Power Cuts In Lebanon Could Become A Thing Of The Past Thanks To This Invention

As published in Forbes Middle East, September 2017.

When Antoine Saab made the decision to return to Lebanon in 2010 after several years in Canada and Saudi Arabia, he was picturing the high life.

“I decided to take it easy and stop my crazy startup stuff, I decided to come back to Lebanon, sit at the pool, smoke a cigar and relax,” Saab says. This came after two decades in engineering, including a stint as the CEO of Turbine Energy, a startup owned by Saudi Arabia’s Prince Saud bin Fahd bin Abdul Aziz’s National Trigeneration CHP Company.

He had the opportunity to renew his contract for another two years, but decided to go home to Lebanon instead. Family played a big part in his decision—after many years abroad, he realized that he had been away from family and friends for years.

But like all Lebanese he became frustrated by the daily power outages. The war had damaged the electrical infrastructure, and the country never fully recovered. Those who could afford it supplemented the government’s energy ration with a private generator.

Saab’s coffee machine-alarm clock was useless. “It has a timer that wakes you up at 7 o’clock,” Saab says. “It brews your coffee immediately and wakes you up. When I plugged it in Lebanon, with the power failure it woke me up at 10:30.”

He developed an energy storage system in response that collects and reserves electricity from solar panels or the grid, so residents don’t have to use a gas-guzzling generator, which produce dangerous emissions. He decided to set up his own company, named in honor of its goal to make sure people have energy 24 hours a day—and E24 was born.

“We found out in a study on the impact of [gas] generators that people who live very close to them are exposed to airborne carcinogens that are emitted through the exhaust, through the emissions from these generators,” says Dr. Nadim Farajalla, director of the Climate Change and Environment program at the American University of Beirut.

“My immediate concern would be for the health aspect; my next concern would be on carbon emissions.”

Besides the health and environmental benefits of leaving generators behind, Saab says that his solution is ultimately cheaper than paying for utilities. When the power cuts, E24’s energy storage system steadily releases the stored electricity, keeping the lights on and the fridge running.

“One day, the generator went down and everyone else’s electricity died,” he recalls, laughing. “I had the storage system so my neighbors came and asked where I stole the electricity from.”

His storage system works like an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) on a larger scale. UPS systems also store energy and release it when electricity is not available, but they are normally used on a smaller scale—mostly commonly for desktop computers.

But Saab’s customers are looking to power their homes or even entire factories.

Although large-scale energy storage solutions exist in the U.S. and Europe, Saab notes that it’s a difficult field to grow in developing countries, because electricity is unstable. It’s not as simple as creating a unit to store energy—he had to factor in fluctuating utility voltage and frequency.

“It takes brains and development, and it takes money,” he says. “It’s not easy.” In fact, even with decades in the industry it took Saab about two years of research and development to create his energy storage unit. Although E24 was officially incorporated in 2011, his product wasn’t sold commercially until 2013.

Saab started his career in electrical engineering as a distributor for American Power Conversion in Lebanon, which creates UPS energy backup solutions. He also took on the Lebanese Ministry of Defense and his alma mater, the American University of Beirut, as customers.

“I did the whole industry in Lebanon,” Saab says. He was eventually headhunted to work with the Saudi royal family as the CEO of Turbine Energy before returning to Lebanon in 2010 to found E24.

He won the Lebanese Bader Startup Cup in December 2014 and spent the following year fundraising, getting offers from three venture capital firms and partnering with Beirut-based Leap Ventures in December 2015, which created a $3 million fund with the 15 top banks in Lebanon as investors, including Bank Audi, Fransabank, SGBL, Blom Bank and Byblos Bank, among others.

Like most startups, E24 began with only a handful of people. After the investment, Saab brought 30 people on board and expects to have 60 employees by the end of 2017.

Since their funding round, Saab and co-founder Nadia Moussouni have expanded the company’s offerings to cater to homes, villas, businesses and factories. Saab would not disclose the price of E24’s services.

His company also creates energy generators, including solar panels. One product: Large solar panels for businesses that provide shade for cars in outdoor parking lots while powering the building, called eParking. Saab says E24’s sales are split evenly between the energy storage system and solar.

The startup even works with the government—E24 builds solar power plants and then sells the energy they produce to government electricity provider Electricite Du Liban under Build Own and Operate agreements. That means E24 builds, owns and operates the solar power plants at its own expense.

Saab is trying to turn utilities providers into his customers—they often have to link extra generators to the grid to provide energy during the times of day with peak demand, and he wants to replace those generators with eGrid.

E24’s tailor-made system packs a punch with 2,000 kilowatt hours’ worth of energy. That’s enough power to keep 2,000 smartphones charged for a full year.

The company is currently testing a new eVillage concept. Bkerzay, a village in Chouf, which is south of Beirut, will have 50 residences, restaurants, swimming pools and stores powered by E24’s power solution.

The project is funded privately—Bkerzay is a nature and cultural conservation project founded by Ramzi Salman, and is run like a resort rather than a village. Artisans there craft pottery and the village is known for producing soaps, olive oil and honey. E24 sold the eVillage solution to Salman and gives technical support where needed.

“EVillage is a technology that we developed from scratch that allows us to power entire villages and provide them with the luxury of 24/7 electricity using solar energy rather than using any polluting generators,” Saab says.

Saab notes that each house has an energy meter to track its energy consumption, and each uses a prepaid card to pay only for the energy they use.

Because the village is small, E24 is using its eParking system to fit solar panels into limited space.

The north Lebanon village of Bchaaleh is next in the pipeline, with 300 properties to be powered by E24’s technology and storage systems in a deal signed with the village municipality, although it will be financed by E24.

Saab says that many more villages are waiting to use the technology once E24 has finished its work in Bchaaleh.

The storage units, which run on batteries that only need to be replaced after six to 10 years of use, take energy from multiple sources like solar panels or government utilities based on availability and cost and store it for use during blackouts.

They measure about the size of a small bench, 100 centimeters in width by 60 centimeters in height and 55 centimeters in depth.

More powerful products, like eTelecom, generate solar energy that can power the user’s load for up to 10 days without sun.

It also includes a remote monitoring system so users can keep an eye on their energy usage. To build them, Saab coordinates with around 21 suppliers around the world, each of whom make a subcomponent of the final product.

“We built a technique that resembles the IKEA technique, actually,” Saab says. “What we’re trying to do is simplify and pre-engineer the tech.”

He is in the process of opening a factory in Bulgaria to help the company scale up— Saab expects to have a presence in North America and Europe by mid-2018. He has already started regional expansion, with new projects in the pipeline in Iraq and one in Kenya for a non-profit organization.

By Saab’s estimate, solar power is three times cheaper than getting electricity from the grid, and having a storage system relying mainly on solar energy is at least five times less costly than using a generator.

The electricity cuts have not been solved for a handful of reasons, according to Saab.

He says the lack of infrastructure in Lebanon, which fuels his company, also complicates his work, which is already in a difficult field to develop as it has high costs and requires skilled workers.

Still, E24 has brought in around 350 customers, including Lebanese kitchen equipment supplier Meker, and he says that number is growing fast. After decades in the industry, Saab says he knows the key players and credits his success in part to his experience in the field, both in terms of theoretical knowledge and his many successful and failed experiments.

“When you’ve been playing with batteries all your life it becomes quite easy,” Saab says.