Talking to the reigns of energy policy

By Sami Halabi

Lebanon’s Energy Minister Gebran Bassil offers an in-depth look at his new power plan

The Energy Minister tells all in a one-on-one (Photo: Sam Tarling)

Gebran Bassil is the minister of energy and water and the former minister of telecoms. In June, the cabinet unanimously approved Bassil’s five-year plan to reform the energy sector. I sat down with the minister for an exclusive interview to discuss how he plans to deal with the private sector, corruption and political interests.

Q: You are looking for a large investment from the private sector, around $2.3 billion as a start, but how are you going to strike a balance between your commitment to not increasing tariffs for another three years, and asking the private sector to build a number of power installations before that?

The tariff structure will be fixed in a way to serve two targets: first, to relieve the government’s subsidy of the electrical sector, and second, to take into consideration the poor people and productive sectors. Buying electricity from the private sector [independent power providers] has a direct effect on the final cost of providing power [to the consumer], because the cost [of producing power] changes.

It will not affect the private sector because the government will buy the electricity from the private sector for an agreed upon price [which accounts for costs]. This will only constitute 1,500 megawatts out of the 4,000 planned, and will affect the total cost the government pays by 35 percent.

Q: But what about the distribution side? The concessions [private electricity distributors] are saying they want to be service providers but without the ability to change prices, are they going to be willing to make the investments?

The distribution side is not taking a risk and this is not fair. We are not asking them to pay us for the quantity of electricity production. We are asking them to pay us what they are collecting on the end-user side, not on the generation side. This is a major guarantee for them but the state also needs a guarantee that they should pay us what we have been collecting, plus a certain margin, plus an incentive for any margins they would add to us. This should give them enough will to rehabilitate the distribution sector and to speed up the installation of the ‘smart grid’ [which distributes power more efficiently].

Q: Are you asking them to enter into a four-year partnership regardless of the cost structure?

Of course. But this four-year partnership will, later on, allow them to be real partners in the distribution sector. Because later if we decide to sell the network or to license it out, then they will be the most adapted to bid.

Q: So you are looking to annul their concession agreements and move them into service providers. How are you hoping to achieve this?

Yes, we will give [existing concessions] the chance to enter. But there will be other companies that will be willing and they will have to compete. If we can give them enough incentives or a priority, in return they would give up on the concessions. We will see, in a fair way, how we can help them. We are looking to solve a problem that is costing the state a lot of money. We cannot afford it. They are making money, so they can make a little bit less. This situation will not go on as is.

Q: There are a lot of public administrations and politicians that are not paying their bills. You said you would publish their names. Are you going to do this? When is the accountability going to come?

We have already cut the power to 50 percent of them and we made the others pay. This is something that is 90 percent done, we are still closing the file on the other 10 percent because they claimed other rights and protested in front of the courts. Now we have another problem between regions and villages, where in some of them we have a high rate of collection and on others we have a very low one.

In the technical losses we also have a large discrepancy where in some places we have 15 percent losses and in others we have 78 percent. We are trying to achieve a certain level of equality between all regions and people. This will be a real sign of reform and send the right message to the people that they should pay because the state cannot pay anymore. We are asking them to contribute in exchange for relieving them from the private generators.

Q: Unbilled electricity is estimated by some experts at as much as 40 percent of the total. Are you looking to re-enact a principle set by former president Lahoud to allow police to accompany search teams and collectors?

We are approaching it in a quiet way. I know there is a lot to be done and I am following up with judges, the police and everyone involved. Arrears are now paid in installments that reach 72 months. We are facilitating this in order to encourage people to pay their dues. The smartest thing is to have a ‘smart grid’, because this is where you are unbeatable. Now they beat you, and we cannot make the police walk with every collector, it is not possible. In order to have 99 percent efficiency we have to have a system that is controlled by us and not by the consumer.

Q: You have stated that you would like to change Law 462 [the electricity law] in order to accommodate for the new plan, In your opinion what needs to change with regards to Law 462?

This is not the place to specify all the amendments that need to take place. But in principle, do we need to unbundle transmission from distribution? Is it possible in a small country like Lebanon? Are we able to liberalize the distribution sector? In some places we cannot reach more than a 5 percent rate of collection, so how will the private sector come in? There are major strategic questions that need answers.

We will have to look at the law after reading the results of the experience that we will go through during the next four years, where we will see if it is possible to have Electricité du Liban (EDL) as three companies or as one. What is more important is that, as it is now, the law is not applicable. If you want to apply it you have to wait a few years. It’s already been eight years and we have done nothing. The law itself talks of a transition period, so we consider this as the transition period: we work according to the law and amend it, taking what is good from our experience and putting it in the law. We need to give it a high priority because it relates to the future of the sector.

Q: Are you for the creation of an Electricity Regulatory Authority (ERA), as stipulated in the law?

It depends on what are our choices in the sector. If the private sector is involved it would need to be regulated by an ERA. So are we able to appoint it now, then wait two to three years until it has its structure and its bylaws?

Q: You seem like you are describing the Telecom Regulatory Authority now.

We don’t want the same thing to happen. We would be mixed up with two sets of prerogatives and have EDL still working and fixing prices. We need to prepare the ground for the ERA to come in later on and see what it will need in terms of regulation, then we will decide when to launch it. Do you think that anyone can take the decision now to change tariffs?

Q: Well, the Council of Ministers could do it.

Of course. But this is a major political and social decision that you cannot take when you have a sector that is completely paralyzed. You need to bring it up, restructure it, and then you might say ‘this is what we need and this is what we don’t need.’

Q: In your plan you note that many of EDL’s employees are “political appointees and unqualified workers.” Which political parties are you talking about and how are you going to make sure that these parties will not block the corporatization of EDL?

You can never be sure in Lebanon, and you need to be strong enough to forbid them from doing this. It’s much better to have a consensus on the issue just as we had with the plan. Because we cannot be sure, we are not relating everything to the corporatization or unbundling. If someone wants to hinder the process of corporatization, politically they can because it is mostly related to the employees. Once we have all actions moving together, definitely we will have problems and obstacles that stop some, but the other actions will be moving ahead.

Q: If there is political interference, will you move to expose who is responsible by name?

Yes of course. Now I have a plan that is approved and I am accountable for implementing it.

Q: One of the three zoning scenarios you have outlined has caused concern among many people, including the European Union, because it seems to break up the country into sectarian pieces to be split up between the power brokers of Lebanon. Are we planning the sectarianization of electricity in Lebanon?

Is it the job of the EU to determine how we want to distribute electricity? This was based, only, on the electrical distribution that is adopted now in EDL; it has nothing to do with other issues. You have to work based on what you already have. I cannot decompose them and recompose them now.

Q: The fear is that if you use independent power production (IPP) and the large sectarian influences get involved in each area, they will control electricity provisioning to their respective populations.

For me, when I work in a transparent way, I don’t see things in that way. I don’t see a problem once we create a transparent tender for a company to win. If it is politically backed or not; it is not my problem. My problem is to get the best price, and if we don’t get the best price I won’t accept to proceed with IPP.

Q: Why did you forego the option of coal, seeing as it is the cheapest option and it can be cleaned to limit some of its environmental impact?

I did not exclude it. In a sense it can always be adopted if it proves to be possible. First of all, the main pillar of this policy paper is gas, because we will need gas not only for electricity, we will need it later on for industry, transport and domestic use. Once we expand investment on building infrastructure for gas, we will have the power plants working on them as well. It’s complementary. This is what makes the paper not only a policy paper for electricity but also for energy. Gas is not expensive, and it is the least pollutant, which is not the case with coal. Coal has so many complexities in affording the coal and storing it in a country where you don’t have good monitoring on environmental issues. Another issue is that a coal factory is expensive to build and very long term.

Q: What about the potential of local gas, as we have extraction legislation now that is current being considered?

This is another reason we should rely on gas. If we have gas in our seas, let’s take it out and use it. The law will be adopted the way we are presenting it with minor changes. But we will adopt the law and we will stick to two main rules that can be described as political.

First is to have a committee that is under the minister and reports to the minister, who will report to the Council of Ministers. The decisions will be formed technically and transformed politically through institutional means. This will give a guarantee to both the state and the investor that it is a fair, well controlled and monitored process. Secondly, the revenues coming from gas will be put in a sovereign fund to secure its value.

Q: The plan has been approved by the Council of Ministers but parliament has not yet voted on the new laws to be passed. When do you think this will happen?

What we need now is only one law — and we might not even need it — for the production of energy. For this we prepared a small draft. Or we wait for the public-private partnership (PPP) law, which might include this inside it.

First published in Executive Magazine’s August 2010 issue