Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1152, 13 - 19 June 2013
Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Issue 1152, 13 - 19 June 2013

Ahram Weekly

As darkness looms...

As people learn to live with the power cuts that have been affecting the country, Hayat Yehia wonders if there is light at the end of the tunnel

Al-Ahram Weekly

“I don’t want the electricity to run the air-conditioning. Water doesn’t reach my apartment unless the pump is on, so if there is a power cut I have to fill a lot of pots with water and keep them around the house just in case, which introduces a whole new level of complication,” said Hind, a teacher in Qalioubiya governorate. Her husband, Mohamed, who runs a dairy shop, said that the recent power cuts had caused his stock of milk and cheese to go bad. The business had been hit hard by the financial loss, and he doubted whether it would recover.  
Nahla, who lives in an upscale Cairo neighbourhood, has also been hit by the power outages. “The electricity seems to go off just as I arrive home from work. I have to wait at the building’s entrance for over an hour until the elevators start working again. There is no way I can walk up to my flat on the 15th floor in my current state, being seven months pregnant,” she said.
The problems faced by Mohamed, Hind and Nahla are serious, but they still pale in comparison with those faced by others. Parents whose babies are in incubators, for example, for whom every day that passes and every power cut can be a matter of life and death.
In an attempt to solve the problems that Egypt has been facing, experts met in Cairo recently to discuss renewable energy, but ironically the power went off during the meeting itself and the ecological experts were forced to go on talking in candlelight. Even the government hasn’t survived unscathed. During a meeting presided over by Minister of Supply Bassem Ouda two weeks ago, a power cut occurred and the officials had to confer in semi-darkness.
No wonder, then, that power cuts have become a daily topic of conversation across the country, sometimes causing protests and demonstrations. On more than one occasion, disgruntled citizens have cut off roads to make their point, and the usual round of jokes has been making its way across Facebook and Twitter.

THE EXTENT OF THE PROBLEM: Power cuts were uncommon during the later years of the rule of ousted former president Hosni Mubarak, except perhaps in some remote areas. It was only after the 25 January Revolution that the darkness found its way onto the streets of the country’s larger towns and cities.
Yet, it wasn’t until this summer that the problem began to get out of hand, forcing the government to introduce a system of alternating power cuts. Theoretically, the power cuts last for one hour at a time, but in some governorates outages of several hours have occurred, prompting a wave of protests and road-blocks.
On 21 May, nationwide protests occurred across the country in protest against the power outages. Even the once-glittering Sharm El-Sheikh resort was not immune, and as darkness fell recently the city’s bazaars failed to light up, causing tourists to stay in their hotels. Since much commercial activity in Sharm El-Sheikh is conducted at night, merchants were the first to suffer.
In Damietta, residents of the town of Kafr Al-Battikh demonstrated in front of the municipality building and the local power station in protest against the outages. In Edfu near Aswan, citizens blocked roads leading to the city centre, setting tyres on fire and stopping traffic on a bridge to show their impatience.
Upping the ante, the Edfu protesters then blocked the railway connecting Cairo and Aswan, causing considerable disruption to train traffic. In Mahalla in the Delta, dozens of people cut off Bahr Street in front of the city council building, blocking traffic in both directions. Power outages were occurring four times a day disrupting business and preventing students from studying for their finals, they complained.
In Kafr Al-Sheikh, nearly 200 small workshop owners and workers blocked the Desouk-Damanhour-Alexandria Road, complaining that the frequent power outages had made it impossible for them to work. A workshop owner cited by Reuters said that “we are suffering immense losses, cannot work, cannot finish commissions on time, and cannot buy supplies. We cannot even support our families, because we are not finishing the work our clients have asked us to do.”
One former official at the Ministry of Electricity speaking on condition of anonymity blamed the problem on disruptions to work schedules, saying that the protests that have been taking place in the country have affected the operation of the country’s power stations.
The ministry has found itself unable to build new facilities or operate old ones, he said, adding that when the ministry has tried to buy land to build more power plants the owners have refused to sell it at reasonable prices. As a result, plans to build three new power plants have been put on hold.
Hamed Emara, former chairman of the Rural Electricity Organisation, said that after the Revolution sporadic action by local inhabitants in some areas had disrupted power supplies. In some cases, people had expelled experts and workers from power stations or closed down electricity facilities to press their demands.
“Sometimes, one family would close the station and stage a sit-in in its grounds to pressure the ministry to appoint their sons to the company. This happened even when the sons could not read and write,” Emara said. As a result, not only had the building of new power stations been delayed, but the maintenance of existing ones had been hindered.
According to experts, no new power stations have been brought into service since 2012, although some are nearing completion, such as those at Ain Sokhna, Banha and Giza. Minister of Electricity Ahmed Imam has said that his ministry is doing its utmost to remedy the situation. Speaking at a conference in January, Imam promised to build three conventional power stations that would produce a total of 5,500 megawatts (MW) at a total cost of $5.3 billion. The three stations would be offered for tender to Egyptian and foreign investors as soon as the government had worked out the details, he said.
However, the government has had difficulty attracting financing for major projects and offering investors the right kind of incentives. With foreign currency reserves dwindling fast, it has sometimes been unable to buy the fuel to keep the current plants operating at full throttle. A former Electricity Ministry official who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly on condition of anonymity said that funding had become a real problem.
“The Ministry of Electricity makes a request to the Ministry of Petroleum, which makes a request in turn to the Ministry of Finance, but the latter doesn’t have the money. So who’s going to pay for the new plants,” he asked.
Former petroleum minister Osama Kamal cited another problem. The current power stations are working at efficiency rates as low as 23 or 25 per cent, he said. This means that if they were upgraded, they could produce the same volume of electricity with half the amount of fuel.
Egypt’s supply of foreign currency dipped from $35 billion or so in January 2011 to about $13 billion today. In a country that relies on fuel imports to cover its various needs, it is becoming hard to foot the $30 million a day bill needed to keep the darkness at bay.
There is also the question of priorities: should the dwindling supply of foreign currency be spent on fuel, or food, bearing in mind that Egypt imports nearly 70 per cent of its food from abroad?
Some people say that the supply of power from the Aswan High Dam has also decreased of late, something which Emara denies. The contribution of the High Dam to the total production of electricity in the country had declined over the years, he said, but this trend had not started recently. At present, Egypt depends on the Dam for less than 10 per cent of its total electricity needs.
Emara said that production may decrease further as a result of the building of Ethiopia’s controversial Renaissance Dam. “I fear that High Dam electricity production may decrease, because hydroelectric power depends on the speed of the water in the River Nile,” he said, and this is decreasing.
What all this amounts to is that the power cuts may now offer the only solution to the current shortages. Fortunately, the power cuts seem to have become less frequent over the past three weeks, especially in Cairo.

CONTRIBUTING TO THE PROBLEM: The government was looking for ways to provide a steady supply of natural gas to the country’s power stations over the summer months, said Petroleum Minister Sherif Haddara. But this was likely to be an uphill struggle, as the fasting month of Ramadan, in which electricity consumption routinely goes up, is coming up in summer this year.
Emara said that it was unfair to blame the current government for the cuts. Electricity outages started in 2007, he said, the first year in which the country’s consumption outstripped its supply of electricity by about 500 MW. Before that, both production and consumption had gone up together by seven or eight per cent per year.
In 2007, power consumption went up by 13 per cent, mostly because of the hotter summer and the rise in the use of air-conditioning units. Since about four years is needed to build a new power station, there is no way to reverse the current problems overnight.
Egypt produces nearly 23,000 MW of power at present, about 4,000 MW short of the 27,000 MW it consumes. The shortage can go up to 7,000 MW during the summer, when consumption goes up. The problem is complicated further by the fact that heat impairs the efficiency of the power stations, which means that the supply of electric power can actually go down as demand rises.
According to Emara, Egypt is one of the few countries in the world in which household usage of electricity outstrips industrial usage. Worldwide, households represent about 30 per cent of the total consumption of electricity, with 60 per cent going to industry and another 10 per cent to miscellaneous usages. In Egypt, households take up 50 per cent of the total, with industry only using 30 per cent, he said.
Kamal noted that the longer summer days also contributed to the problem. “Electricity consumption worldwide peaks from 8am to 5pm. On a summer day in Egypt, peak-level consumption starts at about 10am and goes on until 6am the next day.” In summer, he added, households and shops combined accounted for nearly 70 per cent of electricity consumption in the country.
According to officials, Egypt’s six million air-conditioning units are a major part of the problem. One AC, if run for a whole day, uses the same amount of power needed to operate all the lights in a house plus the washing machine and fridge for an entire week, according to experts.
A recent study by an international financial organisation said that Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Iran were the most wasteful countries with energy worldwide, due to the fact that all three subsidise energy use. “The waste of energy in Iran began to recede after it liberated its energy prices three years ago,” said Ahmed Gad, head of research at the Dubai-based EFG-Hermes.
Because of the excessive domestic consumption of electricity in Egypt, the government has launched a campaign urging the public to cut down on its energy use. According to Emara, there is a lot of waste in electricity consumption by municipalities, especially when local officials want to make a point. “Mayors love to put up a lot of lampposts to give the impression they are doing something for the community instead of actually doing something useful,” he said.
Economising on street lighting, if applied nationwide, could bring down the nation’s electricity bill.
Bahaa Al-Adli, chief of the energy committee at the investors association of Badr Industrial City, said that his association had managed to bring down consumption of electricity by about 25 per cent as a result of reducing street lighting. This was done by using motion sensors that turn on the lights when pedestrians and cars are passing and also by using energy-saving bulbs. The measures had brought down the cost of operating one lamppost from LE72 per month to LE55, he said, adding that the cost of introducing these changes could be recouped in five months.
In an attempt to slow rises in consumption, the government has also increased the price of electricity. Imam said that in 2012 the Electricity Ministry had introduced a sliding-scale fee for electricity bills, which charged the lowest rates to households with modest consumption while slamming higher rates on those that used a lot of electricity.
Under the current pricing system, a family that uses less than 50 kilowatt (KW) per month only pays five piastres per KW. A family using 150-350 KW per month pays 12 piastres per KW. Households using 350 to 600 KW per month are charged 23 piastres per KW, and those using more than 600 KW are charged 65 piastres per KW.
To discourage families from wasting energy, households using more than 1,000 KW per month are likely to see their bills increase even more in the future, Ouda said.

REACTIONS FROM ANGER TO SARCASM: Public discontent with the present outages has been such that in various governorates, including Gharbiya and Alexandria, citizen groups have begun challenging the government. Mesh Dafein, or “we’re not going to pay,” has been the rallying cry of these groups, which urge the public to stop paying electricity bills.
Speaking to Reuters, the electricity minister accused the groups of acting irresponsibly, pointing out that during power outages electricity meters register zero consumption, which means that households are not being charged because of the outages. The minister, however, admitted that total unpaid bills in the past two months had reached LE2 billion.
On Facebook and Twitter, the government has become the butt of jokes, with many blaming the Muslim Brotherhood and President Mohamed Morsi for the outages.
The Brotherhood has been trying to deflect criticism by portraying the outages as a good thing. Climbing the stairs is better for health than taking the lift, some Brotherhood supporters have said. Others have joked that they’d rather have a power outage than watch television talk shows with Lamis Al-Hadidi, Khairi Ramadan, and Mahmoud Saad — all vocal critics of the Brotherhood.
One post on the Brotherhood’s Facebook page said that “darkness soothes the eyes and strengthens the hearing and touch, and it increases demand for candles and matches, which encourages local industry. Darkness also brings worshippers close to God, because when the power goes off believers beg God for forgiveness, and when it comes back on they thank Him for His blessings.”
Television presenter Amr Adib, however, has warned that the darkness may cause a population explosion because of “the lack of other things to do.”
The country’s Sufis have also taken an interest in the matter. Abdallah Al-Nasir Helmi, speaking on behalf of a new political party called the Egyptian Sufi Home, explained that the outages were due to the late delivery of oil from Iraq and Libya.
At least one group of people are not upset by the outages, however, since businessmen selling electricity generators have reported a boom in business. Mina Al-Seil, an importer of generators based in Sabtiya, said that sales had gone up by 60 per cent over the past two months. The market for generators had earlier been slow, he said, being confined to people living in distant areas and Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.
In Gaza, power shortages have been common for over five years. The shortages began when Hamas, a group affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, took power in the Strip, and the parallels between the Gaza situation and the developments in Egypt following the Brotherhood’s coming to power have led to some caustic remarks from the group’s critics.
Some even claim that the reason there is now no electricity in Egypt is because president Morsi is sending it to his friends in Gaza. “Morsi has given the Palestinians the electricity, and this is why they have stopped buying generators,” Al-Seil said. He added that the government had been making it harder, or at least slower, to clear the generators through customers. He had even heard rumours that Khairat Al-Shater, a key figure in the Brotherhood, was trying to corner the market in generators.
Another importer of generators, Salah Mustafa, questioned the notion that the government was trying to obstruct importation. “Anything can happen in this country, of course. But from my experience of importing, if a shipment is not cleared it is because it fails to meet the proper standards.”
Most generators in Egypt are made in China, and their prices have gone up from LE1,000 to about LE1,500, Al-Seil said. Other importers have claimed that the price of generators has more than doubled.
Mustafa said that while small generators were only good for lighting, others generators could run air-conditioners. Most work on diesel, although some US-made generators can also run on petrol or natural gas. The prices of US and German generators can be as high as LE30,000, the suppliers said.
Companies tend to buy giant generators, and their purchases have doubled or tripled over recent years. The demand for candles and kerosene-operated lamps also went up last year for the first time since the 1960s.

PROBLEMS IN RURAL AREAS: According to business sources, increases in the sale of generators had mostly been seen in Cairo and other major cities, even though the power outages are more frequent in the countryside.
“The countryside always gets the short end of the stick. Remember when we had food rations? People living in the cities were given bigger rations than people living in the countryside,” Emara said, who was head of the Rural Electricity Organisation until it was shut down last year. Since then, its departments have been subsumed into companies affiliated with the Ministry of Electricity.
According to Emara, power outages are more frequent in the countryside for two reasons. One has to do with the ability to reroute power. In the cities, power cables run underground as part of a highly integrated grid. When one street loses power because of a damaged cable, it is relatively easy to reconnect it to another.
This cannot happen in the countryside, where power cables run overhead and options for rerouting are limited. Half a village may receive electricity from a single source, and that source is vulnerable to damage because of exposure to sun and rain. When a cable is damaged, power will go off until the cable is repaired.
The other problem in the countryside is nepotism. If the power supply is insufficient, then a village that has connections with the company will have a steadier supply, whereas another village that does not have connections will suffer outages. “Most of the time, things are done through personal connections, and this is wrong,” Emara said.
He added that it would not be possible to run cables underground in rural areas as happens in cities. “Power cables must not touch water, and they need to be kept elevated to avoid irrigation water,” he said.
When former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser decided to provide rural areas with electricity, Egypt’s power consumption was only 25 per cent of its production. In the late 1960s, the High Dam produced 2,100 MW, the Aswan Dam 345 MW, and other power stations about 2,000 MW, a total of 4,500 MW or so for the whole country.
Emara recalls that electricity was available only in urban areas in those days, and even then not in all neighbourhoods. “In Cairo, places like Matariya and Ain Shams didn’t have electricity,” he said. In a bid to change this situation, the government at the time set up the Rural Electricity Organisation, which drew up plans to supply the entire country with electricity, starting from small cities and towns to major villages and then followed by small villages and even hamlets with only 10 houses or so.
Between the 1960s and the 1980s, the Organisation managed to connect 99 per cent of the country to the electricity grid. In the last years of Mubarak’s rule, it was decided to merge the Rural Electricity Organisation with other government-run companies, the argument being that it was costing the government too much to run.
The last electricity minister under Mubarak, Hassan Younis, was enthusiastic about the merger, a move that Emara does not believe was helpful. The Rural Electricity Organisation played a crucial role in maintenance and in connecting new areas to the grid, he said. When the merger was decided, the law made it a condition that workers would continue to have their same wages and benefits and that the Ministry of Electricity would provide the same services.
However, this did not happen, Emara said. The government did not protect workers’ rights, and it started charging newcomers to the grid for the cost of cables, which was against the law.

SOLAR AND WIND ENERGY? However, just as the Egyptian climate can aggravate the problem of energy in the country, it could also provide the solution. The ever-shining sun and the wind-swept desert could provide the answer to the country’s needs.
In the last years of Mubarak’s rule, several solar and wind facilities were built, and so far they have provided about 1.1 per cent of the country’s energy needs. There are plans to increase this to 20 per cent by 2020.
Speaking at a meeting of the Renewable Energy Organisation in mid-May, Imam said that the budget of the organisation for 2013/14 was LE6.8 billion, the largest in its history. He added that two wind power projects were being planned with a capacity of 1,000 MW. One of these projects would be built in Gabal Al-Zeit in the Gulf of Suez and the other would be in a location to be announced in south Egypt.
The government is also about to issue a public tender for the building of a solar power station in Kom Ombu near Aswan.
Kamal noted that renewable energy was not particularly cheap, with the cost of generating electricity from solar energy being equal to the cost of using natural gas.
According to experts, reliance on renewable resources also brings in another set of problems, since the supply of power through wind farms is irregular and it comes to a halt if the wind dies down. A blend of renewable and conventional power plants is therefore a suitable answer to Egypt’s energy needs.
According to Emara, the use of renewable resources also requires a certain amount of sophistication on the part of the end-users. For example, solar panels needed regular cleaning and maintenance, he remarked.

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