Middle East Heat Takes Toll on Energy Supply in Summer


The spectre of power cuts is haunting the Middle East. What might be an inconvenience in many parts of the world is lethal in a hot and arid region where temperatures are climbing higher. Even the best-governed countries need to address the triple challenge of electricity, heat and carbon.

The Middle East faces escalating electricity challenges amidst record heat, affecting countries like Egypt, Iraq, and UAE. Solutions include upgrading infrastructure, boosting solar power, and promoting energy efficiency amid rising demand and climate goals.

The world has just experienced the hottest May on record, and there are expectations of record temperatures throughout the northern hemisphere summer. More than 1,300 pilgrims died from extreme heat during the Hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia.

Despite an infusion of money from its Gulf allies and international institutions, Egypt has run short of gas and had to impose power cuts of two-to-three hours, likely to worsen during high summer.

Malls and shops are to close from 10pm, annoying Egyptian shoppers and seemingly counterproductive as evenings should be cooler. Lebanon has sought more short-term fixes for the apparently never-ending near-absence of electricity from the national grid. Offshore gas exploration has so far failed to yield any success. Iraq’s electricity minister said that, as 50°C weather sweeps across the country, demand has reached 48 gigawatts, while the state can provide 25 gigawatts.

Supply is going the wrong way: it was 26 gigawatts last summer. Some provinces get just 10 hours of electricity daily. The government has cut working hours for state employees in an effort to save power.

Even in the wealthy Gulf, there are problems. Years of political deadlock in Kuwait prevented the construction of power plants. Electricity is highly subsidised: citizens pay 0.65 US cents for a kilowatt-hour and overseas residents 5 cents, compared to about 8.3 cents for the lowest consumption band in Dubai.

Last month, Kuwait was forced into rolling power cuts of one to two hours after a technical problem at a major power station coincided with high air-conditioning use as temperatures exceeded 50°C.

The UAE's difficulties differ. The challenge here is to meet fast electricity demand growth, while attaining the country’s goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Dubai’s peak electricity load hit an all-time high of 10.4 gigawatts last summer, up 9.5 per cent on the year before. This record will be beaten again this summer, given the emirate’s economic and population growth.

Solar output has quadrupled over the same period. Nevertheless, generation from gas also had to rise, after being essentially flat from 2016 to 2021, and this is likely to continue to 2026, despite the construction of new solar capacity.

This means that carbon dioxide emissions will also keep going up. This is problematic given the UAE’s commitment to halve emissions from buildings (attributed to their electricity and water use) and halve the carbon intensity of power generating by 2030.

Similarly, in Saudi Arabia, electricity demand did not grow between 2015 and 2020, helped by reform of subsidies, but has subsequently risen rapidly with economic growth and the development of new industries, leisure complexes and cities.

The technical solutions are simple enough. Old, inefficient gas- or oil-fired generation should be upgraded or replaced with more efficient modern plants.

Then, more power stations have to be built, as many as possible solar or, in the right places, wind-powered. Increasingly cheap batteries can be used to meet demand during hot, humid nights. There is no need for more “pilot” projects: the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Oman and other regional neighbours have all shown that solar power works very well in this region. Laggards should jump straight to full-scale projects at speed.

Taqa, as the main power and water provider to Abu Dhabi and the Northern Emirates, intends to replace older gas plants with solar power, and rely mostly on more efficient reverse osmosis for water desalination, lowering its emissions by 25 per cent by 2030. The UAE is also considering adding more nuclear reactors to its successful programme.

Installation of rooftop solar panels on homes and businesses should be made as easy as possible. New homes should all have solar from the start. Regulatory barriers imposed by incumbent utilities should be removed, and industries should be allowed to install solar power in suitable sites and use the national grid to bring electricity to their factories.

But simply building colossal amounts of new electricity generation is not enough. First, that has been the obvious solution in Lebanon and Iraq for many years, but it has not happened. Entrenched bureaucracies and the vested interest of the “generator mafia” benefit from the current gridlock. Demand growth in Iraq in particular is so fast the country looks like it will never catch up.

Second, it is economically wasteful, spending money that is badly needed for other priorities. Third, countries such as Egypt have found they do not have enough gas to fuel their new stations.

So what are the other solutions? Electricity trade between countries should grow. Connectivity through the Mena region is increasing, but is still insufficient and lacks a clear commercial structure.

Then there needs to be more attention to efficiency – and that means, above all, better cooling of buildings. Insulation, renewable-driven district cooling for denser urban developments, more efficient air-conditioners, proper maintenance and cleaning, less wasteful behaviour by residents, and better design of new construction, are all essential.

Green spaces need to be restored, and urban areas planned with more reflective surfaces, more shade and cooling breezes. Remaining energy and water subsidies should be phased out, and if necessary converted to compensatory payments for lower-income people.

And what about the generator mafias that oppose reform in several Mena countries? They are often deeply entwined with local and national politics. International pressure may help to cut their supplies of subsidised fuel that are often resold or smuggled.

Otherwise, a two-track approach of dismantling their corrupt networks, while bringing the more responsible generators into formal electricity provision, could finally break the deadlock.

Ever-hotter summers mean more people crying out for cool. The Middle East’s challenge is to provide that without breaking the electricity grid, the bank or the climate. Every country’s situation is different, but the core of the solution is to align investment, efficiency, society and politics. 

Source: https://www.thenationalnews.com

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