For any economy that can grow despite unnerving political uncertainties, for politicians who have stood firm despite large protests and for a people who faced death, destruction and hardship while defiantly sticking to their homes and lands, for all what the Lebanese have been put through, it is quite perplexing how we have not been able to solve our electricity problem, with power cuts part of our daily routine.
A couple of months ago, even Beirut became part of the axis of darkness, joining all other areas in suffering hours of warming fridges, idle AC units and candle-lit TV rooms. Getting round-the-clock power, just like Addis Ababa, Ramallah, Rome or Paris became an illusive dream for most of us.
When a number of people died protesting the power cuts in Beirut’s southern suburb Chiah on January 27, 2008, the only official response that was given to their families, friends and neighbors was that the state-owned Electricité du Liban (EDL) will publish on a regular basis the timing of the power cuts nationally (a promise that has not been kept). Do we not deserve more than a power cuts schedule?
According to various studies, in Lebanon today self generation is 38% of total demand. This capacity is generated by small units that are both polluting and very expensive or the capacity is effectively suppressed.
Private sector to the rescue
For most people, counting on the public sector to try to pull us out of this mess is no longer an option. For most politicians at least, there is now a realization that the private sector should be part of the solution.
Law 462 was a first step in getting the private sector involved. Passed on September 2, 2002, this law calls for the creation of a regulatory authority — similar to the very successful authority presently shaping the telecoms field — to set guidelines for granting licenses, permits and to try to unbundle EDL in into generation, transmission and distribution entities.
Problems in distribution
Distribution is the most politically charged problem facing the national electrical utility. According to a report published in 2006 by CRA, an international consultancy firm based in Boston, as much as 39% of the energy produced by EDL remains uncollected.
As far as we know, science has not yet proven any link between paying EDL’s invoices and religious or political affiliation. We firmly believe that the collection problem is solely due to lack of managerial capacity on the part of EDL. All three privately operating distribution utilities — Aley, Zahle and Jbeil — have diverse customer bases spanning the political and religious spectrum, and have regular collection averages of about 98%.
We believe that blaming any ethnic or political group for the woes in distribution is both misleading and highly unproductive.
Of the remaining 69% that is finally collected, the total amount is not even sufficient to cover the price of fuel used for generation in the first place, let alone pay for the operating expenses or debt repayment by EDL. According to government sources, the average kwh sold by EDL stands around 7.6 c/kwh as best case scenario. (In Aley, the average rate comes to 4.2 c/kwh.) The present cost of generation for EDL according to Kamal Hayek, chairman of the EDL, exceeds 20 c/kwh.
To generate at a cost of over 20 c/kwh and sell only 69% of quantities produced at a fraction of the price is a recipe for disaster.
Fortunately, a solution is presently being devised by EDL, the Ministry of Energy, the Higher Council of Privatization and CRA to invest in modern metering systems to help reduce the losses.
Over and above this effort, the government needs to take the courageous decision to adjust the tariff that it charges to large customers who can afford to pay higher prices. The reality of things is that the government cannot afford to charge the same price for power generated when the oil price was at $30/barrel that it charges when the price becomes $150/barrel. A change in tariff, we believe, is both necessary and inevitable.
In terms of generation, we see a different type of problem. Today, Lebanon has a net capacity of 1,645 MW, according to figures compiled by our research team. On July 26, 2007, peak demand reached 2,275 MW. Generation capacity should be equal to peak demand.
Thus, we need an extra capacity of over 700 MW. According to the World Bank, by 2015 Lebanon needs an additional capacity of 1,500 MW.
The capacity available today is dangerously undiversified, with 95% of the generation based on heavy fuel oil (i.e. Jieh, Zouk) or gas oil (i.e. Beddawi, Zahrani). The cost of generation that is dependent on these types of fuels highly correlates to the price of the raw material, where the variable cost of energy is dominant in the cost structure. By contrast, nuclear energy or renewables require very high capital expenditure, but running costs are usually not volatile.
Even if we had enough money to pay for proper maintenance and operation and for the fuel for all our power plants, we would still urgently need additional capacity adapted to the available sources or fuels.
We need to devise and enact plans to get gas to the Zahrani and Sour power plants, invest in renewable energy via the rehabilitation of existing hydro capacity and encouraging investments in new ones and, finally, prepare for the establishment of new capacity in Salaata, Chekka or wherever possible.
Most of these plans are not feasible for a number of years, especially if the government decides to get the extra capacity using clean coal technology, a source of energy that will help in diversifying our production capacity and lower our overall cost.
Today, the government would save large sums of money, and provide additional capacity, if it acts to make sure that we finally get Egyptian gas running to Lebanon’s Beddawi power plant thus saving us millions of dollars of unnecessary expenses every year. Also, plans to give another brown field license for a power plant next to Beddawi should be encouraged by the government, and the process should be speeded up. (Studies are presently being undertaken by the IFC, the private arm of the World Bank.)
Short-term generation projects, which are also very sustainable in the long term, should be supported by the government. That would make a very important first step in getting the private sector on board.
These projects are the results of an MOU which was signed with the government in November 2007 to add a total of 240 MW to the national grid. Of the four MOUs signed, our ISO 9001 certified company, a private distribution utility established in 1924 and based in Aley, signed the understanding to add 60 MW of additional capacity.
Electrical utility of Aley
We have finished our plans for the new power station some months ago, and it will be based on the most efficient technology to be used with heavy fuel oil, the cheapest type of petroleum product after natural gas. This technology will help save the government anywhere from $20 million per year (when compared to Jieh power plant) to $100 million (when compared to the Baalbek power plant).
Other advantages of the projects include:
• Short term delivery (by early 2010 with government support)
• Proximity to transmission grid
• Proximity to Beirut and Mount Lebanon (over half of national demand)
• Situated in an industrial area
• Could act as replacement capacity if existing power plants decommissioned as planned
• Meets World Bank and local environmental standards
• Provides base load, round the clock production with availability exceeding 95%
• 100% privately financed, without any debt carried by the government
• Privately built, operated and maintained with performance results guaranteed to the government via internationally recognized standardized contracts
We have been in negotiations with relevant ministries and are hopeful that, finally, the private sector will be allowed to share the responsibility with the government and provide the solutions for the crippled industry sooner than we’ve learned to expect. Also, we have received a lot of interest from private parties to support our efforts in the project.
Another interesting project is the one prepared by Lebanon Wind Power, a company founded by Robert Debbas, an established businessman with an outstanding reputation and Cesar Nahas, an authority in promoting wind farms throughout the world.
The company has developed plans for a 60 MW wind farm in northern Lebanon. Such a project will not only add much needed clean and sustainable capacity to the national grid, but could well be one of the most productive farms in the area.
The private sector can solve the problem that has crippled our country for over three decades. We can solve it faster and cheaper and are willing to bet our own money on results and not just on promises.
The government has been quite supportive, but this is not enough. Laws should be enacted quickly in order to give the private sector the assurances it needs to invest the large sums of money required. Once this is done, and the private sector takes its share of responsibility, then and only then can we see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Albert Khoury is the deputy general manager at the Electrical Utility of Aley