Friday, October 15, 2010

Dark days for the Gulf

Commentary - Executive magazine

It’s been a long hot summer. Temperatures hit all-time highs and Ramadan demand put power grids under serious strain across the Middle East. Few countries were spared as power outages hit Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Sharjah, Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Egypt. But in those places suffering from power cuts, people seemed largely unaware of the rest of the region's electricity woes.

A Baghdad grocer adjusts a battery powered lamp in his shop during a power outage this summer

While Lebanese carried out their daily litany of complaints about blackouts, damning and blasting the government, many were surprised when I told them that Sharjah had such an electricity deficiency that residents were sleeping in air conditioned cars to avoid baking in concrete apartment blocks. It was so hot in the emirate that hospitals were inundated with cases of heat stroke and a construction worker died from heat exhaustion.

In Damascus, residents hot under the collar due to a lack of air conditioning knew of Lebanon's long-term electricity conundrum, but were unaware that Saudi Arabia and Kuwait — those rich Gulf countries where many Syrians seek work — were also having blackouts. With an 8 percent annual deficit, the situation was so bad in Saudi Arabia that school children were passing out while taking exams and airplanes were grounded. Kuwait's network hit 99 percent of capacity.

Power shortages in the region's poorer, more corrupt and war ravaged countries — Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon — are daily occurrences and are not unexpected, but why are they happening in the energy-rich Gulf?

The problem is that peak demand occurs every summer at the same time across the region. Populations growing in size and affluence means more air-conditioners — and industrial activity is increasing. All of this, coupled with exceedingly low electricity tariffs and an incredible lack of forward-planning has resulted in a major shortage of megawatts (MW). And without the modern day wonder of air conditioning, the region, particularly the Gulf, is not a place conducive to working or living as the mercury rises.

Thomas Edison, one of the inventors of the light bulb, once said: “I shall make electricity so cheap that only the rich can afford to burn candles.” In much of the Middle East, Edison's saying has been translated as: “We shall make electricity so cheap everyone uses too much of it, and only the rich can afford to run generators.” Lebanon is a case in point, with power “provider” Electricité du Liban to generate $800 million in bills this year, while the Lebanese will spend $1.76 billion on running generators.

But there is hope that such electricity shortages will be abated, with the cuts prompting such furor among the people that governments have been forced to invest in more power production. The Gulf countries are to spend an estimated $200 billion on power plants, Lebanon some $4.7 billion, Iraq up to $10 billion. Everywhere else there are plans for upgrades and new plants. Renewable energy and nuclear power are also in the pipeline, as is the $560 billion Desertec solar power project in North Africa. And if other solar power initiatives get underway in the rest of the Middle East and North Africa, the region will be able to produce up to 470,000 MW of sustainable electricity by 2050, according to research by the German Aerospace Center.

While such initiatives are laudable, practical solutions to the current shortages need to be implemented. It takes around three years to build a conventional power plant, and once output is increased, there is usually a corresponding rise in demand as people use more electricity. It's a vicious cycle.

Before these projects get underway, thinking about how to lower overall consumption across the region should be part of every national power plan. Can we really call a ski slope in a mall in the desert an efficient use of electricity? Do empty office blocks have to be lit up like Christmas trees in the middle of the night? And when the whole of Lebanon lacks electricity, did the Maronite Church have to erect the world’s largest illuminated cross at Qanat Bekish in Mount Lebanon, a 240 foot high construction lit by a staggering 1,800 spotlights?

If temperatures are as high again next year and such wanton waste of electricity continues, power cuts are likely to be worse. In the meantime, higher tariffs to encourage people to use power more wisely would help to ensure more people are sleeping in their houses rather than their cars this time next year.

PAUL COCHRANE is the Middle East correspondent for International News Services

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