Few solutions to Arab world’s power outages

Blackouts in the region have causes beyond current wars and armed conflicts.

al-monitor A fisherman travels on a boat on the Nile in front of the South Cairo Electricity Distribution Co. and power station at the Imbaba area in Cairo, June 5, 2015.  Photo by REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh.

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solar energy, power outages, energy demand, electricity, electrical outages, business, arab countries

Jul 1, 2015

Power outages have increased in Arab countries, becoming a “fad” that reappears every summer. Oddly enough, the number of blackout hours increases year after year, with such outages commonplace in some countries for decades, without any serious attempt to remedy the situation. Even stranger is that outages endure for days on end in some regions. It seems obvious that, from now on, we're destined to put up with ever-increasing power outages, as the phenomenon spreads to more cities and Arab countries. Such is our fate in these atrocious times, when blackouts are but another manifestation of these bad times; our only salvation lies in the need to pay rising private electricity bills, to placate the owners thereof and satisfy their thirst for fuel.

The latest news published on Iraqi social networks is that some neighborhoods of Basra have endured three consecutive days of outages, at a time when temperatures ranged from 45 to 50 degrees Celsius [113 to 122 Fahrenheit], with the residents of those affected areas demonstrating in the streets and clashing with police and pro-government militias.

In Lebanon, power outages still occur for at least three hours a day in Beirut, and between 16 to 18 hours in other areas. The only salvation out of this dire situation comes in the form of expensive generators that spew noise and pollution, although some families choose not to subscribe for such services because of their exorbitant cost.

The official pretext for these outages is the damage that befell power stations during successive wars and armed conflicts, as well as the lack of money to invest in new stations. Today, power outages are increasing in other countries, too, with officials there claiming that they are because of a lack of fuel needed to run those stations, particularly ones that operate on natural gas.

Ironically, the Middle East has huge gas reserves. Yet, the problem lies elsewhere: poor planning, a culture of corruption and lack of cooperation between neighboring countries to export and import electricity on a regional basis. Moreover, gas trade among Arab countries remains limited to two or three projects.

In most Arab countries, petroleum products are used to fuel power stations. But new stations now increasingly run on gas, as the latter is environmentally cleaner, and because oil-exporting countries maximize their profits by exporting oil instead of gas.

But, what is the cause of this disregard to adopting alternatives, such as solar and wind power, or the possibility of private sector participation in the generation of power? Why this insistence on remaining under the thumb of state-owned power companies that are delinquent in fulfilling their duties, or lack the capital needed to expand their operations? Why is private capital not being increasingly used to build and operate power stations, instead of such capital being employed in the real estate, trade, import and export sectors? Why is solar power not receiving the attention that it deserves, particularly in households, where it can be used to run heaters or provide rural areas with electricity? Why not use wind power?

These resources are available in our countries, as they are available in the rest of the world; in fact, our region of the globe has an excess of solar energy, equal in importance to its huge oil and gas reserves.

Some countries have undertaken to use gas on a wide-scale basis — such as Qatar, Algeria, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. Saudi Arabia is also endeavoring to discover unassociated instead of associated gas reserves, in order to dissociate electric power availability from the production of petroleum, from whence associated gas emanates.

And then there's Jordan, which relied on gas imported from Egypt to power its stations and industrial complexes. But the relevant agreement has been terminated because of the supply disruptions caused by the repeated sabotaging of the el-Arish pumping station over the last few years and as a result of the parties disagreeing about the price. As a result, Jordan is trying to import liquefied gas from Qatar, not to mention from other countries, such as Israel.

The difficulty in importing gas lies in finding a source that remains stable for decades — unlike oil, which can be imported through numerous means and from various sources. In this regard, Lebanon sits on important offshore gas reserves, which it has been tardy in exploiting for many reasons, including squabbling between its senior politicians. Because of these delays, if gas is discovered, it's not expected to be produced before the middle of the coming decade.

Furthermore, the possibility of using gas to power electricity producing stations will require additional time, especially if political bickering continues, with partisan and private interests prevailing.

Some Arab countries have begun wide-scale use of alternative sustainable energy sources. At the forefront of those is the UAE, which is currently building nuclear power plants, as well the Masdar solar power projects. Jordan is also moving toward adopting solar power, albeit at a slower pace. In parallel, private sector participation in the generation and distribution of electricity is being tried out in Iraqi Kurdistan and the Lebanese Bekaa city of Zahleh.

These are but some examples, which, if anything, clearly denote the fact that alternatives are few and their capacity is limited insofar as disengaging from state-owned power companies, which now require support and renewed participation to satisfy the needs of industrialized modern countries, while ensuring the comfort of their citizens.

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