x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Lebanon short of electricity

Lebanon is desperate for energy, and the race to tap the large natural gas reserves located in the eastern Mediterranean has whet the public's interest.

BEIRUT // Mike Khalil's three children have become used to studying by the flicker of a candle. The barber lives in Beirut's Hamra neighbourhood, which like many others in the Lebanese capital, is without power for between three and six hours every day.

Lebanon is desperate for energy, and the race to tap the large natural gas reserves located in the eastern Mediterranean has whet the public's interest.

But the country starts with a major disadvantage. Its attempts at oil and gas exploration attempts have been hindered by a succession of political upheavals and conflicts, the latest being the collapse of the government earlier this month.

That means the chronic power problems of Mr Khalil and other Lebanese are unlikely to end any time soon.

"I have no generator in my house," he said, "so my three kids often have to study by candlelight".

When it came to his business, however, Mr Khalil, 65, had no choice but to invest some US$4,000 (Dh14,700) in one. "During the three-hour power cuts every day, I could lose seven to 10 customers so instead I bought my own generator," he explained. "Everybody is their own government here. They provide themselves with their own basic services."

Things are worse in mountain villages such as Aley, where people have grown accustomed to being without power for between 10 and 12 hours a day. These days, village residents look elsewhere than to the government for power.

"They cut the electricity in the morning two hours, in the afternoon four hours, and in the evening six hours," said Nohad Tanneos, 70, sitting in her living room with the television murmuring in the background. "So I talked to the owner of the generators in the village and he gave me a subscription for private electricity."

The owner of the diesel-powered generators is Wahid el Rayess, the village "glimmer man." Wearing a grimy anorak, he salutes residents left and right as he walks around the village. Men such as Mr el Rayess are a fixture in villages and urban neighbourhoods across Lebanon. For a monthly fee, his 13 generators - peppered around the village - will give you electricity when the government cannot.

"Our subscriptions are really simple," Mr el Rayess said, standing close to two generators tucked among a clutch buildings in a quiet corner of Aley. "We put a cable directly from one of these generators and run it all the way to the customer's house."

Lebanon's outages and ad hoc private energy sector are just some of the products of this country's energy crisis. Its ageing power infrastructure is unable to match the country's growing demand. Right now, the government provides some 1,900 megawatts annually, or just 60 per cent of its people's electricity needs.

"We are in desperate need of new infrastructure," said Ziad Hayek, secretary general for the government's Higher Council for Privatization. "There has been very little investment in infrastructure in Lebanon since the mid-1990s."

The Ministry of Energy and Water has pledged to overhaul its power generation and distribution capabilities.

"On one side, we have a deficit in generation and on the other side we have a very high cost of generation," said Gebran Bassil, the minister of water and energy. "We have to reach equilibrium on both sides."

One way to reach that balance may be natural gas. The conviction is growing in government that solution lies off its coast.

Lebanon's power plants run on diesel and oil. Running them on natural gas could help the country relieve some of its $50 billion debt.

Lebanon now imports natural gas from Egypt to power half of one of its power plants and "it is saving us $120 million a year" said Mr Bassil. "If it's a full power plant, we're talking about $250 million."

If the natural gas was produced domestically, the savings would be even greater.

It could be as long as eight years before Lebanon sees its first domestic gas being used for energy generation, and that is supposing that regional political tensions or internal sectarian gripes do not complicate or halt the process.

The January 12 government collapse has already taken a toll. A round of licensing for drillers scheduled for October is now likely to be delayed until next year, said Wissam Zahabi, who advises Lebanon's Council of Ministers on energy matters.

Petroleum Geo-Services ASA, which has conducted seismic surveys off Lebanon in 2006 to 2008, is holding off on more mapping until the timing has been settled.

"We have a wait-and-see attitude," said Sverre Strandenes, an executive vice president at the Lysaker, Norway-based company. "We require a certain level of safety and stability."

But with Israel's enormous gas finds in recent years, many in Lebanon's energy sector see the possibility of gas off its coast as a key component of any long-term solution to the country's woes.

"The situation with electricity is very bad," said Nohad Tanneos, back in her mountain village of Aley.

"If you see outside the house, there are three generators and smoke is coming up from them all the time. I'd prefer to get my electricity from the government than the generators."

* The National