Letter from Lebanon: powering up for a brighter future

James Woudhuysen

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To Beirut, for a conference on energy. There’s much to learn.

The first surprise is that, in the Middle East, it’s not affluent Lebanese, but poor Palestinian homes that have the most roof-mounted solar water-heaters: more than 80 per cent of Palestinian households owe their hot water to these primitive devices. Why? Palestine’s energy minister observes that while the Israelis can cut off his country’s electricity, even the Israeli Defence Force can’t stop the sun rising every day.

So that’s why the Palestinians lead in hot showers.

Lebanon is quite a windy place. Fittingly, therefore, the Chinese company Goldwind presents the conference with its 1.5 megawatt (MW) wind turbines. Goldwind bought its impressive Permanent Magnet Direct Drive (PMDD) technology from the German company VENSYS. Direct drive means no need for high-friction gearboxes, giving PMDD turbines extra clout. They’ve been installed in some numbers near Shady Oaks, Illinois, and also, interestingly enough, in Iran. Now the company wants to make 10MW turbines for use offshore.

Goldwind’s ambition forms a welcome, high-tech counterpoint to greenish speakers who wax lyrical about ‘pico-wind’ – turbines that generate not 1,500kW, like Goldwind’s, but a risible 1kW (other speakers advocated solar panels rated at 50 to 100kW, which is still measly). Still, it’s refreshing to hear a Lebanese from the floor eloquently indict a chic, refurbished, energy-efficient house for its price tag: a cool $3million. Involving no fewer than 26 people making insulation materials by hand and spreading energy-consumption ‘awareness’ among supposedly ignorant Lebanese, the house had won an award for environmental correctness – given out, inevitably, by Brits. Compared with the pictures of the house under construction, the video Goldwind plays of workers erecting a turbine appeared to show far fewer people doing a lot more good.

From Lebanon’s young Petroleum Administration, an admirable speaker notes that shale gas, recently discovered offshore, could give Lebanon all its own energy for 100 years, so long as the nation doesn’t develop its own industrial base. But it should indeed develop such a base, he adds, rightly pointing out how many of Lebanon’s fine engineers quit the country for lack of job openings.

His expansive vision differs sharply from those presented by visiting dignitaries from the EU. An Italian sternly warns that, because it generates CO2, Lebanese shale gas must be strictly regulated; a German instructs Lebanon to cut its overall energy consumption, arguing that ‘the greenest energy is the energy you don’t use’.

Ironically, the German’s presentation is marred by yet another of Lebanon’s frequent power cuts. Surfacing to address the final session, I respectfully suggest that, with refugees from the Syrian war boosting Lebanon’s population of four million by 25 per cent, it’s time not to chase the mirage of lower energy demand, but to work for innovation and investment in energy supply.

For that mild observation, the German speaker protests that I must be in the pay of the oil industry. But just for once, this kind of mud-slinging, so familiar in right-on Britain, enjoys no support from the floor.

Hooray for Lebanon!

James Woudhuysen is professor of forecasting and innovation at De Montfort University, Leicester, and editor of Big Potatoes: the London Manifesto for Innovation. Read his blog here.

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