[new publication] Governing Hybridized Electricity Systems: The Case of Decentralized Electricity in Lebanon

Chaplain A. et Verdeil É., 2022, Governing Hybridized Electricity Systems: The Case of Decentralized Electricity in Lebanon, Journal of Urban Technology, ahead of print, https://doi.org/10.1080/10630732.2022.2105587

Policymakers see decentralized electricity supply as a way to both decarbonize energy systems and to fill the gap of electricity access in many countries where strong growth leave the grid lagging behind. This article sheds some light on the case of countries such as Lebanon, where diesel-fueled decentralized electricity systems have existed for years and increasingly coexist with, rather than being replaced by, solar powered systems. It is based on a synthesis of public quantitative data and qualitative information gathered through surveys. The article argues that understanding such dynamics involves an analysis, not only of the technological and socioeconomic determinants of the adoption of decentralized energy technologies but also of the political struggles between the various actors, with a particular focus on corporate actors, and wealthy users. In addition, the article shows how different political temporalities play in reproducing or opening the assemblage of technologies and interests that shape the hybridized energy landscape. The article also shows that hybridization has repercussions on the energy configuration as a whole, both in the evolving market share of each technology but also by deeply fragmenting the access to electricity along social and territorial lines and by pushing essential private actors to disconnect from the grid. As a conclusion, the promises of sustainable transitions need to be critically examined in light of these trends.

Observations on some hybrid energy systems in Delhi and its periphery

The Hybridelec research project started to explore the Indian reality, inparticular the city of Delhi and its southern suburb, during group visits which were conducted in the wake of the seminar co-organised by AFD, CPR and CERI on 30 October at CPR (see separate report). These field trips (Marie-Hélène Zérah,Bérénice Girard, Rémi de Bercegol, Gowda Shankare, Federico de Lorenzo, andEric Verdeil) have allowed us to identify five socio-technical setups and observe their typical ways of producing and accessing electricity.

Solar-roofed public buildings


Photovoltaic plant on the roof of NPC, Delhi (Eric Verdeil, CC)

The first setup concerns numerous public agencies and enterprises which are having solar equipment installed on their roofs. For example, in the government district of south Delhi, we visited the National Productivity Council (NPC), a public enterprise acting as a consultant which helps public agencies or enterprises to improve their productivity, including with regard to their environmental or energy policies. When we arrived, there was a power cut which, according to our hosts, was highly unusual. Nevertheless, a dedicated generator powered the lift and emergency lighting.


Other plants on the roofs of neighbouring buildings in the government district of Delhi (Eric Verdeil, CC)

Those in charge of NPC’s Environmental Management Department showed us a system of photovoltaic panels, with a total capacity of 30 kW, which had been installed on their roof in 2015. The system was connected to thehigh-voltage grid it supplied. Thus, the electricity produced was not directlyused in their building, however, NPC benefited from a reduction in itselectricity bill equivalent to the number of kW injected into the (high-voltage) grid. The electricity generated represented around 10% of thebuilding’s annual consumption (Rs. 30,000 per month) so this was a saving for the enterprise. Our interlocutors strongly emphasised the need for regular cleaning to remove the dust and maintain good production capacity. Several other buildings in the surrounding area were also equipped with solar panels of thesame type, albeit they were a lot less well maintained. Although this was not very clear, our interlocutors put forward several contributing factors behind this recent equipment:

  • a decision by the central government that tends to oblige public agencies to have this kind of systems installed;
  • the adoption of rules that favour net metering (which, however, did not apply in this case since the electricity produced was fed directly into the HV grid);
  • the project was completed with the help of a grant obtained from the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy as part of the National Solar Mission initiative;  
  • another incentive for this project was the obligation to have solar panels installed in order to be considered a “green building”;
  • the financial incentives were substantial overall: the project, which cost a total of Rs 2,157,000, received Rs 647,000 in subsidies;
  • finally, a swift drop in the cost of solar panels which has halved since 2015 was another essential factor in this investment.

The policy of Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) for installing solar panels

The DMRC represents a second very impressive example of solar-panel installation. Wevisited a workshop depot east of the Yamuna River, in the Karampura district. Our interlocutor showed us a 100 kW plant installed on the roof but, in reality, all the roofs of the complex, including round-shaped ones which arenot very suitable, as well as, more widely, metro stations and various empty fields were covered in panels. This was the result of a series of contracts since 2015, with an installed capacity reaching 24 MW in 2018, and a new installation phase was currently under way. DMRC’s objective is to produce a part of the electricity it needs for traction and lighting. We learnt that solar production represented 30% of the daytime consumption, but only 5% for the whole day, bearing in mind that there are two peak times: early in the morning when the sun has not yet risen and in the evening when it has already set. The cleaning operation is very important but very difficult. Indeed, because train and network maintenance has to take place at night, the only time cleaners can intervene and panels can be installed is between 1 and 4 o’clock in the morning. This obviously represents a logistical, technical and safety challenge for the night workers. Upkeep and maintenance are subcontracted to the company (Sun Edison) which has installed the panels under a 25-year maintenance contract.


PV plant on the DMRC workshop roof

Aerial view of the Yamuna Bank depot, with its roofs covered in PV (Google)

Whilst the government incentives cited above applied here too, we could see that DMRC’s mobilisation went further and showed a veritable appropriation of the self-production objective in order to reduce operation costs, of which electricity represents a big proportion. Our interlocutor further stressed that the public too had a direct interest in this since a reduction in outgoings translated directly into a reduction in production costs and therefore in the fares thepublic was charged (or into a reduction in subsidies, one might think). He informed us that discussions had therefore been going on with the regulating authorities: DMRC would wish to break free of DISCOMs, who have local monopoly over the distribution of electricity, as it would like to be able to develop its own production capabilities outside Delhi. For example, it already has a supply agreement with a solar park in Madhya Pradesh (under the RESCO model) from which it buys electricity at a price lower than the DISCOM one (around Rs 2 difference), and this despite the charges imposed by the Central Electricity Regulatory Commission (interstate charges) and the Delhi Electricity Regulatory Commission (intrastate charges). One may think, subject to confirmation,that this evolution of things would not be favourable to DISCOMs’ business model since, thanks to these adjustments, big industrial clients such as DMRCplay an essential role in the implementation of a policy for the social integration of small consumers (for further details see Kohler, Zerah 2013). This most definitely explains why DMRC was refused exemption from the interstate andintrastate charges. The same goes for DMRC’s failed application – it intends to reapply – to obtain a “deemed licensee” status (already granted to the railways) which would allow it to develop a strategy forachieving complete autonomy.

Gurgaon: solar condos


View of a part of the PV plant on the roof of the Wellington Estate condominium (Eric Verdeil, CC)

We witnessed another very impressive example of solar equipment in a condominium of around 500 apartments in Gurgaon, a new city south of Delhi developed in thepast 20 years to serve the needs of the tertiary industry. In the past twoyears, the estate had been investing in an initial stage of PV panels representing 200 kW. The plant covered around 50% of the roofs of the residence. Thanks to the success of the operation, a new phase is being planned.

There are several favourable factors worth mentioning: first of all, the personality of the estate’s current president seemed decisive. This businessman who had retired from the advertising sector and had nothing to occupy him (his children were abroad and his wife had her own activities) wanted to find savings for the estate and do something for the environment even though he did not define himself as an activist. As it happened, the implementation of the project had led to a reduction in costs, not least because his style of management seemed more widely geared toward the rationalisation of outgoings – lighting in the communal areas had already been switched over to LED bulbs, which had resulted in a big saving comparable to the amount saved by the solar production. Further, we can again cite the regulatory incentives (net metering, etc.). Above all else, this estate, like many of its counterparts in Gurgaon, had a long history of infrastructural autonomy. It had been equipped with water wells, which now seemed to play only a supporting role, but also with generators, which at first used to supply all the electricity within the complex. If today this production capability only played a back-up role in case of power cuts (very short ones amounting to around 10 hours a month), this was the result of the relatively recent improvements in electricity supply made by DISCOM. In this context, the solar investment was part of a continuum, even if it did not in and of itself represent a new back-up capability – the solar system could work in conjunction with the public grid or the generators, but not on its own.

Aerial view of the Wellington Estate solar plant (source: YouTube, Wellington Board, uploaded on 6 December 2017)

A truly remarkable characteristic was the estate’s desire to customise this technology and guarantee the quality of the work carried out. For this purpose, and despite the opposition of many residents, the estate’s president and a couple of other individuals involved had worked together with the selected consultant to improve the project. Indeed, they had chosen a small company (Green Roots) over a bigger one that provided only standard solutions. The president actually had an interesting view on the circumstances that would allow this solar sector to take off. According to him, there should be third-party consultants who could help residences to negotiate with the companies. Indeed, he told us that their discussions with Tata or Hero Solar had failed because they had refused any design changes or had wanted to impose their own choice of panel supplier. Finally, even though the supplier was supposed to be in charge of maintenance for five years, in reality it was the estate that would take care of the upkeep and maintenance of the plant.

In economic terms, they did not hesitate to invest for the long term by buying good-quality material and now they were able to reduce their electricity bill by 10%. They planned to use their monitoring system to optimise their plants. This was part of a wider optimisation strategy (installation of more energy-efficient ventilators, motor replacement, etc.) and in-house management, which, according to the president, explained why their outgoings were far lower than those of other Gurgaon residences. This, he maintained, would explain the end of the protests witnessed at the beginning of the project.

To what extent could this situation be replicated in other parts of the city? This question seemed all the more relevant since CPR’s work on the Smart City programme shows that the development of solar roofs is a clearly stated priority for Gurgaon. Nevertheless, according to our interlocutor, the city had not provided any support and its achievements in this area seemed more or less non-existent. Only 6 or 7 other building complexes seemed to have developed similar investment programmes, but less successfully and especially with a lower degree of customisation. And yet, the lowering of installation costs seems a powerful incentive, albeit expertise is also required, something that not all estates and their subcontractors have.

The rapid electrification of Delhi’s slums and working-class neighbourhoods

Rémide Bercegol and Gowda Shankare took us to visit two slum areas, which were also waste collection and treatment hubs. First we went to Hanuman Mandir, Rama Krishna Puram, a completely illegal neighbourhood located in a low area with a nala, an open-air sewer, running across. Many of the houses there were made of scrap materials. The collected waste, which was deposited in huge enclosures or just along the sewer, was sorted and then sent to wholesalers who would then negotiate with the recycling industries. We were greeted by the periwalah, the entrepreneur in charge of this trade, who was also the sarpanch or head of the neighbourhood. Collectors deposited their bales on a scale outside his house which measured the quantities collected every day. This dwelling, made of brick and cement with steel girders, was connected to the power grid, just as the rest of the neighbourhood was, as attested by the perfectly visible meters. Furthermore, our interlocutor received the bills and was in charge of their distribution to the residents. We found it hard to understand what the amounts quoted corresponded to, some of which seemed very high to us. Could they perhaps have been arrears?

Our host also pointed out the recently installed public lighting, which was in keeping with a national policy that had been presented to us at the CPR/AFD/CERI seminar. It involved the use of LED lights which allowed work to go on well after night had fallen.

Rémi de Bercegol highlighted that the AamAadmi (Common Man) Party’s recent access to power (the State Assembly) could explain the development of these infrastructure networks in an otherwise clearly informal neighbourhood: since this party’s coming to power in Delhi in 2012, the policy of repression against slums had lost in its intensity and certain residents who no longer feared being evicted had added an upper storey to their houses.

When asked about the consistency in supply, our interlocutor estimated that power cuts were rare and that there had been clear improvement in the past few years. However, they seemed to happen almost on a daily basis, albeit for very short periods of time and they didn’t cause any inconvenience nor did they require the acquisition of complementary devices.

The second neighbourhood was in Okhla, south Delhi. We visited several recycling workshops that dealt particularly in glass and metal. The foremen there told us that their machinery was supplied with electricity and that they were hardly disrupted by the rare power cuts. They did not have any generators.

A recently installed electric meter (Eric Verdeil, CC)

Unauthorised urbanisation on agricultural land, but the buildings were connected to the grid (Eric Verdeil, CC)

A generator outside a furniture workshop (Eric Verdeil, CC)

Behind these workshops, in an area where vegetables were still being grown, a new neighbourhood had been developing along elevated streets. Small developments,workshops, sometimes individual houses had appeared visibly fast, according to Rémi de B. and Gowda S. who had regularly been there in the past year. There too we were struck by the electrification under way, as attested by theelectricity cables and meters suspended from pylons or attached to houses. We also visited a furniture workshop which was equipped with modern machinery and supplied with electricity. A brand new generator stood grandly outside theentrance. Bought only five months previously, it was, our interlocutors told us, seldom used. Nevertheless, it was interesting that they felt the need to have aback-up plan. We also noticed an electric rickshaw whose battery was being recharged.

Urbanisation and electrification moving forward in tandem (EricVerdeil, CC)

A bit further way, on a road under construction (along a natural-gas pipeline), we had a long discussion with an estate agent about the neighbourhood’s urbanisation rationale. This urbanisation was in fact illegal as the neighbourhood was not part of the master plan. However, the agricultural land had been bought by developers who planned a (very dense) housing estate and many transactions had been conducted which, according to the agent, had been marked by various abuses. As far as access to the infrastructures was concerned, he also pointed out that electricity theft happened and was tolerated (indeed, therewere some suspicious-looking connections attached to a cable just behind us) and that, whilst the electricity distribution company had equipped the neighbourhood, the same could not be said for the supply of water which depended on a public operator. Hence residents relied on drilling into the water table.

“Bengali” camp. The satellite dish no longer workedfollowing the disconnection of an illegal electrical network by thedistribution company (Eric Verdeil, CC)

We continued our field trip by going through nearby areas inhabited by migrantswho called themselves “Bengali” but who were very likely illegalimmigrants from Bangladesh. They too were involved in waste collection and sorting for the purposes of recycling. These populations’ situation was extremely precarious and their camp dwellings were equally very basic: wood, sheet metal, fabric, plastic. We noticed a communal water point (a hand pumpwhich it was unclear whether it pumped from the water table or the nearby public network of the resettlement-colony of Madanpur). We noticed a satellite dish outside a dwelling but the residents told us it no longer worked as the electric connections they had installed had been withdrawn by the distribution company after a fire had been started by a short circuit in another camp.

These visits in slums and working-class neighbourhoods showed that electrification was advancing very fast, despite the areas’ land situation. Furthermore, theimprovement in supply meant that residents seemed to rely mainly on electricity– if they could afford it – without needing other sources of electricity production.

Dharuhera: hybrid setups in the development corridor south of Delhi

Former Rajput palace in Dharuhera (Eric Verdeil, CC)

This rapidly growing town (around 35,000 inhabitants currently, compared to 18,000 in 2011) is located in a development corridor south of Delhi: it is home to industrial areas and residences meant for middle classes and workers linked to these new economic activities. Its social and physical structure is marked by the juxtaposition of these new groups with the old village. Politically, a family of landowners, which used to be linked with the British (they organised the conscription), dominates the municipal bodies. As it happened, we were received in turn by the former mayor in his villa, then by his aunt, the current mayor, in her big modern house in the village centre, close to the neglected former palace.}

The council had recently been modernised. It occupies a big modern building where we met the executive secretary who was in fact a representative of the state. There too we learnt that the electricity supply had improved considerably and that power cuts were residual. Nevertheless, a generator outside the building had to regularly be switched on. Our municipal interlocutors mentioned the development of photovoltaic panels and the incentives from or even obligation by the stateto have them installed. The council was therefore looking at the possibility of installing them on its roof and even considered having a bigger-sized plant so as to draw additional income from it. However, we noticed that within the council there was little technical and legal grasp of these issues. We were told about an owner who apparently had had panels installed in the town and about several plants in the surrounding villages. Even if there seemed to be awell-established installer in the area (whom we were unable to meet), we saw few panels on top of the buildings. Further investigations would be required.


Urban landscape in Dharuhera (E. Verdeil, CC)}


Waste ground and, in the background, urbanisation in the form of apartment blocks in Dharuhera (E. Verdeil, CC)


A first converging observation concerns the impressive improvement in the access to electricity, in keeping with the increase in electricity production and the extension of the distribution networks. The once chronic power cuts seem today to be residual. Back-up practices are still in use by a proportion of the companies and of the middle- or upper-class households (generators, inverters) but do not concern the poorest.

The second major factor is the arrival of photovoltaic plants for production at an individual or a company and condominium level, in response to state incentives and regulatory changes, but also in order to benefit from the economic advantages provided by this increasingly approachable technology. We may well wonder whether a habit of managing shortages and disrupted supply represents afactor that favours investment in these technologies.

Report written by Eric Verdeil with additional material by Bérénice Girard, Rémi de Bercegol and Marie-Hélène Zérah.Translated from the French by Monica Biberson thanks to AFD funding to Sciences Po-CERI.

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