x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Solution for Sharjah's power cuts?

Outages in the emirate have been a disaster for the emirate's utility company, and a long-term fix could take years and cost billions of dirhams.

Frequent and unannounced power cuts have been plunging Sharjah into darkness.
Frequent and unannounced power cuts have been plunging Sharjah into darkness.

The short-term solution to Sharjah's power problems might be as easy as implementing a more constructive customer relations strategy. A long-term fix could take years and cost billions of dirhams. The Sharjah Electricity and Water Authority (Sewa), owned by the emirate, has made a practice of stonewalling over power cuts that seem to occur regularly every year. Consequently, its customers, including Sharjah families and businesses that have been harmed both economically and personally, are up in arms about the lack of information and preventative measures. However, conservation alone will not add capacity to the power production infrastructure or completely solve the problem of an increasing number of businesses chasing a static amount of electricity. Making the most of what is already in place and planning for higher consumption in future years appears to be imperative after the most recent series of cuts inconvenienced consumers and caused blackout-related deaths. "When people, consumers, are feeling let down, it's fairly predictable what they want to hear: that the company cares, what the company is doing to fix the problem, what the company is doing to make sure it doesn't happen again," said Rob Sherwin, a director at Register Larkin, an international crisis management consultancy. "To respond convincingly, you have got to have a very firm plan of action." From a consumer standpoint, measures as simple as turning off lights, televisions and computers that are not in use and setting air conditioning thermostats higher would help lower consumption and bills. Businesses could be consulted on a load-shedding plan, which would involve a schedule of rolling power cuts to prevent large swathes of the emirate losing power when Sewa cannot meet peak demand. However, the utility has yet to take that step. It also has yet to ask consumers to help with conservation measures or responded to their complaints. That state of affairs is hindering the solution process, said Robert Byrniak, the chief executive of Golden Sands Management Consulting, a Dubai energy consultancy. "My view now is that it's all about communications," he said. "Consumers have been calling and getting no response. Everyone understands when you have a tough situation, but people need to know the facts." Sewa also needs to implement "far more aggressive" energy conservation programmes, Mr Byrniak said. Dr Aisha al Roumi, a Sharjah resident who has a seat on the Federal National Council (FNC), agreed that Sewa should have been more in tune with the emirate's residents. "At least they should tell them the time and the area where the electricity will be cut so people can prepare themselves," she said. "The great carelessness in dealing with people, to be honest, is a bad action in my opinion." That lack of communication is also apparent at Federal level. The Abu Dhabi Water and Electricity Authority (Adwea), the biggest UAE utility, is responsible for supplying Abu Dhabi and the northern emirates with power. Those duties do not apply to Sharjah, where the government has opted for an independent electricity system. Adwea can supply Sharjah if notified in advance of the emirate's requirements. However, it operates on a five-year planning cycle because of the difficulty of increasing power supplies on short notice, which makes responding to an emergency call for help all but impossible. To make matters worse, Adwea officials have said Sewa badly underestimated how much Sharjah's power demands would increase as its government encouraged industrial expansion. Further, the emirate did not request enough power from Abu Dhabi during the last planning cycle. As a consequence, Adwea built less new generating capacity than it might have done. Abu Dhabi is taking steps to address the looming nationwide gas and electricity crunch through a US$40 billion (Dh146.8bn) programme to build nuclear power stations. The first of those plants will not be in service until 2017. Details of how the generated electricity would be distributed have not been finalised. However, FNC members from Sharjah said they would not raise the electricity issue at the council since it was not a Federal problem. Although each emirate is allocated a set number of FNC seats, members are expected to represent the whole of the country and not their individual emirates. As such, Sharjah must make infrastructure plans to boost its power output on its own, for the short term at least. The emirate could build small photovoltaic arrays, such as the one powering the development of the Masdar City project in Abu Dhabi, which could be installed and connected to the electricity grid relatively quickly. Wind power could also be harnessed from offshore facilities such as those either already in service or being built both onshore and offshore in Europe. "You add a little bit here and there, and it can make all the difference," Mr Byrniak said. There is also the possibility of building newer and bigger conventional power plants in Sharjah in anticipation of future demand, a process that can be time-consuming in both construction and regulatory terms. A large gas-fired power plant takes about two to three years to build, including the time required to obtain the necessary permits. The timing of the permit process is variable depending on the jurisdiction. Building those plants is not cheap. Abu Dhabi's 2,000mw Shuweihat 2 power plant, currently under construction, has an estimated cost of $3.5bn. It is designed to run on gas but can be switched to diesel. Whatever the solution, Sewa faces an unparalleled crisis. Still, the utility might be able to turn a negative into a positive and lead the emirate out of the darkness with decisive moves, Mr Sherwin said. "It is really going to affect Sharjah's reputation as an emirate," he said. "Crises are great opportunities for leaders to shine. Making it a two-way dialogue to discuss with people what they could do to help would be a start." tcarlisle@thanational.ae kshaheen@thenational.ae