). Apart from the financial losses, premature wear and tear also poses an environmental problem, given that there is no real sector in the country specialising in the recovery or recycling of this type of component.

Standards not applied

According to Pierre el-Khoury, the majority of players apply Lebanese standards in this field, and equipment sold on the market is tested under procedures steered by the Industrial Research Institute (IRI), which is attached to the Ministry of Industry. Lebanon can also boast a well-developed regulatory and certification process, as defended by Lena Dargham, Director General of the Lebanese Standards Institute (Libnor), who was also one of the speakers invited to a panel on this subject at the Trade Show last week.

"Several action plans to develop renewable energies have been launched under the aegis of the State since 2010, and the latest target has been set at 30% of consumption by 2030, provided by the various sources available. Standards have been set for solar, wind and hydroelectric installations, the energy performance of electrotechnical equipment and 'green' buildings, all of which are accessible and in line with international standards", she sums up. Before adding: "There are weak points in the system that need to be strengthened, because although some of these standards are mandatory, the problem is implementation on the ground.

One of the main obstacles is linked to the fact that companies that decide to start installing photovoltaic panels do not need to obtain a specific licence, with the exception of loans subsidised by the Banque de l'Habitat, for which some forty companies have been approved. "Apart from these cases, any merchant can import equipment and improvise himself as an engineer specialising in renewable energy, without even associating himself with an engineer, or even a technician", points out the director of Libnor. One way of remedying this situation without necessarily having to call in the security forces could be to use private-sector players specialising in certification and inspections. "The LCEC and IRI have also launched training sessions for technicians. This is a good start towards a solution, and we need to step up our efforts in these areas", adds Lena Dargham.

Lastly, it points out that the Lebanese bulimia for individual photovoltaic installations is mobilising resources that could have been used to finance larger-scale projects to boost the capacity of the public supplier. The application of a global strategy that effectively combines the different sources of renewable energy, the deployment of a Smart Grid capable of optimising the production and distribution of fuel in real time, and the anticipation of the problem of recycling the equipment deployed in recent years.

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