Solar power for Syria

Syria’s power grid has been decimated by years of war, leaving millions with unreliable energy. The Union of Medical Care and Relief Organisations (UOSSM) has begun a project to install solar panels on hospitals to ensure that there is always power where it is needed most.

Prior to the outbreak of war in 2011, Syria was an electrified nation with 95% of homes connected to a reliable grid system. But after six years this has completely changed. The transmission network and power stations have been destroyed both tactically and accidentally, leaving Syrians predominantly reliant on heavily polluting and expensive diesel generators to keep the lights on.

The lack of power has had a dramatic effect upon people’s lives, and nowhere is this felt more acutely than within hospitals and health facilities. The UOSSM has set about changing this, by providing solar panels to hospitals to ensure respirators, incubators and operating rooms can always be kept going.

A decimated network

Syria was once a power hub, producing enough power not just for domestic use but also for exportation. This was thanks to a network of 15 power plants, including the Aleppo thermal power plant and three hydropower dams; however, since the outbreak of war, $5bn worth of infrastructure has been destroyed or damaged.

“Civilian parts of [the power network] have been destroyed, power generation capacity in power plants has been completely out of service, certain transmission lines also have been destroyed, and a number of transformer stations have been destroyed,” says UOSSM Syria Solar Initiative projects director Tarek Makidssi. “The last comprehensive assessment of the power network conditions within Syria as a whole, showed that within the regime areas a number of them still operate but at a much lower capacity.”

Electricity infrastructure has been specifically targeted by different warring factions. The effects of these tactics have left those within opposition held areas in particular without access to reliable power. As such, most have been turning to alternative sources of power. People have been forced to make their own candles out of fats and rice for light, and have turned to diesel generators for electricity. There are a number of downsides to this, including reliability of supply, cost and pollution. But the people of Syria have been left with no alternative.

"Since the outbreak of war, $5bn worth of infrastructure has been destroyed or damaged."

Now renewables are increasingly being viewed as a means to securing energy independence. “We see renewables as a way to transition from diesel to increase the resilience of the population, to increase the resilience of critical infrastructure, to reduce dependence of diesel, the commodity at the centre of the war economy, and we see it as the first way to break the cycle of this economy as there is a different alternative,” says Makidssi.

Solar panels for hospitals

The concept of installing solar panels on hospitals was first suggested by the UOSSM in 2013, when it became apparent that hospitals along with other health organisations had to rely solely on diesel generators for power.

“Then, in the middle of 2015, there was a huge diesel cut when the route that usually brought fuel to the area was disputed between different armed groups,” says Makidssi. “That caused the markets to suddenly shrink, which was especially bad for hospitals because there's only a certain amount that they could actually procure. So at that point, larger NGOs started to actually look at alternative power planning and feasibility studies and primary agencies evaluated some system development work for it which came through last March.”

Work began to install UOSSM’s first solar panels at the end of 2016, and continued throughout the winter into 2017, despite dangerous conditions. The system is now in operation at the hospital, providing a security of supply of power. “It's a hybrid PV system based on an energy storage system and a diesel generator that runs in parallel,” says Makidssi. “The system is composed of 480 solar PV modules, each at 265W capacity, formulating a 127KW PV system PV capacity.”

“The system throughout the year is expected to generate 30%-40% of the hospital’s total energy use,” Makidssi continues. “This, obviously, is in the standard operating scenario where you do have diesel in the market and you are operating at full capacity in the hospital.” Alternatively, should there be a problem with supply, the solar panels will ensure that key parts of the hospital such as surgical rooms are able to remain active.

A modular system was specifically chosen to ease maintenance and operations, “because you can have certain sections of the system offline and still have the rest of the system operating and providing electricity,” says Makidssi. There were 18 inverters installed within this project.

During installation, the local maintenance team at the hospital were trained to be able to operate the PV system, as well as make basic repairs using locally sourced materials should the panels or other elements become damaged.

Humanitarian solar power

One particular area where renewable power could make a difference is within refugee camps. A recent report titled ‘Heat, Light and Power for Refugees: Saving Lives, Reducing Costs’ by Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs, showed that current systems providing energy to displaced populations are economically, environmentally and socially unsustainable. The report claims that in 2014 the cost of household energy usage for displaced peoples was an estimated $2.1bn. This amounted to 3.5 million tonnes of oil equivalent.

Alternatively, the report states that “the widespread introduction of improved cook stoves and basic solar lanterns could save $323m a year in fuel costs in return for a one-time capital investment of $335m for the equipment”.

Along with the economic benefits, there are also clear environmental and safety incentives. Diesel generators, kerosene lamps and wood fires are dangerous. However, governments have been resistant to pursuing renewable power networks within refugee camps, as to do so would accept a level of permanence.

"The widespread introduction of improved cook stoves and basic solar lanterns could save $323m a year in fuel costs in return for a one-time capital investment of $335m for the equipment."

Renewables, in particular solar, have been making a contribution to relief efforts elsewhere. Following the 2015 earthquakes in Nepal, 1.4 million people were in need of immediate help. NGO Sunfarmer set about raising money and providing solar powered water purification to ensure those affected had access to clean water.

Solar lanterns have now been used in the wake of several disasters, including the Haitian earthquake in 2010. Access to clean, safe and economical sources of light has many benefits, not least safety for women and girls to move about at night as they are particularly at risk following disasters.

Solar for Syria?

Looking towards the future, there is hope that solar, amongst other renewable sources, will play an increasingly important role within Syria. UOSSM alone is pursuing five more solar PV projects for hospitals around the country.

“Those hospitals have been selected based on criteria that ensure diversity of medical services that are provided in case of an all diesel outage,” says Makidssi. “We see them as low risk of vandalism; the hospitals were selected after a comprehensive survey of 140 hospitals.”

As Syria moves forwards, a new energy network will have to be practically built up from the ground. While this is a colossal task, it also brings new opportunities regarding which energy sources it will be reliant on. But Syria’s energy priorities remain unclear and dependant on stability. Despite solar powers obvious advantages, there will be challenges to overcome.

Not least is Syria’s inexperience with solar power, something which provided one of the greatest challenges to UOSSM’s project. “Because it's the first time a project of this scale has been deployed in Syria…sometimes we had problems with material access, with logistics, with the capacities we needed in order to actually deploy the system,” says Makidssi. This lack of experience and easily accessible technology will undoubtedly play a role in the uptake of solar.

A key consideration is Russia and its involvement with the Bashar al-Assad regime’s and Syria. Russia entered the Syrian war in 2013, bombing opposition forces despite US and western condemnation. Its motives have been questioned, and it seems clear that oil plays a role in Russia’s interest in the conflict. The Russian energy company Soyuzneftegaz has a permit for exploration in Syrian waters, and it has been suggested that Assad has signed agreements giving Russia the right to operate regardless of a change of government.

Russia suffered greatly for the downturn in oil prices, and a large portion of its economic policy remains reliant of oil and gas exports. As such, it seems evident that it will be backing oil and gas activity in Syria which would deprioritise renewables such as solar.

Nations recovering from war have found the high CAPEX required by renewables hard to come by, and in the dash to rebuild a country, refurbishments to previous thermal power stations have been favoured. In Iraq, despite the war officially ending in 2011, access to reliable energy remains out of reach. Diesel generators still account for 8% of the country’s total electricity supply and the country is an estimated quarter short of meeting demand. Foreign companies have a monopoly over its oil and gas fields, while alternative potential power sources are largely ignored. As the country endeavour’s to rebuild its economy, investment focus remains firmly with hydrocarbons, a situated Syria could easy fall into.

None of this bodes particularly well for solar power. But some remain optimistic that with stability will come greater decentralisation, and a greater focus on renewables. “Previously we’ve had a very centralised national grid,” says Makidssi, “and in the future there are a number of considerations and a number of points of view about how this will transition in the post-conflict era.

“I personally see it heading more towards decentralisation, perhaps more along the lines of local mini-grids. Syrians can have local renewable energy based mini grids for different villages, or combine three or four villages together to make a mini grid.”