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French Version

New approach to solar power electrifies business (Daily Star)

In afasdiq, one man’s company harnesses the sun’s power for hotels, hospitals and unifil
Entrepreneur began inventing as a child, and has since parlayed his hobby into a possible solution to the country’s energy problem

It could be the beginning of a renewable energy revolution, or it could merely be the story of an aspiring local company whose brazen drive for innovation can challenge even the most cynical view of Lebanon’s manufacturing industry.

The idea that it is too expensive to make products here and the unrelenting cries of businessmen who say the government is not doing enough to bolster cash-strapped local industries are both charges that fall flat, deep in the heart of the olive grove country.

In the sleepy Koura village of Afasdiq, under the shadow of the snow-capped Cedar Mountains, sparks are flying, heavy machinery is in full swing and new ideas are being tested.

But there are no smoke stacks or protruding pipes to spoil the picture-perfect environment that is home to Kypros, a Lebanese firm busily attempting to harness the power of the sun.

The company has been rolling out solar panels for the last four years, and has boosted production several times to keep up with the growing demand for the product, which could become a partial solution to the country’s deepening energy crisis.

According to part-owner Hanna Akar, every Lebanese household can save $50 per month for each electrically-powered water heater that is replaced with a Kypros solar unit. “This means, if you have three water heaters, you could save $150 per month,” he explained, saying demand had been growing by 10 to 20 percent per year. “We could only sell 10 units when we first started and now we’re producing 700 to 800 units per year,” he added.

Kypros’ client list includes major hotels, hospitals and Beirut apartment buildings, not to mention large swaths of northern villages, whose glistening rooftops prove the best form of advertising may hinge on your neighbor’s curiosity. “Everyone wants to save,” he said with a smile.

A soft-spoken, locally educated engineer, Akar never doubted his ability to create a solar panel. He designed the entire Kypros plant, its production flow, even some of the heavy cutting machinery. “It’s like a hobby for me,” he added.

It took Akar four days to come up with a prototype panel, but his inventive spirit was first honed years earlier at the age of 12. To avoid the hassle of getting out of bed, he created an electric powered curtain raiser; the determination to take matters in his own hands has been with him ever since. During an interview with The Daily Star on Sunday, Akar was busy tinkering away with an electric fence. “They said it would cost $1,200 to install a new one so I decided to make my own. It will only cost me about $250.”

There is also a jaw-dropping price difference between the cost of Kypros solar panels and those produced by large European companies.

A double-paneled four- square-meter Kypros unit, which includes a 200-liter hot water boiler, produces up to three kilowatts of power per hour and sells for about $600. A comparable European-made unit that produces the same amount of energy sells for approximately three times that amount.

Competition is not tough in Lebanon, with two other smaller producers in Sidon and Akkar, and about seven other resellers.

According to Akar, Kypros controls 80 percent of the market, supplying the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) and negotiating export deals to Syria, Jordan, Iraq and the Gulf states. He said Mediterranean countries are one of the biggest markets for solar panels because of the prevalence of sunlight year-round.

Designed to maximize heat collection, the panels contain copper rods that are filled with anti-freeze, painted black with selective absorbent paint, and then covered by special permeable glass.

The rods are set in aluminum sheets, heavily insulated in a sponge-like polyurethane substance (to trap heat) and mounted with rust proof galvanized steel at a 45 degree angle.

When the anti-freeze warms up, it rises into a chamber, which surrounds the 200 liter boiler and heats the water. Gravity pulls the cold antifreeze down and the cycle is repeated.

Now producing its third version of the solar heating system, Kypros and Akar are always innovating a cut, configuration or design specification to improve efficiency. In the future, Akar naturally has other ideas, but some ­ such as the possibility of developing a new use for solar technology ­ are top secret.

There are also hopes of producing silicon-based photovoltaic panels, which are designed to generate electricity for an entire household ­ a more comprehensive energy source than the Kypros system that can only be used to heat water.

But it costs around $30,000 to install and supply the energy needs of an average home, thus making photovoltaic systems unfeasible for sale to local consumers. Akar said there have been several advancements in solar energy over recent decades, from solar-powered cars that were introduced in the 1970’s to more recent innovations such as a solar-powered air conditioning unit.

But, he added, governments have generally rejected the notion of renewable energy and stymied developments with a priority on sustaining existing revenue streams, such as the oil industry and its related financial structures.

But in the small hamlet of Afasdiq, where the grand scheme of things is not on Akar’s daily agenda, the local municipality has awarded Kypros a five-year tax-free subsidy to generate employment. Living off the land of his ancestors, (where property is much cheaper than Beirut) Akar doesn’t complain much and says he always enjoys his work. “If it wasn’t a hobby, I wouldn’t be here every day from 6am to 6pm,” he added cheerfully.

According to Akar, picking the right product is the most important decision an industrialist can make. He says local entrepreneurs should take time to consider producing goods that are not available locally or do not face international competition. “If I chose the wrong business then maybe I would be talking about electricity rates or expensive telephone bills right now. But business is good so I can’t complain.”

Beirut 16-02-2004
Habib Battah
The Daily Star

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