Building A Solar Powered Lebanon With Diaspora-Driven Initiatives

Credits: The aftermath of the August 4 blast, Gemmayzeh, Lebanon. Photo by Jo Kassis from Pexels

It is said that movies mirror life, but in Lebanon’s case, quite the opposite is true. Scenes out of an apocalyptic science fiction film grazing the border of the unreal are merely daily life on the homefront. The Lebanese lira has lost over 90 percent of its value since 2019; 78 percent of the population is estimated to be living in poverty; severe shortages of fuel and diesel have paralyzed the country. With society on the verge of total implosion, those in power seem indifferent. 

The Lebanese Electricity Company (EDL) announced in September that it would only be able to generate around 500 megawatts, which translates into nearly 20 hours a day of blackouts in some areas. At the same time, it warned of an impending total blackout that may sweep across the entire country at any moment if the government does not provide the necessary fossil fuels. (Al-Hadath

Millions are being left without electricity for long stretches throughout the day, stripping them of their basic rights and services such as refrigeration, Internet, air conditioning, and the ability to turn on their lights.

Credits: On September 1, 2021, Meghterbin Mejtemiin and Baytna Baytak launched the first phase of the Solar Panels Initiative by installing residential solar power systems that will mainly support oxygen machines, fridge/freezers, televisions, lamps, and other home appliances and electrical items. Source: Meghterbin Mejtemiin @uniteddiasporalb

The few rays of hope in all this darkness in Lebanon are civil society workers, volunteers, and activists who continue to bring innovative initiatives forward. One of these initiatives designed and organized by Baytna Baytak and Meghterbin Mejtemiin entails providing solar power systems to buildings and homes in Lebanon. This campaign aims to provide access to basic electricity services such as turning on the lights, the fridge, and other critical appliances, but most importantly to restore an ounce of hope to the people that need it the most.  

Solar energy has boomed these last few months across Lebanon as people search for alternative sources of energy; some solar energy vendors privately claim that they receive more than 500 quote requests per week. The starting price according to these vendors ranges between 4,500 to 6,000 USD and can easily exceed that. Solar energy storage lasts up to 8 hours and the hardware could remain viable for up to 10 years before requiring significant maintenance or replacement. 

Private home owners aren’t the only ones scrambling to secure alternative energy sources; the health sector has also joined the fray. Hospitals can no longer rely on their private generators as a substitute for government electricity blackouts due to the fact that these outages are getting longer, and the generators need to be turned off after long hours of use. In the past, these generators operated for a few hours a day, but are now expected to run virtually 24/7. 

Credits: Installation of the first residential solar panels in Al Zarif, Beirut. September 10, 2021. Baytna Baytak.

Hospitals simply cannot afford to risk total blackouts for a single minute, not to mention hours on end. Intensive care units treat hundreds of patients whose lives depend on critical machines and equipment. A blackout almost unequivocally equates to the loss of human life.  

For this reason, and because of the challenge of securing diesel fuel for said generators in the first place, solar energy appears to be a viable solution to enable hospitals to stay afloat and admit new patients. Pressured by doctors and staff, hospital administrations have no choice but to provide solutions. 

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), in cooperation with Lebanon’s Ministry of Public Health (MoPH), is currently spearheading a campaign to install solar infrastructure at 10 public hospitals. The stated objective is to completely decouple these hospitals from the power grid and effectively reduce their reliance on generators.

In other cases, the United Nations (UN) provided solar-powered fridges to hospitals and clinics to store critical medical supplies such as vaccines, which would otherwise spoil due to the heat.

Even though requests for solar power and other alternative energy sources have skyrocketed in the last few months, most Lebanese can’t afford the costly installation. With the value of the Lebanese lira plummeting to unprecedented levels, the average Lebanese salary has withered to around 70 USD per month which makes buying and installing solar panels extremely difficult for families who are still earning in lira. Households in this income bracket use whatever is left of their salary to purchase their daily necessities. 

Cost isn’t the only inhibitor for solar energy in Lebanon. Insufficient supply of tooling to install and maintain these panels is also a major challenge. 

Credits: A Solar Power System Diagram: The 4 Basic Building Blocks

Solar energy systems are comprised of photovoltaic cells that use sunlight as a source of energy to generate direct current (DC) electricity, power inverters to convert direct current to into alternating current (AC) for our appliances, steel beams to support the panel structure, a controller which essentially acts as  the brain of the whole system, and a solar battery storage unit. It is also worth noting that solar batteries of acceptable quality are expensive and particularly difficult to procure. 

Furthermore, demand in the market has driven the panels to scarcity. The fact that all the components for the installation have to be sourced from outside the country increases costs. Additionally, local vendors are only accepting US dollars for payment in exchange for their services, thus compounding the existing challenges. Some people have had to perform their own installations as they couldn’t afford professional installation services.  

To that effect, the UN and NGOs are stepping up. Baytna Baytak and Meghterbin Mejtemiin have kickstarted a widespread fundraiser asking for support. The Lebanese diaspora activist network got involved and, with the money accrued by the two organizations, managed to complete their first installation in September. The installation of the first units in Beirut, prioritizing individuals relying on at-home medical devices like oxygen tanks, will further encourage people to contribute more to the fundraiser that will hopefully provide electricity to more homes.  

Credits: Breathing hope – The story of Imane / Meghterbin Mejtemiin @uniteddiasporalb and @baytna_baytak installed solar panels at Imane’s house, and provided her with enough power to keep her oxygen machine running.

Meghterbin Mejtemiin´s Stephani Moukhaiber, a political and social activist, described to Al Rawiya the incredible challenges the two NGOs are facing in this initiative. Raising the sufficient funds needed for the project and navigating the engineering and logistical issues when it comes to mapping out the installations has required extraordinary diligence. Real Lebanese activists and volunteers seldom receive the recognition they deserve, but each and every member of these organizations is trying to give back to their community without expecting anything in return.

Amid all this insecurity and uncertainty rests an opportunity to invest in a better future through green energy. This must start with changing our behavior to embrace more sustainable energy sources that could potentially reduce pollution, provide job opportunities, and spur innovation in this field. Who says that Lebanon cannot grow into a regional expert in solar energy, exporting solar knowledge and solutions to the greater Middle East?

As Lebanon is on the brink of total collapse, citizens have nobody to turn to except each other as they have lost all faith in the ruling political elite whose only concern is to maintain their grip over all aspects of life in the country, even if that means bringing an entire society to its knees. 

Ziad Mroueh
+ posts

Ziad, born and raised in Beirut moved to Barcelona, Spain at the age of 25 is a political and social activist with more than 15 years of experience working in liberal and progressive organizations in Lebanon and Spain. Ziad is an industrial engineer that works as a business & solution consultant at a technology company, he is passionate for philosophy, sociology, psychology, technology and politics. He enjoys writing for a wide range of topics.