Power cuts are a symptom of a deeper malaise

So endemic are Lebanon’s blackouts that there is an app to track Beirut’s rolling cuts, a popular Twitter hashtag “BlameBassil” is named after the energy minister, Gebran Bassil, and researchers study the drop in air quality during power cuts when thousands of generators are whirring. As the long, hot summer drags on, things are getting worse. In recent weeks parts of Beirut, the capital, have suffered nine rather than the usual three hours of cuts. People in rural areas go even longer without power.

Lebanon’s electricity problems date back to the 1975-90 civil war, which left the country in ruins and set back infrastructure development. The country has not built a new power station in more than a decade. Poor management and corruption have contributed to the problems since then, as has Mideast conflict. Israel bombed several power stations before its troops withdrew from Lebanon in May 2000, ending an 18-year occupation, and in its 2006 war with Hezbollah it bombed fuel tanks at the Jiyyeh power station south of Beirut.

The daily gap between supply and demand is now 1.1GW, around 40% of the country’s demand. Power needs were rising by 6-8% a year before thousands of Syrian refugees poured into the country; the government blamed recent fighting in the south for delayed repairs to the grid. Companies complain that bills for generators hurt business. Power is just one ailing bit of the country’s infrastructure. The government has a monopoly in electricity, though it has long turned a blind eye to operators of private generators. Yet as governments repeatedly change and politicians bicker, little gets done and few people believe Mr Bassil’s pledge that the country will enjoy 24-hour power by 2015. The politicians are wary of privatisation. Though the government has plans for more power stations and hydroelectric dams, it relies largely on stopgap measures, such as a Turkish ship that arrived this year to generate electricity off the coast.

The ship, the Fatmagül Sultan, is the centrepiece of a Turkish project to overcome chronic electricity shortages in developing countries struggling to meet expanding demand. Known as a “power ship“, the Turkish-owned and operated vessel with 11 towering steel stacks or chimneys resembles a sort of floating Battersea power station.

It arrived off Beirut earlier this year under a $370m, three-year deal agreed between Lebanon’s government and the Turkish energy company, Karadeniz Holding. After securing a supply of heavy fuel oil and hooking up to Lebanon’s national grid, the ship is delivering 188MW of electricity daily. This total is expected to rise to 270MW in June, when a second Turkish power ship arrives off Beirut.

Fatmagül Sultan moored 100m off the coast
Fatmagül Sultan moored 100m off the coast

Sectarian rivalry, entrenched in a complex political system that is meant to ensure a balance between the country’s Sunni and Shia Muslims and its Christians, adds a further twist. Last year, when a parliamentary committee suggested granting permanent contracts to workers at the state-owned Electricité du Liban (EDL), Christian leaders complained that the beneficiaries would be mainly Muslim. That, they suggested, would upset the public sector’s balance of power.

Meanwhile, local councils are finding their own solutions. The southern port city of Sidon has installed solar panels to run some traffic lights. Other councils have bought large generators to meet residents’ needs. Yet discontent is rising and protests against the lack of electricity are becoming more frequent.

Slow progress in Lebanon

The government acknowledges the problem. The minister of Power and Hydraulic Resources, Jibran Bassil, says demand at peak time is about 2,500 megawatts, but EDL’s maximum capacity is 1,500 megawatts. In 2010, the Cabinet unanimously approved a plan to produce 5,000 megawatts a year in 2015 with the aim of providing 24-hour  electricity through building new plants and encouraging solar and wind energy. Bassil said the plan would cost about $4.8 billion, including $1.5 billion from the government, $2.3 billion from the private sector and $1 billion from donors over the next four years.

But many say no more money should be spent on EDL, and instead funds should go toward fighting corruption, improving collection of bills and giving the private sector a bigger role.

The frequency of power cuts differ across the country. Beirut has the best deal, getting 21 hours of electricity a day. In the southern port-city of Sidon, there are 12-hour cuts.

The cost of doing business in Lebanon is enormous from state of electricity sector and the image of the country is negatively affected by this problem

Said Nassib Ghobril, Head of Economic Research and Analysis at Byblos Bank Group, who further went on to say:

“It is unacceptable that an economy that is based on the free market, that is integrated into the region and within the global economy continues to have this kind of poor electricity sector.”

A June 2009 World Bank report said no new power generation capacity has been added since two combined cycle plants were installed in the 1990s. The rest date back to the 1970s and 1980s. The report adds that one-third of all electricity generated in Lebanon comes from private generators while 58 percent of households use some form of self generation, such as generators and large batteries. The report has suggested that the funds will be used to partially finance a project to bolster output at the two plants by 272 MW, as part of a wider scheme to increase electricity output in the country by around 1,500 MW to ensure consistent, reliable supplies.

Regional investment

The Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development has reportedly agreed a US $85 million loan to help support upgrade and rehabilitation works at Lebanon’s Zouk and Jiyyeh power plants, according to the Lebanon Daily Star. Under the agreement, Lebanon will repay the loan over a 25 year period.

Despite current power shortages, Lebanon could become a net producer of energy in the years ahead if hydrocarbon fields located in the eastern Mediterranean are found to contain large deposits of oil and natural gas. Lebanese and Cypriot leaders met in January to discuss collaborative exploration of the area. The fields lie between Cyprus, Lebanon and Israel, spanning each country’s exclusive economic zone.  However, unresolved disputes over maritime borders may hinder exploitation of the suspected reserves.

Existing Power Stations

Thermal generation assets in Lebanon
Thermal generation assets in Lebanon

  1. Lebanon’s electricity: Blackout | The Economist.
  2. http://www.utilities-me.com/article-2272-kuwait-set-to-fund-lebanon-power-projects/
  3. http://www.dailystar.com.lb/Business/Lebanon/2013/Aug-24/228465-edl-blames-power-cuts-on-thefts-at-substations.ashx
  4. https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=net.samham.electricity&hl=en

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