How solar power is helping Gaza residents overcome electricity crisis

Most Gazans can’t afford solar energy, but for upper and middle class people in the embattled strip it is becoming an increasingly popular option as the local energy system crumbles

Muhammad Dahman stands near the solar energy panels he installed on his roof in Gaza City. Naomi Zeveloff for The National
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With two sons at university, a third son in high school, and another daughter coming up through the Gaza school system, Muhammad Dahman’s children study day and night, using lights to read and fans to cool off in the heat of Gaza City.

Though Mr Dahman, a 46-year-old journalist, is proud of his children, their study routine was once a source of anxiety. In Gaza, where electricity is at a premium, more homework meant more money. On top of the 200 shekels, (Dh206) he paid per month to connect to Gaza’s weak power grid, he shelled out at least another 200 shekels per month for a generator, just to keep the lights on at night.

In April, when the Gaza Strip power plant ran out of fuel following a dispute between Hamas, which rules Gaza, and the Palestinian Authority, which governs the West Bank, Mr Dahman decided that enough was enough. On a friend’s advice, he invested in solar energy. In May, he spent about Dh7,350 — which he is still paying off — on four shiny solar panels on the roof, next to his nephew’s pigeon coop.

The panels provide the electricity Mr Dahman’s family uses during the day, and also charges the batteries that they use at night. Now, he says, the family has a “new life”. Not only does he have enough electricity to meet all their needs, his home has become a hangout for cousins wanting to cool off or charge their mobile phones.

Sitting in his fan-cooled living room, Mr Dahman said it was a relief to no longer depend on the Gaza Strip grid. Today, he believes that solar energy is the way of the future for the territory. The fact that solar energy is better for the environment is of secondary concern to him. “I just want light!” he said.

Read more: Premature babies and sick children at risk from Gaza's constant blackouts

Most Gazans can’t afford solar energy, but for upper and middle class people in the embattled strip it is becoming an increasingly popular option as the local energy system crumbles. The United Nations Development Programme is also installing solar panels in schools and hospitals in Gaza. Last month, the Israeli government further reduced its energy supply to the territory at the behest of the Palestinian Authority, which blamed Hamas for failing to repay the energy costs. Now, Gazans are receiving just four hours of electricity every 24 hours.

Not far from Mr Dahman’s home on a busy Gaza City thoroughfare, a solar company has put shimmering panels on display on the pavement outside its shop. Inside, Tareq Darwish, the Oceanic Company’s 25-year-old accountant, says that sales of the India-made panels, which must pass through Israel to reach Gaza, have almost tripled in the last 10 weeks. From selling 15 panels a month, they are now selling up to 50. With more vendors selling the panels, prices have gone down from 1,000 shekels per panel to 600 or 700 shekels each.

It’s still not cheap — Mr Darwish says he can’t even afford the product he is selling — but he tells customers that solar panels are a safe and environmentally friendly alternative to generators, which can be deadly if misused. In the past, Gazans have died from generator fires and carbon monoxide poisoning from keeping their units indoors.

Business owners in Gaza are also looking to solar energy. In the northern part of Gaza City, the tall metal roof of the Al Nour Gas station is topped by tilted solar panels drinking up the sun. The petrol station is part of a large complex owned by the Abu Qamer family, which also includes a popular 24-hour grocery store known all over the northern Gaza Strip for its large refrigerators full of perishable items such as hummus and labane cheese, and a 12-unit apartment building housing more than 100 members of the family.

Family patriarch Fateh Abu Qamer, now in his 60s, invested US$52,000 (Dh191,000) in 90 solar panels and 30 batteries to power the complex last July. In the past, the two businesses would barely bring in enough money to cover the costs of electricity, he said. But he expects to make back what he spent on the solar panels and batteries in two years.

Others in the area have taken note and one of Mr Qamer’s neighbours has already followed suit. Mr Qamer welcomes neighbours who need to charge their mobile phones and even hooked up one neighbour’s electric-powered water supply, he said. In the Gaza heat, the Abu Qamer grocery store is a welcome oasis of cool in the locality.

“The most important thing is to keep the services running,” Mr Qamer added.

In Gaza today, that is no small feat.