GCC countries face electricity squeeze

Gulf countries are gearing up for one of the biggest expansions of electricity-generating capacity in history.

A night view of Kuwait City on November 27,2008 Kuwaitis complain that growth of the city is on freeze, as the country awaits the Emir Sheikh Sabah alahmed al-Sabah to decide if he wants to accept the resignation of the government or not.    REUTERS/Stephanie McGehee    (KUWAIT) *** Local Caption ***  KUW01_KUWAIT-ECONOM_1127_11.JPG *** Local Caption ***  KUW01_KUWAIT-ECONOM_1127_11.JPG
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GCC countries are gearing up for one of the biggest expansions of electricity-generating capacity in history, even as they confront difficulties in securing debt finance and fuel for the plants. From Kuwait to Saudi Arabia to Abu Dhabi, it is the same story: power officials looking at a doubling or tripling of consumption in the next two decades, but facing acute shortages of natural gas. With the easing of the economic crisis and renewed growth, this year could become an especially big year for the power industry, said Dietmar Siersdorfer, the chief executive of the Middle East energy cluster for Siemens, the German maker of generating equipment.

"Due to the financial crisis in the whole world, there was one year lost because there was no financing available here in the region and now there's a certain backlog which has to go first," he said. "We see at the moment many projects starting to fly in the region: both because of demand, but also by finance capabilities." Kuwait, which suffers from power cuts each summer, plans to spend US$15 billion (Dh55.09bn) to double power capacity to 20,000 megawatts by 2020, said Suhaila Marafi, the director of the department of studies and research at the ministry of electricity and water.

The ministry was told by the state oil company six months ago that no natural gas would be available for additional power projects, Ms Marafi told a MEED power conference in Abu Dhabi. The new plants will have to burn low-quality fuel oil, she said. Saudi Arabia could see power consumption rise 57 per cent to 65,000mw by 2018, said Bander Allaf, the senior planning engineer for the Saudi Electricity Company. The kingdom will need to boost capacity by 3,000mw a year, which is equivalent to the output of two of the nuclear reactors planned for Abu Dhabi, at a total cost of $54.7bn, he said, according to Bloomberg.

Unless the kingdom adopts solar power or builds nuclear reactors, it will burn 27 per cent more oil a year, decreasing the amount available for export, said Paddy Padmanathan, the president and chief executive of ACWA Power International, based in Saudi Arabia. "The largest producer of oil, which is by far the largest OPEC exporter, will consume more oil at an increasing rate," he said of the country. "By 2020, Saudi Arabia will have only half the oil it produces under OPEC quota to sell overseas."

The Abu Dhabi Water and Electricity Company sees power demand more than doubling by 2020 and will need to step up exports to the Northern Emirates and supply new industrial projects, a forecast showed on Tuesday. The growth projections were at the heart of the emirate's decision last December to award a contract to build four reactors. The shortage of gas to all these countries is only one constraint: power developers said the limited availability of financing could prove to be a bigger challenge.

With banks' liquidity limited, larger power stations costing more than $3bn are especially difficult to fund, said Ranald Spiers, the executive director for the Middle East at International Power, the power generation company based in the UK that has helped build a number of plants in the GCC. "The biggest obstacle by far is access to finance," he said. "Putting together $1bn or $2bn of debt is much more difficult."

Duncan Allison, the director of project finance for the Middle East at HSBC, said financing was still constrained and limited to a small circle of projects with government partners that posed the least risk to banks. "A lot of projects were put on hold and they're all coming back at a time when the markets are still constrained," he said. "The issue is the number of projects needing financing." cstanton@thenational.ae