Renewable Energy in Lebanon Will Save Lives

by Adnan Nasser

This article was produced in collaboration with More Perspectives, a non-profit that supports emerging writers from underrepresented groups.

Protests in Lebanon, 2020. Photo by Theodoros Bafitos

There’s a chronic energy crisis taking place in the small Mediterranean country of Lebanon. Energy shortages are now part of daily life for most people and have worsened thanks to the shutdown of two state-owned fuel plants in Deir Ammar and Zahrani, which supply a majority of Lebanon’s electricity. The crisis has caused massive pollution, harmed the environment, and negatively affected the population’s health. Electricity is the bedrock of modern civilization, and its accessibility is essential to the prosperity of a nation—which is why conditions today prove Lebanon needs to quickly innovate and diversify its energy sources, ideally without governmental influence. 

Lebanon is a top candidate for renewable energy. It possesses an abundance of natural resources and is blessed with climate advantages, such as 300 days of sun and enormous wind energy potential. Hydropower is Lebanon’s oldest form of alternative energy, and provided most of its electricity in the pre-civil war years. Most of the hydro plants were constructed during Lebanon’s “Golden Age,” during which the country produced an impressive 75% of its electricity from water. 

The Golden Age, however, is long gone. In 2010, hydroelectricity made up just 6.1% of Lebanon’s power grid. In response, people have demonstrated outside the energy ministry to protest the incompetence of their government. With no hope in sight, the Lebanese people are taking matters into their own hands by staging street protests.

Protests in Lebanon, 2020. Photo by Theodoros Bafitos

The energy crisis is both a cause and effect of such social upheaval. Most Beirut residences cannot rely on government-supplied electricity because of power cuts that last up to 12 hours a day. Across Lebanon, people depend on backup power from a network of private suppliers, often along sectarian lines, who have earned the title “generator mafia” from the Lebanese. This forces the Lebanese people to pay two bills: one to the state for nearly non-existent services and one to the generator mafia for still inadequate access. An unregulated backup power supply run by entrepreneurial middlemen is technically illegal, yet the government has taken little action to curtail the practice. 

Price gouging for necessities like fuel is commonplace in Lebanon—so common, in fact, that then-acting Minister for Trade and Commerce Raoul Nehme created a dedicated WhatsApp hotline for citizens to report the crime. Ironically, the Lebanese government later attempted to place a tax on WhatsApp, both limiting the utility of the hotline and sparking public ire that contributed to the government’s resignation. 

So why does Lebanon lack reliable power when it has an abundance of renewable energy sources like wind and solar? The failure to build a sustainable energy grid is a decades-old problem tied directly to the corruption of Lebanese politics. For years, Lebanon’s politicians borrowed money without improving the country’s services, particularly in the energy sector. While politicians live in affluence, half the population suffers in abject poverty with limited access to basic energy services. 

Previous governments have promised the Lebanese people 24-hour electricity in the past, including in 2013 when the cabinet approved the construction of new power plants. It was the controversial figure Gebran Bassil, a frequent target of the protest movement sweeping across Lebanon, who personally made the promise. In April of 2019, the cabinet, then led by Prime Minister Saad Hariri, approved a new energy plan that was intended to resolve the power shortage crisis. An initial short-term goal was to temporarily secure 1,450 megawatts (MW) of power by 2020, which would help expand the grid’s capacity to 3,500 MW. This would have stopped further blackouts for three to five years, providing the government with enough time to develop permanent solutions. According to Hariri, this plan would satisfy all Lebanese because it could bring them electricity and also reduce the government deficit. In Lebanon, unfortunately, political promises are meant to be broken.

A muddle of power cables on a residential building with a Hezbollah poster on the right in the Southern Lebanese city of Tyre. Photo by Roman Deckert

Fast forward to 2021—when the crisis has reached such a severe level that it has made life for most Lebanese “unlivable.” Many are forced to stand in long lines at petrol stations underneath the hot sun to support their families. The price of fuel has increased by 35% as a result of shortages. Further, the government has decided to end the $3 billion fuel subsidy program, putting the burden on Lebanese citizens to foot the bill. It was only in October 2020 that the caretaker prime minister Hassan Diab said lifting subsidies on vital goods would be unacceptable and cause “social upheaval.” Yet not long after this statement, he approved ending state support for fuel. In response, hospitals issued complaints and warnings of the “catastrophe” awaiting patients in desperate need of power for life-saving equipment. When Lebanese politicians talk of reducing the deficit, it is likely smoke and mirrors. 

The energy crisis has had a chilling effect on Lebanon’s economy. The country spends $1.5 billion annually on the energy sector with little to show for it. It has become the third most-indebted nation in the world with a debt of 170% of its GDP.  International observers, including from the World Bank, have pushed the ruling class to implement serious anti-corruption reforms in areas like energy and infrastructure. But the Lebanese people cannot hold their breath and wait for politicians—who brought them to this destructive point—to finally discover a conscience. 

There is an opportunity to end people’s dependence on a corrupt state by encouraging investments in a private renewable energy sector that will not only solve Lebanon’s electricity crisis, but also its health and environmental problems, which have all been compounded by an avaricious ruling elite who have betrayed their oaths to the Lebanese citizens.  

Progress can be achieved if the international community works on a strategy with local entrepreneurs in the field of “green tech” to find solutions to Lebanon’s daily blackouts by exposing corruption and creating opportunities for private investment to flourish. Such an approach will bring in much needed foreign capital, which Lebanon desperately requires for its economy to start up again. 

An influx of cash will assist in modernizing Lebanon’s crumbling energy infrastructure. An immediate solution may be coordination with homeowners to provide rooftop solar and with landowners who would be willing to rent their land for solar farm projects. People should not be deprived of necessities because of the moral bankruptcy of their leaders. 

Solar panels in Beirut, Lebanon, February 2019. IMF

In collaboration with global institutions that can provide technical and financial assistance, Lebanon has an opportunity to train and retrain a new generation of Lebanese to enter a job market where green energy is in great demand, resolving the problem of high unemployment in the process. 

Importantly, an atmosphere of trust between the parties involved in renewable energy projects can be fostered by limiting government participation. The state cannot be entirely eliminated from the process, but time and again it has shown an unwillingness to repair Lebanon’s energy grid. The international community no longer trusts or wishes to coordinate with the infamously corrupt political elite in Beirut; it should go directly to the Lebanese people instead. 

The logic of waiting on a broken system that thrives when its people suffer is not tenable. In the past few months, workers observed a general strike for one day to express their dissatisfaction with the dire economic and political woes that plunged Lebanon into chaos—a move that signifies the general disdain for the government’s handling of the energy and economic crises. 

An international finance program should be developed that is designed to address the immediate energy needs of Lebanon independent of the government. Human Rights Watch released a statement stating that emergency aid for those who sustained injuries and property damage in the August 2020 Beirut blast should avoid going through the government. Due to corruption in Lebanon, international donors like the United Nations coordinated with local organizations to guarantee the funds and aid they were sending went directly to victims. The same methods must be applied when it comes to solving the energy crisis that for too long has left the Lebanese people in the dark. 

People do not have an infinite amount of time to sit around waiting for change. The Lebanese are in no mood to be told they must be more patient. Ultimately, a new course of action focused on green policy that sidelines the government must be taken to rescue Lebanon from its current state of collapse.

Adnan Nasser is an independent analyst of Middle Eastern affairs. He has been published in The Diplomatic Courier and studied International Relations at Florida International University.

Categories: Middle East & Africa