Regular power cuts in MENA make heatwave season unbearable

Daily life continues as temparature reach 50 centigrade in Baghdad, Iraq on August 12, 2023
29 August, 2023
Countries across the MENA are facing temperatures of up to 50°C. Increased energy prices, power cuts, and limited infrastructure have made living conditions intolerable, with renewable energy investment seemingly the only solution to regional woes.

Due to the worsening global climate crisis and the significant increase in temperatures worldwide, including in the MENA region, millions of individuals are experiencing extended power outages. This issue is particularly prevalent in countries such as Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Sudan, and Lebanon.

The governments of these countries attribute the frequent and prolonged power outages to the increase in energy consumption due to the high temperature, which exceeded 50°C in Iraq and reached 45°C in Algeria and Egypt. 

High temperatures increase the need for refrigeration and air-conditioning devices and then put pressure on the network, which in turn operates with gas or diesel, and then the need for these sources of operation increases.

"While all countries in the MENA region bear the brunt of this issue due to their inherently hot climates, the blow is more severe for countries like Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, and Egypt"

Both climate change and natural hazards pose serious risks to energy systems and the people who use them. Interruptions in the operations of power grids can have adverse effects on economic conditions and on access to vital services such as health and financial services. Severe weather events can cause power outages and disrupt vital services.

Regional Crisis

While all countries in the MENA region bear the brunt of this issue due to their inherently hot climates, the blow is more severe for countries like Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, and Egypt.

These nations, already grappling with strained electricity infrastructures and soaring energy demands, frequently fall prey to extensive power outages under the onslaught of soaring temperatures, according to Harjeet Singh, Head of Global Political Strategy at the Climate Action Network International.

In Egypt, the government began implementing the "load-reducing" plan on the national electricity grid by cutting power for an hour per day in most areas of the republic at successive times, with the exception of the tourist areas in Sinai, the Red Sea, and Matrouh governorates.

The Middle East is heating at nearly twice the global average. More than 400 million people face extreme heatwaves, prolonged droughts and sea level rises
The Middle East is heating at nearly twice the global average. More than 400 million people face extreme heatwaves, prolonged droughts and sea level rises [Getty Images]

Egypt produces about 58 gigawatt-hours of energy, providing a huge surplus even during peak summer demand. But despite this jump in power generation, consumers across the country still report blackouts. The Egyptian government attributed these outages to the increased demand for electricity in conjunction with the heat wave that has hit the country since mid-July.

In the besieged Gaza Strip, the power outage crisis has erupted in recent days, coinciding with the heat dome ravaging the Middle East, which negatively affected the hours of electricity connection as the number of cut-off hours increased to more than 10 hours, compared to five hours of supply. The production capacity of the Gaza Power Plant, if fully operational, is 120 megawatts.

The situation is no better in Algeria, where the national electricity company announced a new historical peak in demand for electricity. The company attributed the recording of this record peak to the exceptional heat wave, which caused damage to some electricity transmission equipment and led to fluctuations in supply in addition to the deliberate cutting of electricity to preserve equipment in several governorates with temperatures between 40 and 47°C. Algeria's electricity production capacity exceeds 25,000 megawatts, with an average need of 12,000 megawatts and a peak of no more than 17,000 megawatts.

Tunisia is also facing a power cut problem. The electricity company said that it had to resort to periodic power cuts in some areas in order to reduce loads on the network and avoid major power outages, according to the requirements of the equation process between electricity demand and the quantity produced. Tunisia’s electricity production until the end of March 2023 amounted to about 4,312 gigawatts per hour.

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Double-edged sword

Rising temperatures are a double-edged sword for the energy sector in the MENA region. On the one hand, they amplify the demand for electricity, particularly due to the prevalent use of air conditioning and cooling systems, Singh told The New Arab. "On the other hand, temperature compromises the efficiency of conventional power plants and transmission lines, leading to less power being generated and greater energy loss during transmission. This combination of heightened demand and diminished supply may trigger frequent power cuts, ultimately undermining power reliability," he added.

According to a World Bank report in 2019, extreme heat reduces system performance, reduces solar and hydroelectric efficiency, and increases energy losses during transmission. Heat waves also reduce solar PV efficiency by 0.1-0.5% for every additional 1°C, and transmissions and high-voltage lines can experience an efficiency loss of 0.5–1%.

Jauad El-Kharraz, the Executive Director of the Regional Center for Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency (RCREEE), told The New Arab that power outages on a regular basis impede economic progress by impairing investment, crippling service delivery, degrading quality of life, and disrupting industrial production.

They are especially catastrophic for industrial sectors that rely heavily on electricity. Hospitals and medical facilities depend on power to function. Since electricity is required for water treatment, pumping, and digital learning, power outages also have a negative influence on the water supply system and the educational sector.

Renewable energy 

Both El-Kharraz and Singh agree that there are several factors that contribute to aggravating the problem. Those factors include population growth and urbanization, which can potentially exacerbate the power reliability conundrum by piling additional pressure on electricity demand. But El-Kharraz pointed to an additional problem, saying that the population in the Arab region uses cooling devices that do not comply with international sustainability standards and thus consume more electricity than environmentally friendly devices and put pressure on networks, which results in power outages.

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The shadow of climate change, especially the rising temperatures, looms large over the region's energy needs, pushing the demand for energy due to increased cooling needs, according to Singh. Nevertheless, renewable energy, especially solar power, emerges as a beacon of hope for the MENA region to cater to this surging energy demand in a sustainable manner.

He noted that renewable energy acts as a double boon, slashing reliance on fossil fuels while providing an eco-friendly, sustainable energy solution. "Even as temperatures rise, solar panels, unlike conventional power plants, continue to perform efficiently, making renewable energy investments a strategic move for power stability in the face of climate change."

Agreeing with Singh, El-Kharraz expects that the frequency of heat waves will increase in the Arab region in the near future due to the El Niño phenomenon and the effects of global warming. He also believes that this problem requires governments to accelerate the energy transition towards clean energy and reduce dependence on fossil fuels.

Furthermore, El-Kharraz indicated that some countries in the region, such as Egypt and Morocco, are making great efforts in the way of energy transition by initiating huge projects to use green hydrogen and ammonia for energy production. Therefore, the electrical grid in these countries must be prepared to receive electricity from renewable energy sources.

Mohammed El-Said is the Science Editor at Daily News Egypt. His work has appeared in Science Magazine, Nature Middle East, Scientific American Arabic Edition, SciDev and other prominent regional and international media outlets

Follow him on Twitter: @MOHAMMED2SAID