x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Improved Gulf power grid reduces blackouts

The new GCC electricity grid has put an end to power cuts in four countries in the northern Gulf, but the lack of an agreed tariff is hampering more effective use of the $1.4 billionn network, a senior official says.

The new GCC electricity grid has put an end to power cuts in four countries in the northern Gulf but the lack of an agreed tariff is hampering more effective use of the US$1.4 billion (Dh5.14bn) network, a senior official says. The grid, which was connected for the first time last year, has allowed Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Qatar to better handle surges in demand on the hottest summer days.

"Normally there would be load-shedding, there would be scheduled cuts - half-hour here, half-hour there," said Mohammed al Shaikh, the maintenance manager at the GCC Interconnection Authority (GCCIA), based in Dammam. "No single load-shedding event happened this year after the connection." The grid helped cover electricity shortages on the hottest days for as little as a minute or as much as a few hours. On some occasions, the extra supply provided the few seconds needed to start back-up generators, Mr al Shaikh said.

Those four nations linked their power grids last year and began exchanging electricity this year. The UAE and Oman will connect to the grid by the middle of next year, Mr al Shaikh said. Power cuts have been reported in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain this year but were not the result of inadequate supplies, he said. "There are incidents of customers having their load shed but not because of generation, it's because of a burned transformer locally, for example, or a distribution feeder [cable] burned," he said. "These are things we don't get into."

Mr al Shaikh declined to specify which countries made the most use of the grid but Kuwaiti officials said on several occasions last month it helped the country weather a record heat wave that called on all of Kuwait's generating capacity. At one point during the crisis, the country asked for 1,000 megawatts from the GCC grid, government officials told the Kuwait Times. That is equal to 10 per cent of the country's generating capacity.

"Some countries sent us letters of thanks because we saved their system, because they were very much needing it," said Mr al Shaikh. A report released this month by the GCC secretariat showed member states had used power from the grid more than 150 times this year. However, none of the four member states has yet completed a bilateral agreement to buy electricity recurrently from another country, Mr al Shaikh said. He added that member states were close to hammering out an agreement to govern power purchases.

"We at GCCIA provide only a highway. Country A needs to make an agreement with country B," he said. "We have so far been doing only the unscheduled [emergency] energy transfer." One sticking point is setting a price for the power, since electricity rates vary widely across the GCC. Power costs as little as Dh0.05 per kilowatt hour in Saudi Arabia and Dh0.15 for expatriates in Abu Dhabi. Qatar, which maintains a large electricity surplus, said last year it would be willing to export power to neighbours but in May the country's minister of energy and industry Abdullah al Attiyah said the country had not received any "serious proposals" to buy its power.

The GCCIA agreement requires member states to expand their generating capacity to avoid relying too heavily on neighbouring states, Mr al Shaikh said. "I don't want to mention names but some countries had virtually no spare capacity, they were very comfortable because of the interconnection, so they have to rely on the other states to help them," he said. "They've given five years for each country to prepare itself, after that they should really be meeting capacity obligations."

The grid will receive a major boost when the UAE, the region's second-largest power network, plugs in early next year. The GCCIA expects a key substation to be completed in the Western Region by the middle of next year, Mr al Shaikh said. Oman will be connected through the UAE's grid. @Email:cstanton@thenational.ae