By Hédi Sal
Except for March, April, May, October and November when temperatures are pleasantly mild Libya has failed for the past three years to bring electricity demand and supply into balance. Daily power cuts can last from seven to twelve hours in Tripoli, the capital, and up to 30 hours in the outskirts.
As we report this, Tripoli experiences twelve hours of daily power cuts (Load shedding) under a wave of cold temperatures. This failure as perceived by the general public on the part of the state’s owned-electricity company (GECOL) is actually coupled with an even worse dysfunctional communication strategy that has long triggered and promoted a deep misconception consisting of a consensus among the general public that GECOL manipulates the production and distribution of electricity in what is widely conceived as politically driven to focus public attention away from the dysfunctional authority in Tripoli and the parties behind it as to maintain a state of illusion and suffer to the ultimate goal of preventing people from taking political stand.
The growing misconception is the result of GECOL’s failure to clearly lay out as to why supply and demand are not in balance throughout most of the year, which has further undermined public’s faith in GECOL and state’s institutions as a whole. It would be a greater mistake to assume that the Libyan people would indefinitely put up with an overwhelming load shedding that undermine their luxury lives.
Within the first thirty minutes of load shedding and with a usual high traffic of phone calls the wireless coverage of the state’s owned-telecommunication company ALMADAR stops in some neighborhoods of Tripoli for lack of backup power, as well as the water supply provided by the state’s company.
The extended hours of outages in Tripoli and most of the country in every single day of July, August, September, December and January, particularly when other cities enjoy full coverage or only two to three hours of load shedding effectively promote the notion that electricity crisis is set in motion for political reasons.
The underlying cause for the inability to meet demand and thus the employment of daily load shedding across neighborhoods and cities as a last resort to avoid collapse of the power grid is nothing but the enormous and unimaginable wasteful consumption by householders, businesses and public institutions.
At present, Libya produces 5,000 MW out of 5,200 MW in full capacity, failing to meet the demand of a population of less than five millions (1.2 million customers in 2010) with nearly no industrial sector, when the next door neighbor, Tunisia, with over 11 million in population (3.6 million customers in 2016), an established industrial and tourism sectors and much larger economic activities consumes only 3,000 MW in winter. The difference between the Libyan and the Tunisian consumers lays in the fact that the latter cannot escape paying electric bills. This is what GECOL’s staff would disclose behind closed doors.
Libyans enjoy luxury lives inside their homes. In January the peak load reached 7,200 MW and refusal of some neighborhoods to share load shedding caused total blackouts in most cities in the western and southern regions. When one million and three hundred thousand out of less than five millions in current population are employed in public sector and only few report to work (from 8 am to 2 pm) it should come as no surprise that peak time in summer is 12 pm which is a normal working hour as opposed to 4 pm in neighboring countries. The security condition and the almost non-existing private sector along with the attitude in the public sector leave Libyans with no choice but to stay home.
In reality, the Libyan power grid has a technical deficiency consisting of transmission losses that stem from the misalignment of transmission system with respect to the locations of generation plants, as well as limitations on how to move power around the grid. The west region usually has a generation of 2,000 MW and a demand of 1,000 MW so the rest needs to be moved to other regions.
The power crisis is identified as the result of an exponential increase in household appliances, particularly heaters and air conditioners which are not energy-efficient, and actually draw excessive power from and destabilize the power grid. It is not unusual to see houses and villas with hundreds of light bulbs. Homes, businesses and institutions comprise several individual air conditioning and heating units (as opposed to central heating and cooling with much less consumption) and all being utilized and left on. In some neighborhoods of Tripoli there are hundreds of small shops of electronics (even with a surface of 3 by 3) all of which are equipped with air conditioners and heaters and being utilized without stop in summer and winter and pay no electric bills.
Only foreign companies and diplomatic missions pay electric bills, all of which departed after June 2014. According to the World Bank, the per capita electric power consumption was 3,923 kWh in Libya in 2013, as opposed to 1,277 in Algeria, 1,697 in Egypt , 866 in Morocco and 1,435 in Tunisia. Behind closed doors GECOL discusses the loss and an unaccounted for quantity of 500 MW by illegal connections to the power grid. That is exactly the current production capacity of Alkhoms power station.
Historically, Libyan householders excessively consume electricity. In 1990 and while under international economic sanctions and a paralyzed economy the per- capita consumption was 1,493 KWh, the equivalent to the current neighboring countries’ consumptions.
According to the World Bank, the residential sector accounts for the largest share of electricity consumption representing 35%, followed by street lighting (15%), public building (18%), commercial building (12%) and industry (8%).
From technical perspective, consumers are responsible for GECOL’s inability to meet the ever increasingly demand, however, GECOL has yet to come up with and effective message to the general public to put the issue of load shedding technically in the right perspective.
The widespread technical misconception driving public opinion on load shedding consists of (1) electricity can be produced, stored in power grid and distributed (2) electricity can be produced as needed and irrespective of production capacity and demand.
Consumers lack the understanding that electricity as a moving energy in the grid can only be produced to the level of demand under optimum conditions to bring supply and demand into balance. Considering that production capacity exceeds demand, GECOL would only deploy the appropriate production facilities to maintain balance. That is the reason why production varies throughout the day to keep up with a varying demand and peaks. Perhaps little basic technical explanation can solve issues of national concern.
Unfortunately consumers miss the point that air conditioners and heaters can take down the country’s power grid. A power grid requires that generation and load closely balance moment by moment, frequent adjustments to the output of generators are necessary. The balance can be judged by measuring the system frequency; if it is increasing, more power is being generated than used, which causes all the machines in the system to accelerate. If the system frequency is decreasing, more load is on the system than the instantaneous generation can provide, which causes all generators to slow down and introduces the possibility of load shedding.
When 500 MW are stolen from the grid and consumers don’t pay electric bills assuming electricity is provided by the government at no cost then extended load shedding and collapse of power grid should in fact come as no surprise. In fact, Libyans as wasteful as they are, even before the 2011, were accustomed to paying no bills, including electricity, however, with the total absence and collapse of the state the wasteful consumption has gone up to unsustainable levels that the power grid cannot maintain and this is what GECOL has failed to effectively convey to its consumers. Since payment of electric bill is not enforced Libyans leaves homes, offices and businesses with air conditioners and heaters on day and night.
The National Control Center (NCC) being located in Tripoli and coordinating power generation and distribution at central level has no automatic control and actually communicates by phone with generation stations and substations which are operated by locals across the country. These local technicians and engineers would never stop power generation and in fact they ignore instructions by the NCC for periodic and share of load shedding among neighborhoods and this exactly explains the collapse of the power grid in several cities in the western regions in last few days. Local militias and armed gangs are stationed at the front gate of every electricity facility in the country and technical staff access the sites with permission let alone to endanger their lives by manipulating generation and distribution of electricity.
Under the Libyan context, 5000 MW is an extraordinary effort and achievement by GECOL and should be sufficient for the Libyan population and the type of economic activities. The effort made by GECOL’s staff who put their lives in line to minimize suffer on the Libyan people is not much appreciated. While GECOL has plenty of causes to substantiate inability to meet an unlimited demand its press releases, however, can be categorized as being pathetic in language and content. Has GECOL launched an effective and aggressive communication campaign aimed at spreading awareness and advocating reducing demand, the supply shortage, if any, would have been much lesser.
The cheap price of diesel, 0.15 Libyan dinar for one liter ($0.1), makes substantial number of Libyan householders and businesses equipped with diesel generators as support in time of outages. While consumers appear to not understand and care less about the principal of balanced supply and demand when consuming electricity from the grid, their saving in electricity to avoid tripping of their own generators in time of outages is particularly noteworthy.
The communication strategy to continue to cast blame anywhere but on its failed communication has proven to be totally ineffective in light of the extended time of load shedding that disrupt life in winter and summer. The press releases by GECOL highlight a complete incompetency and are completely useless for those seeking to understand the actual reasons, and rise the more fundamental question as to whether GECOL realizes that an effective communication strategy and a language as a key for making perception, particularly in time of crises, are fundamental to good governance.
Load shedding is GECOL’s last resort to prevent a nationwide collapse of power system, which if occurred would particularly take long time to restore under the security challenges. Prior to the last resort utility companies request the volunteer reduction in demand from consumers by saving in electricity, yet Libyan consumers don’t respond.
The bottom line is that electric bills are not being paid by consumers and there is no authority to enforce payment and that is the underlying cause for unlimited demand that destabilizes the power system country-wide. Had consumers been hit with large electric bills reflecting consumptions and had payments been enforced, consumers would have surely been mindful of their consumptions. As vital as electricity is to daily life and given consumers’ attitude toward demand which would unlikely to change in any near future definitely makes GECOL in desperate need of a responsible press office that puts in place a strategic communication plan. It is also unlikely that GECOL has the staff with the proper expertise in communication to meet the communication challenges.
Practically, there are not policies or incentives that would lead to behavior change, and unless Libyan consumers can substantially reduce national demand, load shedding will become necessary to protect the electrical power system from collapsing. TV channels and radio stations exist across the country, some of which have high viewers and audiences and are very efficient in promoting polarization and division among the Libyan people on different grounds. Instead, they obviously can make themselves useful and contribute with a positive influence on changing consumer’s behavior.
While GECOL dismisses allegations of manipulation of production and distribution it has never officially refuted them. Misunderstanding stemmed from lack of basic information and discussion. GECOL must deliver clear, repeated and open communication to earn public understanding and acceptance, and never has this been more possible with explosion of mobile and digital tools that directly engage the public.
GECOL is failing to catch the simplicity of the general public toward the notion that it is a highly politicized state’s company that inflict suffer on them, and yet achieves nothing to refute that misconception. In what increasingly appears to be an irreversible path of division and chaos that the country has taken, unfortunately, there is no sign from GECOL and the government of Libya to effectively address the electricity crisis, as well as no waking up from consumers to the fact that an unlimited and yet irresponsible consumption destabilizes and collapses the power grid.
Under optimum conditions GECOL can produce a maximum of 5,200 MW. How would the peak load of 7,200 MW in January 2017 be met?
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the writer, and do not necessarily reflect those of the Libya Observer