Lessons from the Field – Building Hybrid Microgrids in Lebanon

During the winter break, I had the opportunity to travel to Lebanon and help to troubleshoot three hybrid microgrids in Lebanon. These sites were commissioned as part of the UNDP program CEDRO IV, and the project MED-Solar.

Lebanon produces most of its electricity from fossil fuels, and the generation stations were easy to spot as we travelled along the Mediterranean coast. From a Californian’s perspective, it would be easy to conclude that customers and the government should be focused on a move towards solar energy production to reduce emissions. However, for the Lebanese there are more pressing issues in the energy field, chiefly that of grid reliability. The estimated losses to the Lebanese economy between 2009 and 2014 from blackouts reached an estimated 23.23 billion USD.

The only solution to the blackouts has been to install diesel generators. Traveling through the Lebanese countryside is an eye-opening experience, as one can see fleets of gensets over almost every building. Keeping the lights on comes at an enormous cost to the customers, whose diesel expenditure can reach a staggering two-thirds of the total energy costs. The realization that the clients care more about meeting their energy needs and not that much about where their power comes from is a great lesson. You don’t need to share the same objectives to enable the adoption of renewable energy; priorities are different in every context. In this case making the hybrid systems work was a priority as the customers were skeptical about the usefulness of a renewable energy solution.

Installing hybrid diesel – PV microgrids is very attractive in Lebanon. On paper running a PV system can generate massive savings in diesel consumption, and the users can take advantage of the net-metering program. However, this is easier said than done. As the experience showed, we tend to think that it is as simple as installing the solar panels, inverters, and control, or as some colleagues like to call it, fit and forget. For fellow readers interested in renewable energy electrification, some notes:

1. Expect failures in the most unexpected places (or how we found bullets in the PV panels). Sometimes your solution will be too stiff, and with little adaptability this is a problem because you can’t handle the failures you didn’t consider. In many cases, a simple, robust solution is far more practical than a sophisticated optimized design worthy of publishing in a renowned journal.

2. Sometimes you need to fix other people’s mistakes (or how I had to play with the genset governor). When you are retrofitting a site, older devices can become a problem. Even if it is not your responsibility you need to make the project work, which means that you have to trust your knowledge. Sometimes the solution can be found in a lecture from an old professor in college!

3. Always trust the technicians, in many cases as engineers we like making designs on our desks and think we can just jump into the field with them. Usually, this is false, and the only one who can help adapting your ideas is the local technician. You might have read more books and taken classes, that doesn’t make you the smartest person in the field.

Finally, we live in a university environment where energy problems can become very abstract. We talk about tariffs, equilibrium models, optimal control, financing, etc. However, energy issues can be very different in other geographies and in the field, all that’s needed is to take a closer look. Thanks Lebanon for reminding me that delivering a reliable and workable solution has more impact than perfect plans that never make it beyond a desk drawer.