Egypt’s push to export natural gas to Europe leads to rolling blackouts


CAIRO — When Russia invaded Ukraine last year, and European demand for natural gas skyrocketed, Egypt saw an opportunity. Riding high on the discovery of a massive offshore field in 2015, and desperate for foreign cash, the government ramped up gas shipments across the Mediterranean.

A year later, during a sweltering summer, gas shortages have left Egypt struggling to keep the lights on. Exports have ground to a halt. For the first time in nearly a decade, Cairo is experiencing rolling blackouts, fueling public discontent as President Abdel Fatah El-Sisi prepares to run for a third term.

For an hour each day, air conditioners and fans whir to a stop. Elevators stop running. Internet cuts out. Neighborhoods without power at night are illuminated only by the headlights of passing cars.

In rural areas outside the capital, the outages are more frequent and last longer.

A ballooning population and hotter summers have increased domestic demand for electricity in the Arab world’s most populous country, straining a grid that is highly dependent on natural gas.

Egypt was overzealous in its drive to produce and export natural gas, analysts say, failing to plan for declining fields and to diversify the energy sources that power its grid.

In early summer, the electricity began to switch off seemingly at random, Egyptians recounted — sometimes multiple times a day, sometimes for hours.

Hussein Anwar, 22, works at a pharmacy in Giza, on Cairo’s western edge. When the power cut out for three to four hours at a time in July, Anwar had to gather all of the refrigerated medications — hormones, insulin, vaccines — and run them across the neighborhood to a building with electricity.

In Mahalla, a midsize city in the Nile Delta, the power cuts continue to be “very random,” anywhere from five minutes to three hours per day, according to Khaled, the chief executive of a medium-sized business there.

The company, which regularly processes international transactions, had to buy a new generator recently, which cost more than 100,000 Egyptian pounds (about $3,200). Egyptian law prohibits ferrying fuel in jerrycans, so “every couple of days, I have to hire a truck to take the generator to a fuel station to refuel it,” Khaled said.

Like others in this piece, he shared his story with The Washington Post on the condition that he be identified by his first name so he could speak freely about a sensitive issue.

The government “is failing dramatically,” Khaled said. “We have a catastrophe, and the catastrophe is not equally distributed.”

In June, recognizing that the power grid was under pressure, the government halted gas exports. But a brutal heat wave followed in July.

The government announced measures that month to conserve energy — including a schedule for daily power cuts across the country. Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly announced that Egypt would import more diesel to fuel its power plants.

Egypt’s coastal regions, which draw foreign tourists and Cairo’s elite during the summer months, were exempted from the planned blackouts.

“Foreign tourists come and pay in hard currency, which constitutes a major source of income for the Egyptian government,” Madbouly said then. “If we cut off electricity to the coastal areas, tourists will not come.”

Some of the capital’s newly built upscale suburbs have also been spared.

But the outages this year are notable for reaching some of Cairo’s most exclusive neighborhoods. In Zamalek, a leafy refuge on an island in the Nile, a wine bar on a recent evening served sweating patrons in the pitch dark.

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In a spice shop in Al Haram, a middle-class neighborhood next to the Giza pyramids, a Quranic recitation emanated from a black TV screen — damaged in a power cut, according to Mahmoud, who works there with his uncle.

The pair rely on digital scales to portion out loose cumin, turmeric and dried beans.

“We’re really struggling,” Mahmoud said. “If the electricity is out, we can’t measure anything.”

For the government, the energy crunch “couldn’t come at a worse time,” said Timothy Kaldas, deputy director of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy.

“The country has a massive hard currency shortage, has huge external liabilities with its debt servicing and has very limited access to external finance,” he said. “So buying energy, on top of elevated global food prices and all the rest of it, is putting additional burdens on the state.”

The last time Cairenes experienced widespread, months-long power cuts was between 2012 and 2014, after the 2011 revolution that overthrew longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

Creaking power infrastructure from the Mubarak years, coupled with political and financial unrest, contributed to frequent, hours-long blackouts across the country, analysts said.

After Sisi became president in 2014, he invested heavily in ramping up production capacity, awarding German company Siemens its largest-ever contract to build massive new gas-powered plants in Egypt.

Natural gas was first discovered in Egypt in the 1960s. But the industry took off in the past decade with the 2015 discovery of the Zohr field — the biggest gas find in the Mediterranean.

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, and European countries reliant on Russian gas had to look elsewhere, Egypt stepped up. By the end of that April, Egypt had earned as much from gas exports as it did in all of 2021 — $3.9 billion, Quartz reported.

Under a deal inked in June 2022 with Israel and the European Union, Israeli gas was also supplied to Egyptian plants to be converted into liquid form and sent to Europe.

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Egypt exported 7.7 million tons of LNG in 2022, making it the world’s 12th-largest exporter, according to Rystad Energy. For the first time, 60 percent of its natural gas production went to Europe, authorities announced.

Market analysts began to sound alarms about declining output in spring of this year, amid reports of water filtration problems at the Zohr field. But Egypt continued to export LNG at the same rate.

Egyptian officials have acknowledged that a gas shortage led to this summer’s power cuts, but have downplayed issues at the Zohr field.

Sisi has blamed high temperatures and said the electricity shortage would be worse if not for Egypt’s gas boom. “When there is a burden, we all have to help one another,” he said in August.

Some analysts say Egypt went too hard, too fast on natural gas.

“Even if you have a large field, if you decide to produce a very substantial amount of gas in a short period of time, you face some difficulties,” said Siamak Adibi, of the global energy consultancy FGE.

The government should have factored in gas field decline and the needs of a growing population, Kaldas said.

“It was understood that Egypt being a gas exporter was going to be temporary unless there were some additional massive finds,” he said. “Why did the state fail to plan?”

The power cuts are particularly embarrassing for Sisi because he has staked his legacy on improving infrastructure, said Bessma Momani, a political scientist at the University of Waterloo in Canada.

“The electricity crisis I think just hits people in the face, because it’s in stark contrast to what Sisi has been standing for,” she said.

The government announced plans Tuesday to drill 35 exploratory wells and to expand capacity at the Zohr field. Israel’s decision last week to expand natural gas exports to Egypt could also help down the line.

For now, Egypt is counting on cooler temperatures in the fall. Local media reported this week that power cuts are expected to end in September.

For Mahmoud and his uncle at the spice shop in Al Haram, that day can’t come soon enough.

“We hope and pray to God that things will change for the better,” his uncle said.


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