x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Sharjah power cuts blamed on energy shortage

Sources cite a failed contract to provide natural gas and the high cost of its replacement, diesel, for the outages.

Power cuts are taking a toll on many businesses across the emirate.
Power cuts are taking a toll on many businesses across the emirate.

SHARJAH // The crippling power cuts that are costing Sharjah businesses tens of thousands of dirhams and forcing residents to sleep outside of their sweltering homes have been blamed on a shortage of natural gas and the high cost of its replacement, diesel. The Sharjah Electricity and Water Authority (Sewa) routinely declines to comment on the causes of the power cuts. During last year's cuts, it said the problem lay with the high summer demand.

As the emirate was hit once again yesterday by power cuts, The National conducted an investigation to try to find the cause of them. No one would speak on the record, but engineers and experts, some of them involved with Sewa, said last year's power cuts were actually the result of a lack of fuel, spurred by the failure of a deal to deliver natural gas. They speculated that this year's cuts were likely to have the same cause, but said the emirate could take advantage of the national grid to request more power from the capital, or order more fuel, such as natural gas.

The process could take time, however, in which case there would be few short-term solutions for Sharjah's power shortage. "There were some financial problems," said one university professor, who said he discussed last year's power cuts with Sewa officials. "Some of them said the problem was not a lack of generation or high demand, it was a shortage of natural gas. But officially they do not say this."

It was unclear why the shortage occurred, he said. A water engineer who left Sewa last year after the power cuts and knew some of the engineers involved in dealing with them, claimed a deal for the supply of natural gas from a neighbouring country had fallen through, forcing the authority to rely on diesel for generating electricity, which can be up to three times more expensive. "They don't want to say there are financial problems so they attribute it to technical issues," said the university professor.

With the shortage in natural gas, some generators ground to a halt. Since the generators could not supply enough power, Sewa had to rely on rolling blackouts, or "load shedding", it was suggested. "Load shedding means they have a shortage in generation. If demand is too high, then they start looking for areas to cut off the power so other areas keep getting the power, then they would cut the power off in other areas and return the power to the first one."

"It's a rotation," he added. "The problem at the time [last year] was a shortage in gas supply," said the water engineer who used to work for Sewa. "So they had to rely on diesel, which is triple the price." One reason it is more expensive is that it requires additional refining to remove sulphur, without which the use of diesel would be harsher on the environment. "At the same time last year there was a malfunction in one of the turbines, so it was two problems together", he said.

Steam is often used to drive turbines in generators, allowing them to produce electricity. "What I think is the case [this year] is that they have a shortage in power," said one transmission engineer with the Abu Dhabi Water and Electricity Authority (Adwea), who, like the others, asked not to be named. "So they are being forced to cut power from one area to the next, instead of the whole system being overloaded and losing power in all of Sharjah."

"They are cutting the power one time from the Gamal Abdel Nasser area, another time from Al Wahda Street, then al Nahda. It's almost as if they have a schedule where they will cut power from here, then from here," he said. Sewa's power plants are probably operating at maximum capacity, he added. "Diesel fuel is very expensive so they are relying on load shedding. That could be closer to the truth," said one distribution engineer at the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority.

"The solution is simply to get more fuel, such as natural gas," he said, which, he added, Sewa could buy from Abu Dhabi, or neighbouring countries. Another solution is for Sewa to buy more electricity from Abu Dhabi. Adwea now sells electricity to Sewa and the Federal Electricity and Water Authority, which provides utilities to the northern Emirates. "The transfer [of extra electricity] does not happen overnight," said the Adwea transmission engineer.

The supply usually depends on a "demand forecast" that informs Adwea how much power Sewa will need, which then allows the agency to plan how much power to produce while maintaining backup power capacity, he said. @Email:kshaheen@thenational.ae