The big electricity scam in Lebanon

‘I throw food on a regular basis because of the rot in the refrigerator that is without power for 7-8 hours in a row’

Image Credit: Reuters
Teresa Faysal teaches her two daughters by candlelight intheir home in Beirut. Israel’s attack on three power stationshas left much of Lebanon without electricity.
Gulf News

Beirut: It’s hot and humid in Beirut with frequent power cuts across the country that is spreading havoc to most households.

Antoine Haddad in Baskinta, Mount Lebanon, testifies that he receives less than 10 hours of electricity each day.

“Sometimes, we have no power for 2 days in a row,” he affirms. In Jun, north of Saidah, Ayshah Trabulsi is far less technical: “I throw food on a regular basis because of the rot in the refrigerator that is without power for 7-8 hours in a row.” In the Biqa‘ Valley, where temperatures reach the 35-40 degrees, most homes do without electricity for long periods of time too. In the middle of its perennial political disputes, Lebanon confronts yet another crisis, with no relief in sight.

Because political elites distribute free electricity to beholden constituents and because the state-owned Electricite du Liban (EDL) monopoly is over $4 billion in debt — which adds to Lebanon’s burgeoning economic dilemmas — most residents receive between 10 and 13 hours of power each day. Those who can afford it and who find it necessary to cook, shower, watch television and otherwise run household appliances turn to neighbourhood power-generator services to cover the remaining hours of the day.

Doing so incurs at least two sets of problems: double-billing (applicable for those who pay, of course) and, an often overlooked aspect of this perpetual catastrophe, the acquisition of UPS [uninterrupted power supply] devices that run on batteries and may cost between $100 and $200 depending on size [larger UPS’s are used by businesses though those are far costlier].

The first hurts the pocketbook on a steady basis that redefines loan-sharking since prices fluctuate depending on amperage and location.

The second seeks to protect one’s perishable foods and various appliances.

Both are essential though unregulated prices can add to one’s misery. In Jal Al Dib, for example, 5 amperes (amp) will cost between $80 and $100, whereas one can expect to pay up to $125 in Rayfun.

A normal home would need at least 10 amp to run a refrigerator, a television, and an air conditioner simultaneously. Naturally, a similar amount may be due to EDL although that too is tied to one’s location, since collectors are persona non-grata in certain parts of the country.

Hidden costs, which are seldom factored in overall costs, must be added to one’s bills since EDL’s supplies are intermittent and create their own requirements. By providing an hour or two of electricity here and another hour or two there spread throughout the day, EDL does nothing more than tax power generators that need a few seconds to launch after each interruption, even if no one bothers to ask whether the power company and generator owners may be in cahoots [even fewer ask whether officials may be involved in such schemes either].

Without a UPS on an appliance — typically most households keep one on the television set and another on a computer — voltage spikes will gradually ruin unprotected items, which need to be replaced every two or three years. In other words, the Lebanese who agrees to pay his electric bill does so twice a month and, to make matters worse, must regularly replace batteries, and ruined appliances.

It’s now nearly twenty-five years after the suspension of the civil war, and EDL still cannot afford to purchase enough fuel to keep the lights on 24 hours a day. Even worse, official sources confirm that perhaps as many as 55 per cent of bills are not collected, and though Beirut devotes a third of all annual government expenditures to EDL, shortages persist.

For roughly $2 billion each year, Lebanon produces a mere 1,500 megawatts when local needs are at least twice as much to cater to the 5-6 million population. Naturally, the existing overtaxed grid does not take into account the additional burden of nearly 2 million Syrian refugees, whose consumption needs cannot be ignored either.

Wily politicians do precisely that, however. In 2010, the then Minister of Energy and Water Gebran Bassil, promised the Lebanese 24-hour electricity if the Cabinet would approve his plan to produce 5,000 megawatts each year by 2015 if only he would be allowed to build new plants and encourage solar and wind energy. At the time, Bassil claimed that his plan would cost about $4.8 billion, including $1.5 billion from the government, $2.3 billion from the private sector and $1 billion from donors over the next four years, although the only portion that was apparently spent was the government’s share. Amazingly, there was little or nothing to show for in the Summer of 2014, which only surprised the gullible.

Many objected and critics repeatedly proposed that Beirut privatise EDL though political bickering or, more likely, elite interests, essentially ended such discussions as soon as they were raised. Simply stated, EDL is an ideal cash-cow for powerful officials who use the company, among other such institutions, as patronage vehicles. The logic is impeccable: In the absence of accountability why look for transparency?

On Thursday, EDL contract workers traded barbs in their ongoing dispute over their employment status for nearly 2,000 part-timers who would like to become full-time employees and hence accrue state benefits, including health care coverage. EDL wants to only hire 897 on top of the 2 300 on its payroll — even if this number should normally be 5020 — though the power crisis lingers with no solution in sight.

Of course, experts like Ahmad Shatila, the CEO of SunEdison, a US solar energy firm, believed that Lebanon can easily generate all of its electric needs and thus transform the country into a new Singapore, provided the country enjoyed political stability, eliminated excessive regulations, and ensured that everyone paid their bills. Comically, the Lebanese expatriate industrialist was optimistic, oblivious to local norms that day-in and day-out emasculated citizens