Plagued by Cuts, Lebanon Survives on Floating Power Plants
Lebanon has for decades struggled with daily power cuts that leave residents sweating through their shirts summer after sticky summer.
The bankrupt national power company, unable to build new power plants, has been buying electricity from Turkish barges docked off-shore.
Last week, Lebanon received its third floating power station — the 235-megawatt Esra Sultan, built and operated by the privately owned Turkish Karadeniz Energy Group. Caretaker Energy and Water Minister Cesar Abi Khalil billed it as a temporary but thrifty measure to reduce part of Lebanon's electricity deficit.
It is the third so-called "power ship" to dock in Lebanon since 2013. Lebanon recently extended its contract with Karadeniz to ensure that at least two of the barges will continue serving the country for another one to three years.
Blackouts have been a fixture of life in the country since the 1975-1990 civil war.
Beirut residents set their routines around three-hour cuts that determine when they can turn on their air conditioning in the summer and water boiler in the winter. Outside the capital, the outages can last up to 12 hours or more.
Electricity from the Karadeniz barges costs more than producing it on land but less than the fees private operators charge for backup power during the daily outages.
George Chiha, an electrician, said he remembers when politicians promised to deliver 24-hour electricity in the 1990s.
"Politics is a joke, at our expense," said Chiha, 35.
The outages are costing businesses and residents billions of dollars in private generation fees and lost productivity, says the energy minister.
"We need emergency power," said Abi Khalil.
In the Beirut suburb of Dekwaneh, the media production company Final Cut purchased a $10,000 generator to provide backup power through 10-hour daily outages.
Chiha, who works at Final Cut, said the company spends at least $3,500 each month on fuel costs and maintenance.
Residents usually turn to private operators during outages, who charge anywhere between four to eight times more than the state-owned electricity company.
Their generators hum away in recommissioned parking lots and alleyways across the country, venting diesel fumes.
This summer, generator providers raised their subscription fees, citing lengthier outages and the rising price of fuel. The hikes are pricing some regular subscribers out of the market, fueling resentment that's been directed at both the providers and politicians.
Lebanon is consistently ranked among the world's most corrupt countries, and the sprawling black market for private power has created a perverse power structure that many say politicians have little incentive to reform.
"The boss never wants us to get comfortable, so we keep needing him," said 24-year-old Ibrahim al-Masri. His building charges $150 in monthly power generation fees on top of the regular state company bill. To save money, the family only pays for the months when close relatives visit from abroad. During other months, they sit in the dark for 3 to 6 hours each day.
There are more than 7,000 private providers operating in Lebanon, according to the national syndicate Generateur du Liban, and many insist they're filling a vital gap in the country's services.
"They call us mafias and thugs. But we have lawyers, we have engineers and we have technicians," said Hassan al-Yassin, who provides power to neighborhoods in Lebanon's Dahiyeh suburbs.
Governments have come and gone, but none have been able to solve the energy puzzle.
Lebanon's state-owned power company, Electricité Du Liban, is producing just 2,050 megawatts of electricity, or less than two-thirds of the summer demand, according to the energy ministry.
Abi Khalil, the minister, said the influx of refugees from neighboring war-torn Syria has further strained Lebanon's power sector.
The U.N. has registered more than 1 million Syrian refugees since 2011, an estimated one-fifth of Lebanon's population. They draw approximately 500 megawatts of power from the grid, according to a joint 2017 Energy Ministry and U.N. study.
"I don't think any country in the world could have planned for such a dramatic burst in its population," said Abi Khalil.
But analysts say the problems run deeper.
The state-owned electric company operates on a $1.5-billion deficit, owing to the below-market rates set by a 1990s law. The budgetary hole is filled by subsidies from the national treasury — the World Bank says transfers to Electricite Du Liban account for a staggering 40 percent of the debt the country has accumulated since 1992.
It's a predicament for politicians, who can't justify raising tariffs on consumers until the EDL generates more electricity, yet can't boost generation without spending more on investment.
Plans to reform the sector have been shelved and drawn up again with each successive government, says Lebanese economist Mounir Rached, who advises the Finance Ministry.
"There's corruption in every process of the generation cycle," said Rached.
In 2013, the country contracted its first two power ships from Karadeniz as a stopgap measure to keep lights on until the country could build new power plants.
The plants never materialized.
A 500-megawatt generating station that was supposed to have been built by 2015 is now expected to go online in 2020.
Instead, the barges, Fatmagül Sultan and Orhan Bey, were upgraded in 2016 to provide 37 percent more power. Then, this year, the Energy Ministry contracted with Karadeniz to keep the barges for another three years.
As a "goodwill gesture," Karadeniz said, the company delivered the third barge, Esra Sultan.
Together, the three Turkish barges provide a quarter of Lebanon's generation capacity. Two sit in the harbor in Jiye, a popular surfing spot south of the capital, their black soot exhaust polluting the sky.
Karadeniz's barges can be powered by natural gas but Lebanon has been fueling them with cheaper but dirtier heavy fuel oil.
The country is even buying emergency power from neighboring Syria, mired in its civil war and unable to generate enough energy for its own consumers.
Abi Khalil said the electricity purchased from Syria is more expensive than power EDL procures, but never exceeds 100 MW per month.
In 2010, then-Energy Minister Jebran Bassil famously pledged to deliver 24-hours electricity by 2015.
Today's minister thinks 24/7 power is possible, but won't set a target date.
"It all depends on completing the projects we have on time," said Abi Khalil.