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Syria: Transforming its power sector

Syria’s power demand is forecast to skyrocket and furthermore the demand pattern is shifting. Thus, investment, especially foreign, in its electricity sector together with a shift away from heavy fuel oil are now the priorities.

Paul Breeze

The Syrian Arab Republic occupies a strategic position at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea. Its northern border is with Turkey through which Syria hopes to become a hub for the export of natural gas and oil from Arab countries to the European Union (EU). In the south west it forms a long border with Lebanon while in the far south it faces Israel across the disputed Golan Heights. Meanwhile to its east and southeast lie Iraq and Jordan.

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The country straddles the river Euphrates which flows from Turkey, through Syria and on into Iraq. Both Turkey and Syria exploit the river for hydropower and this has caused friction in the past because upstream use in Turkey can affect generation in Syria. Meanwhile exploitation by Turkey, and to a lesser extent by Syria has had an impact on irrigation and farming in Iraq.

The Syrian energy sector is based primarily on oil and gas. In 2008, the country produced around 450 000 barrels per day (bpd) of oil and 6.0 billion m3 of natural gas.

According to the Oil and Gas Journal, the country had 2.5 billion barrels of oil reserves at the beginning of 2009 and 421 billion m3 of gas reserves. Consumption of oil in 2008 was 256 00 bpd according to the US Energy Information Administration with 192 000 bpd exported.

In 2008, natural gas consumption was 6.2 billion m3, with the shortfall imported. Syria is linked to the Arab Gas Pipeline, which currently connects Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. Connection with Turkey is expected to be completed in 2010, allowing a future link into the EU gas network. Syria and Iraq are also constructing a pipeline linking the two countries, and talks are underway with Iran too, potentially allowing Iranian natural gas to be exported to Europe at some time in the future.

Thermal and Hydro Dominate

The electricity sector in Syria comes under the control of the Ministry of Electricity, which oversees the state utilities responsible for electricity generation, transmission and distribution, as well as taking charge of electricity policy. The Public Establishment for Electricity Generation and Transmission (PEEGT) controls most of the generating capacity in the country, and runs the transmission system. Meanwhile, the Public Establishment for Distribution and Exploitation of Electrical Energy (PEDEEE) controls the distribution and sale of power, which has traditionally been heavily subsidized. In addition the Ministry of Irrigation and the Ministry of Petroleum and Mineral Resources control some hydropower capacity.

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Syria endured power shortages, rationing and frequent blackouts during the 1980s and early 1990s as demand outstripped supply. Since then the security of supply has improved significantly but power cuts returned during 2007 as demand again soared while drought restricted output from its hydropower plants. This forced the government to put in place plans to increase capacity significantly over the next five to ten years.

Generating capacity in 1998 was little over 4000 MW and in 2001 per capita consumption was just 1500 kWh/year, according to the PEEGT, compared to 5000 kWh in Saudi Arabia, 6600 kWh in Germany and 12 800 kWh in the USA. By the beginning of 2007, generating capacity had reached 6250 MW and by the middle of 2008 it was 7550 MW and per capita consumption had risen to 2175 kWh/year.

Capacity is expected to reach 8300 MW by the end of 2009. Most of this capacity is based on thermal plants but there are three hydropower plants on the Euphrates with a combined generating capacity of 900 MW.

Establishing Power Links

As mnetioned above the majority of generation in Syria is based on thermal power plants, which accounted for 81.6 per cent of total power generation in 2007, according to PEEGT, while 18.4 per cent was derived from hydropower. Of the total, 88 per cent was produced by PEEGT, nine per cent by plants operated by the Ministry of Irrigation and three per cent by the Ministry of Petroleum and Mineral Resources.

Generation by source, 2007 – Source: PEEGT
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Syria, which has traditionally burnt heavy fuel oil in its power plants, has been switching to natural gas as its preferred fuel. In 2007, 33 per cent of the country’s power was generated by burning natural gas in open and combined-cycle power plants, while 58 per cent was produced from the firing of heavy fuel oil in steam turbine plants. The total efficiency of plants controlled by PEEGT in 2007 was 36 per cent.

Electricity production in 2000 was 25 217 GWh but this rose to 31 700 GWh by 2004 and 38 616 GWh in 2007. Demand in 2007 however was put at 41 550 kWh, with the shortfall imported. Demand growth since 2000 has averaged between six per cent and seven per cent and this rate of growth is expected to continue.

PEEGT operates a 400 kV and 230 kV transmission system, while the main operating voltage for the country’s distribution system is 66 kV. There are interconnections via Jordan with Egypt and the countries of North Africa, and with Turkey.

A proposed connection between Egypt and Saudi Arabia will permit access to the Gulf Cooperation Council grid so that in the future the North African and Gulf grids could be linked with the EU grid through Turkey. In addition, Syria has an interconnection with Lebanon and a contract to export power. It recently concluded a contract with Turkey for a 400 kV link that will allow power to be imported directly from the Birecik hydropower plant. In 2007, Syria imported 1396 GWh and exported 991 GWh.

Changing Consumption Pattern

The growth in demand for electricity in Syria has been accompanied in recent years by a change in the pattern of consumption, with the annual peak load shifting gradually from winter to summer as air-conditioning loads increase in size. To meet the growing and changing pattern of demand, Syria announced in 2008 that it intended to add 4500 MW of additional capacity by 2010.

Historical output and future electricity demand – Source: PEEGT
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In early 2008, the PEEGT concluded contracts for 450 MW of capacity and contracts for a further 400 MW were being negotiated. Tenders for four more projects with a combined capacity of 2200 MW were being evaluated, while tenders for an additional 1400 MW of thermal capacity were expected. Preparations were also being made for a tender for a 100 MW wind farm.

Boosting Renewable Energy

Renewable energy in Syria is currently based primarily on hydropower in the electricity sector and some biomass in other sectors. Biomass contributes around 0.6 Mtoe (million tonnes of oil equival ent) annually to total energy consumption, while hydropower contributes between 0.5 Mtoe and 0.9 Mtoe, depending on the water conditions, for a total renewable energy contribution of around 6-7 per cent of total energy demand.

The country is keen to boost its renewable production and has indicated that renewable energy might account for 10.3 per cent of total energy demand by 2030. Recent data from the Ministry of Electricity indicate that preparations are underway for the terms of reference for a 20 MW experimental wind farm and for four 100 MW wind farms, with details of all to be announced during 2009.

Meanwhile a photovoltaic (PV) plant with a proposed capacity of 10 MW is due to be constructed on a build-own-operate basis in the Homs region, and the government wants to establish a PV panel production plant with an annual capacity of 11 MW by the end of 2009.

Encouraging Foreign Investment

According to PEEGT, electricity demand in Syria is likely to be over 46 000 GWh by 2010 and nearing 75 000 GWh by 2020. Other figures suggest that demand is rising even faster and top 50 000 GWh by 2010 and 90 000 GWh by 2020.

Faced with such rapidly accelerating demand, the government is being forced to find ways to attract international investment in the power sector, which it is finding increasingly difficult to fund internally. As part of this move, the Ministry of Electricity has announced that it is selecting five sites where it intends to negotiate the construction of independent power producer (IPP) projects based on a new investment law introduced in 2007.

Prequalification for the first major IPP project, a 230-250 MW dual fuel reciprocating engine plant, ended in June 2009. Syria however, has attempted to launch an IPP programme before so it remains to be seen if the process will lead to contracts and to construction of one or more IPP plants.

Contracts for new state-owned thermal plants should see output keep pace with demand until the end of the decade. But beyond that, much may depend on whether the country can finally establish an IPP sector. Otherwise electricity production is likely to be limited by the ability of the government to fund construction. MEE

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