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Is The Decentralized Renewable Energy Dream Alive in Lebanon?
comedian prophet George Carlin (1937-2008) were alive today, he’d likely be flabbergasted at what parts of the world have turned into. He’d be all over the West’s near obsession with safetyism, “trigger warnings,” “safe spaces,” “microaggressions,” “cultural appropriation” and “harmful words.” He’d wonder why Americans to this day fell for giving up much of their civil rights post 9/11, how they’ve been duped into supporting yet another (proxy) war, let alone how even several years after his death we remained in the two that started near the end of his lifetime. He’d have quite the time with the COVID 19 pandemic, likely would have been arrested for trying to enter an establishment in his hometown of NYC without a valid Excelsior Pass, not only because he would have found such a thing a product of so-called Big-Pharma but because he reportedly did not believe in government-issued identification.
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It was George Carlin after all in the early 70s who was arrested (ironically) seven times for his infamous “Seven Dirty Words” skit. “Seven Dirty Words” was even the subject of Supreme Court case (FCC v. Pacifica Foundation) after a man complained to the FCC, presumably because those words; infected his soul, curved his spine and kept the country from winning the war. From the early 70’s on, the predecessor to trigger warnings were given whenever potentially offensive and/or obscene material was about to be presented: The Carlin Warning.
Carlin’s views on humanity and the planet provided a little something for everybody too. From a Jordan Peterson-esque “clean up your room first,” to the utter cynicism over the human species’ presence on the planet up to and including voluntarily making humans extinct, Carlin’s comedy is likely to entice, or enrage anybody.
“We're so self-important. So arrogant. Everybody's going to save something now. Save the trees, save the bees, save the whales, save the snails. And the supreme arrogance? Save the planet!
Are these people kidding? Save the planet? We don't even know how to take care of ourselves; we haven't learned how to care for one another. We're gonna save the fuckin' planet? . . .
And, by the way, there's nothing wrong with the planet in the first place. The planet is fine. The people are fucked! Compared with the people, the planet is doin' great. It's been here over four billion years . . .
The planet isn't goin' anywhere, folks. We are! We're goin' away. Pack your shit, we're goin' away. And we won't leave much of a trace. Thank God for that. Nothing left. Maybe a little Styrofoam. The planet will be here, and we'll be gone. Another failed mutation; another closed-end biological mistake.”
He even thanked a higher power, which is strange because Carlin was also utterly caustic towards religion. In his Religion is Bullshit skit, he toes the line somewhere between Richard Dawkins (with a NY’er accent) and a Karen asking for the manager of every major faith, but he eventually settles on trying to find an entity to worship and being to whom to pray.
“ Overnight I became a sun-worshipper. Well, not overnight, you can’t see the sun at night. But first thing the next morning, I became a sun-worshipper. Several reasons. First of all, I can see the sun, okay? Unlike some other gods I could mention, I can actually see the sun. I’m big on that. If I can see something, I don’t know, it kind of helps the credibility along, you know? So everyday I can see the sun, as it gives me everything I need; heat, light, food, flowers in the park, reflections on the lake, an occasional skin cancer, but hey. At least there are no crucifixions, and we’re not setting people on fire simply because they don’t agree with us.”
“You know who I pray to? Joe Pesci. Two reasons: First of all, I think he's a good actor, okay? To me, that counts. Second, he looks like a guy who can get things done. Joe Pesci doesn't fuck around.”
If George Carlin were still alive today, there would actually be a place where he could sort of worship both in a way: Lebanon.
To a cynic from a 10,000 foot view, Lebanon could provide the ultimate “see, I told ya so” for someone with Carlin’s anti-religious views. (In place of the Ice Capedes, Lebanon does have a handful of ski areas and sends small delegations of athletes to the Winter Olympics) A small sliver of land in the Middle East Lebanon has a long and unfortunate history of war, often between members of the three major Abrahamic religions and even among different schools of thought between each of the religions. All the major Islamic sects call the country home as do many Christian groups including Mormons and only very recently has the country seen a virtual exodus of what was left of its entire Jewish population. The country’s tiny Hindu population outnumbers the Jewish population 130 to one. Lebanon’s 1945 National Pact requires the President, Prime Minister, and Speaker of the Parliament be members of specific religious faiths. No mixing and matching either. Canadian-Lebanese Jew, Professor , author, and Honey Badger Gad Saad has been quoted as saying, “In Lebanon, everything is defined by identity politics.”
The most famous instance of recent strife in Lebanon would likely be the decades long Civil War, which reversed the brief period of flourishing in the area after its long occupation by the Ottoman Empire and time as a French Not-Supposed-to-be-a-Colony in large part due to a League of Nations mandate. The Lebanese Civil War lasted from 1975 to 1990, involved various political and religious factions and created an even larger Lebanese diaspora. The war resulted in significant loss of life and widespread destruction domestically, with Beirut being heavily damaged during the conflict.
The war ended with the signing of the Taif Agreement in 1989, which led to the formation of a national unity government and the eventual reconstruction of the country - at least temporarily. The country’s relationship with neighboring Israel remains frail too and reversed some of the progress made in rebuilding the country after the end of the Civil War. Hezbollah has called certain parts of Lebanon home and controls those areas far better than the Lebanese Government.
And it’s here where we think Carlin would find solace in praying to a mobster (and receiving goods) and worshipping the giant ball of plasma 91.68 million miles away.
Open Google Earth or the Google Maps website and type in “Lebanon,” then zoom in as far as possible to any area with significant human settlement. The aerial imagery quality is nowhere near that of other regions of the world but it’s still good enough for a keen eye to notice something prevalent on many of the buildings in the country from the capital Beirut to Byblos, one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world, (settled around 5000 B.C.!) and even to the small rural settlements close to the Syrian border.
Do you see what I see?
Lots of them.
If one is to ignore access to safe water, the “E” part of Lebanon’s ESG score is something worth boasting, at least according to World Economics.
Of all the Middle Eastern countries too, only Yemen has a lower carbon emissions per capita and lower methane emission per capita too!
The only country beating Lebanon in terms of PM 2.5 Air Quality is Israel.
While Lebanon is not ESG Olympian Sri Lanka , she sure has some bragging rights in the Middle East.
Other than Lebanon’s mid latitude and abundant sunshine, which makes for good solar potential, why have many of the Lebanese embraced Carlin’s worship entity as a source of their electricity?
“There is no country in the world that manages its electricity this way and there is no expert on earth who can maintain ongoing balance with such a grid. “Power production should exceed consumption, as explained in the books. Here, it is the other way around … And at extremely varying rates!”
Hani - engineer for Electricite du Liban
On paper, Lebanon’s electric grid is owned and operated by the Government. Electricite du Liban (EdL), theoretically operates the generation, transmission, and distribution system for roughly 90 percent of the country. The remaining ten percent is operated by private companies who own some hydroelectric generation and distribute electricity to a handful of cities.
Prior to the Civil War, EdL’s service was among the best in the Middle East, to the point where Lebanon even produced a surplus of electricity which was exported to neighboring Syria. The generation was a mix of oil burning power stations and hydroelectric dams.
Years of Civil War, the back and forth between Israel, and a notoriously incompetent and corrupt central government took much of the Lebanese grid down and these forces continue to keep kicking it while its down. During the month-long 2006 Israel-Lebanon war (more specifically, Hezbollah - not the actual State of Lebanon), Israeli fighter jets attacked several power plants including one whose several fuel tanks containing crude oil spilled into the Mediterranean Sea. As a result, the Lebanese live with a notoriously unreliable grid. Residents in the ritzy and modern capital, Beirut, typically experience around three hours per day of blackouts. Residents in other cities and in rural area reportedly experience even worse service. Moustafa Baalbaki, a Lebanese software developer, became to frustrated after discovering the elevator to his ninth floor apartment was out of service due to the blackouts that he developed a smartphone app to notify Beirut residents of upcoming outages. A brief clip of his story is told about 30 seconds in this cheery Apple Developer video. Fuel shortages in 2021 even led to a country-wide blackout.
A notable exception to EdL’s woes is the city of Zahle and surrounding area who are instead served by Electricite de Zahle (EdZ). EdZ boasts of providing electricity 24 hours per day, 7 days a week for roughly 250,000 customers. Among other perks are street lighting that works every night, residents are charged cheaper rates than the rest of the country, and there are fully functional pumps at the local water treatment plant.
EdL have reportedly been bankrupt for years, unable to purchase or receive loans for new assets and hadn’t been allowed to up until November of last year to raise rates as the government had for years imposed price controls. The last time they changed rates were in 1990. EdL recently announced they will increase their service from two hours per day to four.
EdL’s headquarters in Beirut were also damaged heavily in the 2020 port explosion in Beirut where several of their employees died in the blast. EdL employees reportedly now work out of converted shipping containers in the courtyard of the headquarters property. Many of their employees also work from home not due to social distancing rules or a long desire to join the laptop class but because they cannot afford the cost of fuel to drive their cars thanks to the rapid depreciation of the Lebanese Lira and fuel shortages. Ever since the loss of the headquarters, management of the utility’s grid operations is all done by telephone and manual operation whereas before it was computerized.
Today most of the EdL’s generation relies on oil burning which is among one of the more inefficient and polluting ways to generate electricity. Lebanon have also leased oil-burning floating power plants from Turkey. These floating citadels of progress sit just off shore of one of Lebanon’s famous beach communities. One of these ships was even reportedly ordered by Hezbollah.
Interestingly enough, none of this seems to go against Lebanon’s ESG score.
“Ever since I moved to my new house, I’ve been paying around $130-150 monthly for 10 amperes which aren’t even close to what we consume on a normal day. Take for example a regular working day where you get home tired and hungry after 2 hours of traffic, and just wish to heat up some food in the microwave and wash some clothes before you sleep. Once you turn the washing machine or the dryer on, you can’t use any other home appliance. Moreover, I can’t use my microwave if the electricity is off as it needs around 8 amperes to start and I would have to turn off the whole house just to start it. These are two silly examples on how the lack of electricity affects our every day-life and are nothing compared to the families who don’t have heating systems and have to rely on electrical heaters to stay warm and heat up the water. Of course I’m assuming you’re getting 10 amperes and not less as all generator owners tend to trick you. I’m lucky to have a decent guy run the generator.”
To add insult to injury as alluded to in Nahib’s quote above, Lebanese ratepayers pay a second utility bill to what Robert Bryce has termed the generator mafia.
Also on a similar trajectory of the Golden State, the Lebanese are likely a significant source of fat profits for generator manufacturers. Lebanon has generators everywhere, but most are not owned by individual property owners looking to back up their own properties. They’re instead attached ad-hoc to local, decentralized micro grids. To say the generator mafia both “gets things done,” and “doesn’t fuck around,” are accurate though.
They procure the generators, and ensure they’re fueled and maintained. Lebanese residents then pay the owners of these generators for a second source of electricity but often at over three times the cost of the bill they pay to EdF.in his excellent book A Question of Power: Electricity and the Wealth of Nations dedicates an entire chapter to Lebanon’s electricity crisis and likely mainstreamed the term “generator mafia.” As part of his research for the book he traveled to Lebanon and interviewed several locals including Khaled Nakhle who works for the country’s Ministry of Energy and Water. Bryce writes of his meeting with Nakhle below:
When I met him at the ministry’s office in central Beirut, I asked why the Lebanese government can’t put the private generators out of business. He replied that EdL is losing some $1.3 billion per year, while the private generators are taking in as much as $2 billion per annum. ‘It’s a huge business,’ he said, ‘and it’s very dangerous to interfere with this business.’ When I used the term “generator mafia” to describe the private generators, Nakhle quickly replied, ‘They are not all mafia. But some of them are and they have connections at all levels and they pay for those connections.’ “
Lebanese residents also have to pay twice for the pollution as each of these generators produce noticeable air and noise pollution further exasperating the country’s air pollution issues. The Lebanese Government launched their own air quality monitoring system in 2013 but has been defunct for several years. The actual human toll on citizens is likely unknown but easily far worse than the exaggerated claims of asthma from gas stoves.
Monetary inflation not only raises prices and destroys the value of the currency unit; it also acts as a giant system of expropriation.
Lebanese newspaper L’Orient-Le Jour did a deep dive on EdL’s employees, published in early January of 2022 noting that, “EDL continues to pay its employees at the officially pegged rate of LL1,507.5 to the dollar. The company’s lowest monthly wage package amounts to LL1 million, which is now worth about $30 on the parallel market.”
That brings us to an interesting tidbit that on the surface doesn’t appear to be energy related - especially for those who’ve not experienced living in a country with a rapidly declining currency.
Nearly all of Lebanon’s public sector employees, which according to Saifadean Ammous, represents roughly 30 percent of the total workforce receive their paychecks in Lira, the country’s fiat currency. Yet most of these employees don’t actually work at any job on an official level. They’re instead more or less bribe recipients which further exasperates the country’s notoriously corruption. Out of all this, a few years ago public sector employees, making places such as Chicago, California, and Argentina look like squeaky clean citadels free of corruption, managed to negotiate not just pay raises but raises that applied retroactively.
Lebanon has also been facing a liquidity crisis for years and has defaulted on some of its foreign debt which they took out to try to rebuild the country after the Civil War.
To pay for all of this, the Lebanese Central Bank have gone on a money printing bonanza which has created record hyperinflation starting in 2020. The Central Bank just as recently as last week devalued the currency by a whopping 90 percent. Since the start of the 2020 hyperinflation bout, the currency has lost 97% of its value. Now the largest bill in denomination is worth under two dollars making cash transactions for even small purchases notoriously cumbersome. Every day business and purchases are now largely done in other currencies such as the US dollar, Euro, or even Bitcoin. Those who do not work in the public sector and its various tentacles are often able to receive payments in these other currencies.
A parallel currency black market, similar to the dolar blue in Argentina, is alive and well since summer of 2019 when Lebanon’s banking sector collapsed. But Lebanese residents are restricted to a certain amount per month on international transactions, and cash withdrawal limits. As of this writing one US dollar now equivalent to 15,000 LBP via the “official rate” , 42,000 LPB using the "Sayrafa" rate which the Central Bank uses for international transfers (a tourist in Lebanon using a credit or debit card will receive this rate) or on the black market for upwards of 65,000 LBP. That latter site providing the black market exchange rate is blocked in Lebanon, requiring internet users inside the country to use a VPN to see it.
The growth of rooftop solar in Lebanon is literally alternative energy but not done to “save the planet,” or because Lebanese property owners received fat government subsidies. It’s alternative to the declining state-owned electric firm kneecapped by government corruption, the Lira fiat ponzi, and Hezbollah but also the Generator Mafia. For anybody who can get their hands on a solar and battery system and the sooner they do it, the more likely they are to have partially shielded themselves from the further decline of Lebanon. Loans are (were?1) available from one of the government’s banks but of course terms and conditions apply likely disqualifying all but a few Lebanese.
Millions of every day Lebanese, and the thousands of Syrian refugees who also reside in the territory, are likely still to face the uphill challenges of both living under the country’s hyperinflationary environment and pay the harsh penalty of energy poverty.
Even solar users in Lebanon still face the night, the occasional cloudy day, and the likelihood that even a modest solar system likely won’t fit their needs which are far less than that of the average person in the West.
Or as Carlin would say, “The people are fucked!”