Solving Gaza's power struggles

Solving Gaza's power struggles
In-depth: A new generation of electricity entrepreneurs is bringing light to refugee camps - but the power may not be sustainable, reports Rami Almeghari.
7 min read
05 September, 2016
Abu Jayyab's workers refuel for the generators powering his refugee camp [Shadi Alqarra]
In the Gaza Strip's Maghazi refugee camp, Iyad, Abdelkareem and Mohammad turn on the TV.

But instead of relying on Gaza's ramshackle electricity grid - badly battered by waves of Israeli attacks - their home is powered by a shared Almohandes generator.

"My seven children enjoy long hours of lighting and air conditioning in the heat," Iyad Alshafy, a resident here in the camp, tells The New Arab. 

"Frankly speaking, as gasoline prices soared in the past two years, I stopped using personal power generators. But with the help of Almohandes' giant power generator, I was able to subscribe and benefit from the power supply."

The project was sparked more than a year ago and is owned by Hassan Abu Jayyab, a local investor to mitigate the severe blackouts caused by the erratic supply from the sole power plant in Gaza.

The plant was bombed by Israeli jets in 2006, and has been functioning poorly - if at all - ever since.

Abdelkareem Albeik, a man in his early fifties, explains that the new power source has helped his elderly parents to feel more comfortable and able to cope with the struggles of life in the embattled enclave.

"Prior to the installation, and especially during long power cuts, my parents would sit out in the alley during the scorching summer. But being subscribed to the Almohandes project means my parents are well taken care of," says Abdelkareem. 

"My father often needs a respirator that is run on electricity."
 The Almohandes power generator runs in the Maghazai refugee camp [Shadi Alqarra]

A cost-effective project

Nahed's Kebab restaurant - one of the camp's most popular places to eat - now operates non-stop, with no power supply problems.

"At this restaurant, we have three refrigerators. Before the project was implemented, we relied on our own relatively small power generator which cost us a lot of money for both gasoline and maintenance," manager Mohammad Nahed tells The New Arab.

"We used to pay a total sum of 1,000 New Israel Shekels [$300] per month, but now we only pay half that amount using the Almohandes-generated power supply."

A way to serve and invest

Right beneath his own Maghazi home, Hassan Juma Abu Jayyab has been running a giant power generator that produces 750 kilowatts of electricity, distributed to hundreds of subscribers, across the Maghazi refugee camp.

Almost around the clock, Hassan runs this generator and others in two Maghazi districts. Neighbours appear not to mind the noise his porject also generates.

"The people here have not objected to my project. You know why? Because by means of my project, I have been able to serve them all," he told The New Arab.

"Look, the household just near my home benefits from the generator-supplied power, without any charge. This is out of love and understanding between me and my neighbours... Once the electricity company provides a constant current to the people of Gaza, myself and many similar others will stop running such generators.

"With this project, people began to feel there is a life. Life without electricity is not a life, it is not a life," said Abu Jayyab, known locally as "the engineer".

He has aso hired an electrician to help with the project.

Good quality

A year after The Engineer's first investment sputtered into life, he invested in a pair of Perkins generators to help power the rest of his refugee camp.

"I managed to purchase the power generators from local importers here in Gaza. Each generator is sold for $30,000 and can provide 750kw of electricity," he said.

"In order to run each generator, every day, I need fuel worth 1,000 New Israeli Shekels ($260). I charge subscribers, each according to the power capacity he or she needs. For now, I have about 900 subscribers, across Maghazi and I plan to expand my capacities in the near future."

Cables from his generators criss-cross the streets and walls of the Maghazi camp.

"My work is based on good standards of supplies, including cables for the electricity to run. Local authorities are not objecting and furthermore, they are not imposing any taxes on me. This is a project that serves the local community, under abnormal conditions, mainly prolonged power outages, caused by the Israeli siege."

'Nothing can be done'

Gaza's official electricity distribution company has left these generators intact, turning a blind eye to the local investors in the region producing and distributing electricity on their own.

The citizen who can afford to pay... should pay us. That way, we will be able to... provide constant supply for all citizens in Gaza

"Already, we suffer from shortages of power. All we can produce is 200 megawatts [enough to light two million 100W lightbulbs], while the actual need for the entire Gaza Strip is 450 megawatts," said Ragheb Lubbad, the spokesperson for the Gaza Electricity Company.

"More importantly, we have 235,000 subscribers. Around 165,000 of them have stopped paying electricity bills since the year 2000. This adds more pressure on us; refunding bills for three main sources, including the Israeli, the Egyptian and the sole Gaza power plant.

"Monthly, we need no less than 70 million shekels ($20m), while we can only collect 20 million shekels. The Gaza power plant, for example, sometimes completely shuts down."

But while relying on independent producers is understandable, it won't solve Gaza's power crisis.

"The citizen who can afford to pay for alternative sources, should pay for the long-time electricity supply they receive already from us," said Lubbab. "That way, we will be able to expand our services - or at least provide constant supply for all citizens in Gaza."

But the electricity distribution company in Gaza does not plan to intervene in the electricity supplies produced by local investors. They are hoping to develop alternative power sources themselves.

"We have a plan to install solar panels in at least 10,000 households, which are environmentally friendly. We have opened up a new department within our company for solar panels, in cooperation with the Energy Authority in Gaza" Lubbad added.

Some little intervention

While Gaza's power production corporation is letting the independent generators thrive, the local environment authority here has intervened to set some environmental criteria for their continued operation.

"We have received a number of complaints from local residents, regarding the noise and gas exhaust," Baha'a Alghalyani, an environment authority engineer, told The New Arab.

"In those cases, we intervened by following up with the local police departments. We have some measurements for noise; commercial or industrial areas are different from residential neighbourhoods. Noise should not exceed the standard environmental limits, particularly in night time."

But the environmental agency lacks the tools to measure air quality and other forms of pollution.

"Such equipment has been denied access by Israel, as the Israeli siege remains in place," said Alghalyani.

"The air pollution is there but we cannot actually measure that. And to the best of our knowledge, many of those power generators produce smoke as an exhaust product, pushing it out through extended pipes, up into the air."

In almost every town amd village in Gaza, there are local investors providing local residents with locally generated electricity.

Gaza's sole power plant has been improperly functioning since 2006, when Israeli jets repeatedly bombed the facility. In the meantime, the 120 megawatts of electricity delivered through Israel has not increased since late 1970s.

The Egypt-provided power supply, meanwhile, can barely meet the needs of the town of Rafah, on the Egypt-Gaza border.

Over the past decade, Gaza's 1.9 million residents have suffered from prolonged power outages, with eight to 10 hours every day spent in darkness. In times of Israeli attacks on the coastal enclave, electricity is almost completely non-existent.

"For me, the Almohandes power supply is very reliable," said Iyad Alshafy, a father of seven children in the Maghazi refugee camp.

"At least my family has stopped using candles for lighting my house. Candles have led to fires in many homes across the Gaza Strip, and a lot of people have been burned to death. What we want is a constant and regular supply - and for this, there needs to be a real solution found by all people responsible for the welfare of our community."

Rami alMeghari is a Palestinian freelance journalist living and working in Gaza. Follow him on Twitter: @writeralmeghari