Solidere Burns Bright While Lebanon Goes Dark
By: Mouhamad Wehbe
Published Wednesday, November 14, 2012
Solidere’s downtown power plant is meeting its own demand while operating at just half capacity, while most of the country faces severe power rationing, a disparity that mirrors the growing inequality in the country.
Downtown Beirut was rebuilt by Solidere, the private company established by former prime minister Rafik Hariri in 1994. Since then, the reconstruction has been widely criticized by many who accuse Solidere of forcibly displacing former residents and turning downtown into an exclusive, semi-private commercial playground for the wealthy.
A major power plant was constructed in the Bab Idriss area to serve downtown. The power plant is just one example of what many see as the inappropriate prioritizing of upscale areas at the expense of poorer ones.
Solidere oversaw the construction of the plant, which was designed to include three huge transformers with a capacity of 80 Megawatts (MW) for each transformer, i.e., with an aggregate capacity of 240 MW. At the time the plant was built, downtown’s power demand did not exceed 70 MW with electricity reserves.
Solidere ended up spending tens of millions of dollars to establish a modern power plant using public money without any supervision to determine spending feasibility. Even Électricité Du Liban (EDL) was not allowed to play a role in determining the technical specifications of the plant that it was meant to eventually take over as part of the power network.
These millions could have been spent more effectively in light of the fact that there is an actual need to expand and modernize the entire power grid in Lebanon.
Even though the work was finished quickly and the plant was done in 1998, by 2011 the Solidere power plant had still not been fully handed over to EDL.
Sources told Al-Akhbar that the plant works at less than half of its capacity, and that it was given two transformers out of three at 80 MW capacity as reserve. The only explanation for this is that the demand for power in this area is less than 70 MW. Most electricity in the downtown area powers commercial centers and some big buildings that house corporate and business offices or official centers.
The residential demand for power on the other hand is almost non-existent “because the buildings have no inhabitants,” according to an engineer who is familiar with the plant. In addition, only 30 out of 60 outlets are working, further evidence that the plant is working at half its capacity.
Solidere operates as its own government, providing special services through the infrastructure that it owns. It provides phone, Internet, security, and water services.
Moreover, the company was able to guarantee its share in the power transmission network, thus consecrating this electricity-based discrimination among the Lebanese. In Beirut’s southern suburbs, for example, the power transmission network works at full capacity but is not even close to meeting the demand, and the area faces steep power cuts.
Solidere, on the other hand, operates its power plant at half capacity and is more than able to provide for the area’s needs.
Solidere is not the only example of some areas receiving preferential treatment. There have been investments in building plants in other areas with relatively low demand.
In addition to Solidere, the Ras Beirut plant has two huge transformers with a 70 MW capacity for each transformer and the plant works at 25 percent capacity. The same applies to the Mkalles plant where there are two huge transformers with a 70 MW capacity for each transformer and the plant works at only 20 percent of its capacity.
There are many questions regarding Solidere’s role in establishing a high-capacity plant that exceeds its current and likely future needs. Did Solidere make a mistake or was it necessary to establish a plant with modern technical specifications?
The answer can not be a simple yes or no and Solidere does not bear sole responsibility. Any mistakes are primarily the responsibility of the Lebanese state represented by the energy ministry, EDL, and the Council for Development and Reconstruction (CDR).
Afterall, Solidere did not invest money from its budget to build this plant. The money was paid from the public treasury based on an agreement that allowed Solidere to acquire areas in return for infrastructure works in downtown Beirut. These infrastructure works, which include gardens, sidewalks, and a power plant, were estimated at $475 million but Solidere acquired no less than 780 thousand square meters in downtown Beirut where a meter of land is worth $5,000, adding up to a total value of nearly $4 billion.
To make matters worse, EDL data indicates that when the plant finally was turned over to them, there were “220 KV high voltage manufacturing defects.”
Neglected Grid Behind Dahiyeh’s Power Problems
Dahiyeh’s power grid is in such disrepair compared to other parts of the greater Beirut area that not even the current government plan to build more power plants will fix the problem.
The issue, according to a recent study conducted by the French national electrical company, EDF, is in the distribution network, not the amount of power being pumped into the crowded southern suburbs. This explains why the area is subject to power cuts of 12 hours or more, despite the Minister of Energy’s insistence that it sticks to the official rationing schedule.
Out of a total of 744 hours in October, power was rationed for 381 hours nationally, which means that the electricity was cut in most of Lebanon 51 percent of the time.
In the summer months, it was even worse, as rationing increased 55 percent to 410 hours, according to the ministry’s numbers.
But in Dahiyeh, rationing can reach up to 500 hours (67 percent) during the summer months and even get as high as 80 and 90 percent in some areas.
Residents have long been frustrated by the discrepancy not only between how much electricity they receive compared to other areas, but what they were told by the ministry and the reality on the ground. When Dahiyeh goes dark at night, the bright lights of the mountain villages above can be seen burning all night long. Many attribute this unequal distribution to sectarian politics. Dahiyeh is a largely Shia area where support for Hezbollah is strong.
The network that distributes electricity to the area is unable to process the full current fed into it due to a shortage of grid exit points.
Not only are the 44 existing points insufficient, but because they work at maximum capacity, no additional power can be fed into the area from any other source. Moreover, these exit points cannot reroute excess voltage from one point to another according to the needs of each area.
All this means that the worst is yet to come. For even if the power supply is increased, the network in Dahiyeh will be unable to distribute it to consumers.
This leaves the southern suburbs outside the comprehensive plan currently being implemented to overcome the country’s electricity crisis, as it only involves building additional power plants to increase supply without addressing distribution problems.
The EDF study shows that there is a strong demand for power in Dahiyeh, which peaks at 400 megawatts and hovers around 280 the rest of the time.
Yet the Dahiyeh network cannot relay and distribute more than 140 megawatts at any one time. Therefore, it is impossible to increase the number of hours of power supply without altering the distribution network.
This is why EDL’s power rationing schedule for the area does not match the actual number of hours of electricity that local residents are receiving.
Based on the 140-megawatt ceiling that the Dahiyeh network can absorb, this densely populated area can access between eight and ten hours of electricity a day at best.
But how did we arrive at this critical situation? And why haven’t the number of exit points in Dahiyeh been increased? Can the problem be remedied?
When compared to other areas in Beirut, the quality of infrastructure does appear to overlap with sectarian lines. For example, in the majority Christian Antelias area, there are 144 points for 350,000 people; in administrative Beirut, there are 122 for 700,000 people; as for Dahiyeh, there are only 44 points for 750,000 people.
The chokepoint created by the lack of exit points creates a number of other complications, such as persistent breakdowns further down the chain in smaller neighborhood stations, which only exacerbate the problem.
Another issue stems from the fact that the existing points cannot reroute the power supply in the event that a local transformer goes down; that is, no other area within Dahiyeh can benefit from the resulting unused power.
Instead, the unconsumed voltage is redirected to other parts of the city to ease the pressure on Dahiyeh’s network.
Solving this crisis would require investing in three large transformers, each capable of processing 80 megawatts, according to sources who have seen EDF’s study.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.