x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Sharjah swelters in the dark again

Just as they were recovering from four days of power cuts last week, residents and businesses have been hit by further blackouts.

Workers at a machine shop in Sharjah's Industrial Area 1 use an acetylene torch to light up the premises during yesterday's power cuts.
Workers at a machine shop in Sharjah's Industrial Area 1 use an acetylene torch to light up the premises during yesterday's power cuts.

SHARJAH // For the second week running, thousands of residents and businesses were hit by power cuts yesterday, depriving them of light and air conditioning amid sweltering temperatures.

The power cuts began on Wednesday afternoon. Yesterday, the affected areas included all of the emirate's industrial zones and the University of Sharjah. The blackouts came as a huge blow to residents and business owners who were just getting back to normal following four days of power failures last week. The Sharjah Electricity and Water Authority (Sewa) blamed last week's problems on a sudden breakdown at a power plant, presumably the result of high summer demand. Yesterday, officials declined to comment.

Residents, though, were furious. Sajeela, 30, an Indian who lives in the Al Wahda district, said her two-year-old child could not sleep without air conditioning, which meant that the family had to take her to a relative's home on Wednesday evening. "We understand they have maintenance problems. Even in our country we have load shedding, but they should tell us in advance so that we can get prepared," said Sajeela, suggesting that the authorities were cutting power to save energy.

Without electricity, Tahrir Abdullah, 54, of Yarmouk, wondered what he and his family would do for iftar. "I can't take out a family of eight to a restaurant," said Mr Abdullah, who works in telecommunications. "Imagine how much it's going to cost me? This is not fair." The power cuts not only placed an added burden on those already parched of water from their Ramadan fasts. Industry was again deprived of the chance to generate revenue in an already grim economic climate.

Sharjah is home to an estimated 40 per cent of the UAE's manufacturing sector, employing 750,000 people. Its woes could have serious implications across the country. "Every time the power goes, I make a loss of more than Dh2,000 (US$540)," said Saeed Abdrahman, owner of Kanou, a small grocery store in the industrial area. "All my refrigeration stops working and I have to throw away a lot of things."

Last week's power cuts first struck the industrial areas as well as Hamriya Free Zone, an economic centre that is home to 10,000 people. By the following day, they had spread throughout the emirate. Yesterday's blackouts serve as another reminder that Sharjah faces serious energy shortages, analysts say, in part because of its dependence on other emirates that face their own production problems. "Sharjah doesn't have the capacity within its own area to satisfy its own demand, so it's dependent on imports" for about half of its consumption, said Douglas Caskie, associate director of IPA Energy + Water Economics, an international consulting firm.

"The situation is that Sharjah has to get some emergency power plants up and running very quickly to rectify the situation." But the cuts also appear symptomatic of a national energy strategy based around a conflicting, as well as confusing, patchwork of federal and local authorities. As well as in Sharjah, electricity shortages have long been an issue in the northern Emirates. Ajman, Fujairah, Ras al Khaimah and Umm al Qaiwain, reliant on the Federal Electricity and Water Authority, have faced acute shortages for years.

According to a study, yet to be released, by the Federal National Council, about 1,000 commercial buildings in these emirates have yet to be connected to the federal grid. It is a situation that analysts say is likely to persist until supply catches up with demand. This, though, could be some time in coming, partly because energy demand stemming from the nationwide construction boom, stretching back years, may still not have reached its peak.

"The interesting thing is that, given the economic situation, you would have thought there would have been a decrease in the growth of demand," said Robert Bryniak, chief executive of Golden Sands Management Consulting, an energy consultancy based in Abu Dhabi. "But I don't think that's the case. What's happened is that you had a construction boom in the last few years, and now these premises and office towers are being delivered and are starting to be connected to the power grid. Now, you're actually seeing growth in demand from all that construction materialise."

However, the country's capacity to satisfy this demand has fallen short, evidence of which can be found in the rapidly increasing use of generators across much of the northern Emirates. That option, though, is an expensive one. "For anyone who thinks they're going to use generators for a long-term period as a major source of supply, I think they're in serious trouble," said Mr Bryniak. "I would say generators are five to eight times more expensive than the real cost of energy by the time you factor in the cost of the fuel.

"As a short-term measure, it's quite common for hotels, hospitals, large commercial buildings to have generator back-up. But, for a long period of time, it's very costly." Yet alternatives appear to be scarce. Abu Dhabi, on which Sharjah and the rest of the UAE relied for energy, has its own electricity production problems, said Mr Caskie. "The story is economic as well as political," he said. "But Sharjah's problems at the moment can be traced back to some of the problems in Abu Dhabi, which are a bit wider than just overloading the line."

Although capable of satisfying its own demand, Abu Dhabi had still had trouble acquiring enough gas to run its five major power plants. This had created a situation in which the emirate was more intent on first supplying its own residents. "The issue for Abu Dhabi is that, because of the gas supply constraints, I'm not too sure it can make the capacity commitments to look after the requirements of its younger brothers in the other emirates," said Mr Caskie.

But for Imran, 50, a mechanic in Sharjah's industrial area, the issue was more about fairness, for the emirate's industrial areas were hit much harder than the rest of the country. "It's not fair that we in the industrial area have to suffer so much because of this," he shouted as sweat poured off him. "This heat, it makes me very unhappy. We're suffering." ykakande@thenational.ae hnaylor@thenational.ae