06 Jul 2017
Beirut, Lebanon
Renewable energy and energy efficiency

Given the Lebanese population’s complete access to the national grid, the country’s electricity supply is far from perfect. Aging infrastructure and power plants left damaged by the country’s civil war have led to service that is either spotty — or cut altogether. In fact, the UNDP found that 98% of Lebanese households face power cuts and that rural communities commonly experience up to 12 to 18 hours of blackouts each day.

This is the problem SunRay Energy plans to solve. The Beirut-based social enterprise runs a solar energy program where rural households and communities can supplement their grid power with solar electricity — no upfront cost required. Rosemary Romanos and Imad Bou Absi, two Lebanese electrical engineers, established the business in January 2017

Before returning to her home country of Lebanon, Romanos had been living and working in the United States and the United Kingdom. During a trip home, she and her family visited friends in a rural part of southern Lebanon.

As the group was chatting, the electricity went out, and the conversation had to be shifted outside. As Romanos recalls, hardly anyone flinched at the inconvenience. “Living in the States and London, I had gotten used to the luxuries of life, like electricity 24 hours a day,” she remembers. “I could no longer believe people were so accepting of these power cuts.”

Power cuts create a need for alternative, green energy:

For Romanos, solar is the solution. She had always been interested in the renewable energy sector, and knew photovoltaics could be a cheap source of electricity in a country with ample sun.

Rural Lebanon’s 12 to 18-hour power cuts are consequential. They leave many isolated households depending on alternative forms of energy — rechargeable batteries and lights, but also diesel power generators that are costly and negative for the environment. The same UNDP report says one third of the poorest rural households can spend 20% of their income on electricity.

SunRay Energy counteracts both the environmental and financial impact of the unstable electricity supply. The business offers a unique payback scheme where households and communities do not pay for the solar system or installation — a cost that can run as high as $7,000 upfront. That charge is virtually impossible for energy-poor rural households with a monthly income of $100 or less.

Romanos discovered a payback scheme was best for lower income households during market research. SunRay Energy’s first business model encouraged families to take out green loans from banks, with the company providing a guarantee that the loan would be repaid. “We quickly realized people are not willing or able to take loans, and there are still not many government or ministry incentives [for solar],” Rosemary says. “We had to switch it and decided we should at least provide them with the solar panels.”

SunRay Energy’s revisited model has the business buying the solar panels and microgrid systems and installing them for free in communities. Residents or municipalities then pay SunRay Energy the monthly rate of electricity, usually about $40. That amount is applied directly towards paying back the initial cost of the solar system. After the system is paid off, it belongs to the customer who can continue producing solar electricity for free.

“The average person in a small town in Lebanon is paying $50 for generator diesel,” Romanos adds. “Our system guarantees the same capacity and power, for less money. Plus the CO2 reductions are equal to each household taking one car off the road for a year.”

The microgrid model has gotten the stamp of approval from Ryme Assad, Managing Partner of Kapstone Co, a Beirut-based infrastructure and electrical contracting service. “SunRay is trying to replace the current model, which is inefficient, bad for the environment, and costly. By providing flexible payments and ownership of solar panels and microgrids, households can reduce their energy bills and use eco-friendly solutions in the short and mid term,” she says. “In the long run, if the government covers the supply gap, households can sell the excess and reduce their bill even more.”

Brokering solar deals with municipalities:

SunRay Energy’s main market is rural municipalities who can present the solar solution to their residents. “My business partner and I have connections who are either mayors or friends of mayors, and we depend a lot on this personal interaction,” Romanos says.

There is an incentive for communities to adopt solar into their energy supplies. Solar systems require technical expertise, and local jobs would be created to maintain the community’s energy source. Another benefit of off-grid solar solutions is that communities become much more energy resilient. “If the national grid gets hit during a war, a community with our solar systems will not be affected because they can produce their own energy,” Romanos explains.

Romanos has already pitched the business model to a number of communities — and says local leaders are interested. But SunRay Energy’s progress is held up until the company can find the capital to purchase its first solar systems. The SunRay Energy team plans to spend the next six months looking for grants and investment, and wants to have a pilot project and prototype ready by early 2018.

Some of those investments may come from the networks Romanos is forming around the region and the world. Earlier in 2017, she was selected as a finalist for the WeMENA Competition, an initiative for female entrepreneurs in the Arab world. Romanos’ pitch earned her a spot in the top 10, and she will be traveling to Washington D.C. at the end of July to take leadership courses and meet with investment heavyweights such as the World Bank.

Solar solutions to the Syrian crisis:

SunRay Energy is also collaborating with Assad at Kapstone Co. Together, the companies created an initiative to secure a power supply that caters for the increasing number of refugees, particularly in Akkar, the Lebanese district bordering Syria. “The utilities cost in this area is severely increasing in energy, waste, water, and food, and municipalities cannot cover this sudden increase,” says Assad. “The SunRay model is one of the solutions to that unexpected high demand. The solar microgrids can cover the gap and are sustainable at the same time.”

SunRay Energy and Kapstone Co also have another initiative to cover the Beirut and Mount Lebanon areas. “Our system is seamless and easy to build,” says Romanos. “We have the potential to expand easily beyond Lebanon, especially into Syria when they are rebuilding. It can take years to build or fix power plants, but our system can be in a community and light it up within a couple of months.”

When SunRay succeeds in its mission, Romanos says it has the potential to impact a huge number of people in rural Lebanon — and beyond.

 

Website: www.sunrayenergy.me/

Photos: Courtesy of SunRay Energy

Hilary is a journalist, photographer, and maker of things. She loves working with entrepreneurs to share their stories and has done so around the world.Hilary Duff
A solar solution for Lebanon’s heavy power cuts | The Switchers
SunRay Energy Renewable energy and energy efficiency
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