x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Blackouts loom in Kuwait as summer sets in

Battered power plants have fuelled fear of outages that have been affecting the country for the past four years.

A view of the Doha West power station in Kuwait.
A view of the Doha West power station in Kuwait.

KUWAIT CITY // As the Kuwaiti summer approaches and residents reach for their air conditioners for relief, power stations that have been ravaged by fires will struggle to meet demand and the country could face widespread blackouts, experts say.

"There's a risk of power cuts," said Mike Wood, a British consultant at the ministry of electricity and water. "We'll get away with it if we don't have any more big plant problems." Electricity blackouts in the hottest summer months have been affecting Kuwait for the past four years. A lack of investment has left power stations ill-equipped to deal with temperatures that can climb to 50° Celsius and demand that is surging annually by nearly seven per cent. This year, the crisis might be worse.

"There was an explosion at one of the Subiya units due to gas leakage into the furnace in December and there was fire damage in March in Doha West," Mr Wood said. Each accident reduced the country's power supply by 300 megawatts. The battered power stations are now expected to produce just four to five per cent more than the peak summer demand of around 10,700MW. In an ideal situation, countries operate with a reserve of between 10 and 15 per cent.

If any of the remaining units fail, the power stations will be unable to meet the country's needs, and the power grid's national control centre will begin "load shedding" - cutting off power to large sections of the city until the problem is resolved. This extreme measure was last taken in 2006. "We were caught out" in 2006, the British expert said. "We had failures on two of the conventional plants and also a new gas turbine plant. We lost something like 800MW."

While 2006 may have been the worst electricity crisis the country has faced in recent years, blackouts have continued every summer since. Mr Wood said they were caused by "problems in the distribution network, but not due to a basic supply and demand mismatch". Amer al Hilal, a Kuwaiti from Surra district, estimates that his house has lost power five times in the past five years. He said: "Sometimes you have generators blowing up because of a lack of maintenance. It's antiquated equipment. We have preprogrammed cuts, and they're going on as we speak. The ministry says the power is going off because of maintenance, but why does it need to go off?

"We have an elevator in our home and I'm afraid to use it because I don't know when the power will go off," Mr al Hilal said. The government ran a campaign two years ago to encourage Kuwaitis to conserve power, and a small meter on the bottom of state-run television would lean towards the "limit" as the country's demand grew. He said it was "psychologically degrading" for the people of a country that is rich and provides aid for developing countries to bolster their power infrastructure to endure such a campaign.

"It's really a very sad story for a country like Kuwait," said Abdulrahman al Anjari, a member of Kuwait's parliament. "Every summer we are facing a contingency plan to increase capacity and the government has to allocate a lot of resources to it. It's a lack of planning; we were too late to invest in the infrastructure." Either because of a poor infrastructure or political choice, poorer areas of the city, such as Jahra in the east, seem to be especially prone to blackouts. Mr al Anjari said: "People there are starting to believe the power is being cut off on purpose."

Ali Hajiah, an associate research scientist at Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research (KISR), believes the residential sector, which consumes 60 per cent of the country's output, is the key to reducing demand. The Gulf countries are among the highest per capita consumers of electricity in the world, he said. "Each person in Kuwait is using 12 times of what each person is using in Egypt; this is mainly due to the large homes and air conditioning."

The period of high demand stretches from June to September and remains high from noon to 10pm. He said for every increase of one degree Celsius, the load on the power stations surges by 170 megawatts. KISR is working on a programme for energy efficiency that could reduce consumption by about 30 per cent, he said. The measures include setting standards for construction companies that will force them to use quality insulation and integrate renewable energy sources into the design.

The government has implemented its own energy conservation measures too. And this year KISR, Kuwait University and the ministry of electricity and water formed a committee to try to reduce the electrical consumption in government buildings. The committee came up with measures such as pre-cooling offices in the off-peak hours before the employees arrived, turning the air conditioners off one hour before the building is vacated and using washers and dryers at night when power demand is lower.

Mr al Hajiah believes the measures were helpful last year, and that new power stations that will come online within the next few years will eliminate the problem for good. "Last year and the year before the power cuts didn't have a severe impact - a few hours for certain areas. We are hoping we won't face a lot of blackouts this year." jcalderwood@thenational.ae