Desperate Lebanese caught out by solar energy scams

Soaring electricity costs are forcing some to turn to alternatives

Solar panels cover the roof of a shopping mall in the city of Byblos in northern Lebanon on August 26, 2022.  - Lebanon's economy collapsed in 2019 after decades of corruption and mismanagement, leaving the state unable to provide electricity for more than an hour or two.  Last winter, the mountain village barely had three hours of daily generator electricity.  Solar power now helps keep the lights on for 17 hours, an engineer working on the project said, providing a semblance of normality.  (Photo by JOSEPH EID  /  AFP)
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When Mazen Kanaan was offered the chance to escape regular power cuts and soaring bills in Lebanon by installing a cheap solar panel on his Beirut home, he jumped at it.

Within two weeks, the solar panel had failed — and the door-to-door salesman who sold it to him had stopped answering his calls.

Mr Kanaan was told he was probably sold a worn-out panel torn from a property in Italy and falsely advertised as new.

“The panel was supposed to last for 10 years — it barely lasted 10 days,” said Mr Kanaan, 39.

“I had been saving for it for more than three months. I poured my heart into this and it was all just a scam.”

Mr Kanaan is among a growing number of people who have fallen victim to shoddy solar installations and fraudsters in Beirut, as a lack of power causes a rush for green energy, experts say.

He said he reported the incident to the police but was not taken seriously. "The police officer said that there are bigger issues at the moment,” he said.

Decades of financial mismanagement and corruption among Lebanon's elite has plunged the country into a deep economic crisis that has eaten away at the currency's value and left the national infrastructure — including power generation — in chaos.

Most households receive only a few hours of electricity a day, while wealthier families and businesses rely on expensive and polluting diesel generators.

Lebanon has 300 days of sunshine a year but less than 1 per cent of state-provided power comes from solar energy, with 95 per cent generated using oil.

The country missed a target of generating 12 per cent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020.

A growing number of citizens are looking to solar power as an affordable and reliable solution to their energy woes, but the lack of developed infrastructure to provide it means they face high installation costs, a lack of regulation, and scams.

“People in Lebanon are desperate for electricity, so they might, at times, not consider looking into the misleading sales of these products,” said Imad Hage Chehade, director of technology at the Industrial Research Institute, which is affiliated with the Ministry of Industry.

“Many people are falling for this trap … this is making it hard for people to actually trust in the new green potential.”

Mr Chehade and other solar experts said they have seen a growing number of cases of fraud, in which faulty or old panels that have been sent for recycling in wealthy nations are instead imported to Lebanon and passed off as new.

“Unfortunately, green energy scams in Lebanon are evergreen,” Mr Chehade told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Solar panels smuggled

Italian police said in 2020 that they were investigating a waste treatment plant in Sicily over suspicions that old solar panels were being smuggled to Africa and the Middle East for resale, according to pv magazine, which covers the solar energy sector.

Mr Chehade said most such panels still had stamps from the original installation that showed which country they came from.

The IRI last year identified another batch of panels apparently redirected from recycling facilities in Dubai. Mr Chehade said the Ministry of Energy and Water had been informed.

Pierre El Khoury, head of the Lebanese Centre for Energy Conservation, part of the energy ministry given the task of supporting the development of renewable energy, said it was investigating the case.

Scams are not the only concern, with poor-quality solar energy parts and installation also common, said Mr Chehade.

Companies contacted by the Thomson Reuters Foundation gave prices ranging from $4,000 to $5,000 to install a residential solar panel that could power a house for six to 15 hours a day — as much as 30 times the average monthly pay.

The energy ministry is trying to fix the problem by introducing guidelines for solar buyers that stress the need for surveys and inspections by qualified engineers.

In October, it announced a free certification scheme for domestic solar systems.

However, many people are not aware of the certificates — which confirm the systems have been correctly installed and tested — said Mr El Khoury.

“Solar companies or sellers are not informing the buyers of this procedure, probably because they want to get away with selling dysfunctional panels,” he said.

The IRI has also begun organising training for solar power industry workers, which includes information on how to correctly install the systems, legal requirements and safety on the job.

Green dreams abandoned

Marc Ayoub, an energy researcher at the American University of Beirut, said more action is needed to develop an integrated nationwide renewable energy market.

The state-backed solar power certification system should be toughened to offer guarantees about how much energy panels will produce and how long they will last, Mr Ayoub said, and should also be extended to cover large-scale and commercial arrays.

“These are essential for getting private and foreign funders interested in projects that can be financed,” he said.

“In the end, this would lead to more green jobs in the renewable energy sector, which would help the economy grow.”

More action is also needed to inform communities of the potential and pitfalls of solar systems, he said.

In Beirut, Mr Kanaan said he had abandoned his dream of going green.

“The solar panel I purchased was unfixable; now I've squandered money, time, and solar potential,” he said, adding that he could not even afford to buy power from a generator now.

“I'm working to spread the word to warn others about the scam so that they are informed if they decide to make a purchase."

Updated: October 04, 2022, 8:23 AM