Technical Challenges to 24/7 electricity in Lebanon

Marc Ziade

As Lebanon’s economy recovered from the Civil War, demand grew substantially and surpassed additional capacity of the current electricity generation levels. Power shortages progressively became the norm with some regions barely receiving 12 hours of electricity supply on some days.

The technical challenges that prevent sufficient volumes of electricity from getting reliably delivered to end-users span across the entire power system value chain: from insufficient capacity to large losses in the transmission and distribution networks.Insufficient Generation Capacity

The first technical challenge behind the failure of Lebanon’s installed capacity to meet demand goes back to the end of the civil war in 1991, in which Lebanon had lost much of its generation capacity. Despite the fact that the capacity to produce electricity was rehabilitiated and new plants were built after the civil war, the sustained growth of electricity demand outpaced these capacity additions.

Between 1994 and 2009, peak demand (the maximum electricity demand at a given instant) grew by an estimated 1,000 MW, reaching around 2,500 MW in 2009. Total installed capacity, which is not always fully available to the grid, only stood at around 2,000 MW in that same year; this figure does not include capacity from hydro power plants, that represents around 220 MW as hydro has low availability in the summer when demand peaks.

Overview of Thermal Plants (2009), Copyrights: Carboun

Deterioration of Installed Capacity and Sub-Optimal Operations

Aging power plants, the lack of adequate maintenance, and the sub-optimal use of fuels in power plants reduce the share of Lebanon’s generating capacity that can actually be delivered to the grid. This reduction combined with the less than optimal operation of power plants have together led to an estimated 25% reduction in the capacity of thermal power plants.

1. Aging power plants: The last power plant to be installed in Lebanon was commissioned a decade ago, when a 145 MW unit was added to the Beddawi power plant in the early 2000s. Around 50% of Lebanon’s installed capacity is 20 to 40 years old, although power plants are usually run for 20 to 30 years and require continuous maintenance to keep their electricity output constant. Another 10% of the generation capacity is even over 40 years old (including the Jieh power plant). The challenge with older power plants is that in time the aging turbines and components lose efficiency. that leads to a reduction in capacity output. As a result plants are de-rated, meaning their output capacity is revised downwards compared to the original design capacity.

2. Lack of maintenance: The lack of sufficient capacity to cover the country’s electricity demand puts additional stress on existing and aging power plants, which exacerbates the loss in capacity output. Since no sufficient capacity is available to cover demand, power plants are usually subject to long periods of operation at high loads with little maintenance which reduces their lifetime and their efficiency.

3. Sub-optimal fuel mix: A third challenge that contributes to reduced outputs compared to the installed capacity, is the sub-optimal choice of fuels. Commissioned in 1998, the Beddawi and Zahrani plants are Lebanon’s most recent power plants and account for 435 MW of total installed capacity each. The two plants are equipped with combined cycle gas turbines, which are designed to best operate using natural gas. Combined cycle turbines using natural gas have the potential to reach higher efficiencies than open-cycle natural gas turbines or steam turbines. Both power plants, however, are now using gasoil which substantially reduces the plants’ efficiency, drives fuel consumption, and rapidly degrades the turbines.

In fact, plans to build these power plants originally included a pipeline to import natural gas from neighboring Syria. The pipeline linking the Baddawi power plant to Syria’s gas network was only achieved in 2005, four years after the last of the power units was added in 2001. In addition, Syria had little gas surplus to provide Baddawi and Lebanon resorted to importing gas from Egypt instead. However gas volumes, which Lebanon was able to procure from Egypt, were not sufficient to run the plant at full capacity. Eventually, imports from Egypt were suspended due to delays in payments and Egypt’s unstable political situation in 2011. The Zahrani power plant on the other hand had no infrastructure at all to receive natural gas as the required pipelines were never built. Gas turbines in Baalbeck and Tyre also have no connections to supply natural gas.

As a result of the combined effects the such factors described  , the actual capacity of thermal power plants significantly deviates from original design values, both in terms of fuel consumption as well as in terms of installed capacity.

The oldest units at the Jieh plant (commissioned in 1970) now operates at 60% below their design values; with the fuel consumption (per unit of electricity produced) being 20% to 30% higher than the design value. At the country level, it is estimated that only around 1,400 to 1,600 MW are actually delivered to the grid, from the total installed capacity of 2,000 MW. (hydro power plants represent another 220 MW of installed capacity).

This gap has led to chronic power outages curbing economic growth and undermining standards of living. In 2009, Lebanon’s electricity demand reached 15,000 GWh while the total electricity produced and imports from Syria and Egypt totaled 11,522 GWh. The rest being supplied from customers’ generators or alternatively supplied by privately-run (and unregulated) diesel generators businesses (see previous article).

Limited Availability to Import from Neighbors when Most Needed in the Summer Peaks

Electricity imports, despite being detrimental to energy security, help ease power shortages by guaranteeing additional supply to Lebanon from Syria and Egypt through grid interconnections. In 2009, both countries supplied Lebanon with around 7.5% of its total electricity demand (589 GWh and 527 GWh respectively for Syria and Egypt).

However, electricity demand in Egypt and Syria peak during the summer seasons, which leaves little spare electricity generation in these countries to export to Lebanon, especially during  June, July, and August, when it is also most needed in Lebanon. As a result, power shortages are exacerbated in Lebanon under the combined effect of lower supply (due to lower electricity imports) and higher demand (mainly due to increased air conditioning loads, and the large number of tourists and visitors who add to the load).

Large Losses in Transmission and Distribution

The transmission and distribution of electricity through transmission lines and substations is normally accompanied with “technical losses” mainly due to resistance and iron core losses in metallic lines that connect power plants to end-users. In Lebanon, these losses are estimated at approximately 15% of total electricity produced, a higher figure when compared to around 8-10% of losses in efficient systems of Western countries.

Higher losses in Lebanon are mainly attributed to the lack of rehabilitation of power lines as well as to the inadequacy in the number of substations which are used to step up and step down voltages across the system (power voltage is stepped up to minimize losses in the transmission system then stepped down to 220 – 240 V when it is dispatched to end-users).

Incomplete infrastructure works also undermine efficient operations of the grid. For example, the 220 kV loop in the transmission system is still not closed and requires the installation of  overhead lines in the Mansourieh region, an initiative subject to strong opposition from local communities; communities expressed concerns from the encroachment of lines on residential areas and potential threats from being exposed to high voltage power lines over a long period of time. It is estimated that this open loop is responsible for around 1% of technical losses: electricity produced in Beddawi and Zouk plants currently has to be sent on the 220 kV transmission lines all the way to the Bekaa region so it can reach the Beirut area.  The electricity should  have been directly connected to Beirut, however in the current situation. This results in more losses due to increased travel distances (losses are proportional to distance traveled by electricity).

Technical Losses and Power Shortages in MW (2009), Copyrights: Carboun

Limited Capabilities to Monitor the Grid

The lack of adequate metering infrastructure to measure and monitor power flows across the grid additionally exposes the system to increased deficiencies. In fact, the distribution system suffers from high overloads, thefts, and lack of asset and demand side management. The very absence of the metering system makes the estimation of the total transmission and distribution losses very hard. It also makes electricity theft almost impossible to control.

It was only until the end of 2010 that the Lebanese Electric Network Control Center was established, allowing the electric utility Electricite du Liban (EDL) to supervise the electricity network, and consequently optimize the operations of the grid. Monitoring is used to identify the weak points in the system, regulate power outages, and anticipate electric failures. It ultimately helps decrease the number of technical losses and facilitates the detection of non-technical losses (theft), consequently increasing the share of electricity produced that is actually delivered to customers.

Fast Growing Demand and Limited Demand-Side Management Initiatives

With sustained economic growth and improved political stability in Lebanon during the 1990s and the 2000s, electricity demand rapidly increased. During this period of time, limited demand-side management initiatives were undertaken.

The major projects that were developed in that direction were implemented by the Lebanese Center for Energy Conservation, an entity founded in 2002, now supported by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). The center promotes the use of renewable energies at the consumer level through the implementation of pilot projects and encourages energy conservation and energy efficiency programs. However, these programs are still limited in scope and over the past few decades had little to no effect on the strong growth of electricity demand.

In the coming years, economic growth and continuous population increases are expected to drive electric demand growth at an average annual rate of around 7%, which would double the total demand within a decade. With a deteriorating generating capacity and high inefficiencies, Lebanon’s electricity system (generation, transmission, and distribution) will be under further stress, requiring urgent measures to ensure this demand is met in this strong growth scenario.

Marc Ziade is a student at the American University of Beirut, currently completing a Bachelor degree in Electrical and Computer Engineering. Marc has worked on technical, financial and policy aspects of energy systems, and has recently joined Carboun as a Student Ambassador.

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