Lebanon News

Nazarian ready to resign over blackouts

Circuit breakers. (The Daily Star/Hasan Shaaban)

BEIRUT: Energy Minister Arthur Nazarian said Wednesday that he was prepared to resign if it would help bring an end to the severe blackouts across the country, as Electricite du Liban promised that power rationing would ease starting Friday.

“I am here to serve the country. If Prime Minister Tammam Salam, whom I respect, tells me that my resignation will move things one step forward, I will resign tomorrow,” Nazarian told The Daily Star.

“My conscience is clear because I am trying to help as much as I can. I am not a prophet and I cannot produce miracles.”

Nazarian said that leaders of all the political factions must sit down together to produce a united vision for solving the electricity crisis.

Over the past few days, most of the city of Beirut and many areas across Lebanon have experienced rolling blackouts. The power normally cuts for just three hours a day in the capital.

A source from EDL said that the situation should return to normal Friday, after maintenance work at Lebanon’s second largest power plant is completed.

“The Zahrani power plant should resume feeding the electricity network Thursday evening, and everything should be back to normal starting Friday,” the source said.

EDL attributes the severe power rationing to the complete shutdown of the Zahrani power plant, which experienced a malfunction requiring urgent repair, and to the increased demand for electricity resulting from this week’s heat wave.

The increased demand has pushed the 220-kilovolt Horsh-Aramoun line, which supplies power to the city of Beirut, to its full capacity, necessitating rationing.

The EDL source said that in the meantime, auxiliary electricity units in Baalbek, Turkish electricity-generating ships and hydroelectric plants have all been asked to increase their output.

Lebanon suffers from chronic power cuts, as it does not produce enough electricity to meet demand. The power plants only produce around 1,500 megawatts of the 3,000 megawatts required to meet the population’s needs. The problem has been exacerbated by the arrival of 1.5 million Syrian refugees.

Nazarian explained that there have been delays in the implementation of a $1.2 billion plan to produce over 700 megawatts of electricity, which was approved by Parliament in 2011. The plan was passed during Gebran Bassil’s tenure as Energy Minister. At the time, Bassil, son-in-law of Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun, promised 24/7 power supply by 2015.

Nazarian said that despite the delays, a new power plant at Jiyyeh producing 80 megawatts will be inaugurated before the end of the year.

Another power plant in Zouk, which will produce 194 megawatts, is expected to begin operation at the beginning of next year.

But he lamented that construction of the plan’s largest project, a new power plant in north Lebanon’s Deir Ammar, has been obstructed by a dispute between the contractor and the Court of Accounts. The plant was supposed to be up and running, producing 525 megawatts of electricity, by the end of this year.

The dispute is over who will pay the VAT, estimated at $50 million.

“The minister is not a private company who can just sign contracts. Everything should win the approval of the Court of Accounts,” said Nazarian, who is also from Aoun’s bloc.

But MP Mohammad Qabbani, head of Parliament’s Public Works, Transport, Energy and Water Committee, said that the problem is that the electricity sector is still under the control of Bassil, who served as energy minister from 2009 to 2014.

“The 50 advisers who worked for Bassil when he was at the head of the Energy Ministry are still working for Nazarian. The only solution is to pull the electricity sector from this octopus, who is Gebran Bassil.” Qabbani said that Nazarian, under Bassil’s orders, was not properly implementing the Parliament’s plan, which also called for appointing members to an Electricity Regulatory Authority.

He said he wondered how Bassil, who had 50 well-paid advisors at the ministry, could make such an egregious error in the agreement with the contractor of the Deir Ammar project, making it unclear who would pay the VAT. “This is either the result of stupidity, or sign of huge corruption,” Qabbani told The Daily Star.

Qabbani added that it was Nazarian’s duty to ask Cabinet to appoint members of the Electricity Regulatory Authority.

Nazarian responded by contending that some of Bassil’s advisors had already left the ministry, and others were still working there because they had projects to finish.

“Some of them have left and some are still here. They are forced to stay because they have already started with projects.”

“Where is the problem if a minister is not an expert in a certain field and needs the help of advisors? I am not an electrical engineer or a lawyer who knows about all administrative laws,” Nazarian said.

He said he was waiting for consensus among Cabinet parties on candidates for the Electricity Regulatory Authority before requesting that it appoints new members.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 06, 2015, on page 3.

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