When a power cut took Egypt's state TV channels off air for close to an hour last week — for the first time since the Soviet-era Maspero building which houses state broadcasters was opened in 1960 — Egyptians responded with humour.
“Who found out that the power was out in Maspero? Is there really anyone who watches Egyptian [state] television anymore?” read one popular tweet by a user named Tarek Amr.
Egypt has for years suffered from a worsening energy crunch prompted by fuel shortages, with frequent power outages, particularly in the summer when national consumption spikes by almost a tenth due to air-conditioning usage, say officials.
Although the jury is still out on the cause of the Maspero blackout, with different departments blaming one another, creeping power cuts ahead of the summer and the fasting month of Ramadan are no laughing matter in the Arab world’s most populous country.
Already, local media is rife with reports of hours-long outages in impoverished provinces in Upper Egypt, in the governorate of Menoufia which is north-west of the capital, and in Cairo itself, as Egyptians nervously anticipate what the coming months will bring.
Among the worst afflicted is the governorate of Assiut in Upper Egypt, where daily power cuts have become more frequent and more prolonged.
“We are used to the power being out for an hour a day since last year, but over the past ten days there has been a minimum of 5 or 6 outages a day, each lasting at least an hour,” Osama Seddiq, a resident of Assiut, told Ahram Online in a phone interview.
Several local electricity pylons were bombed in recent weeks, with varying degrees of damage, though the main reason authorities still give for the cuts is “lessening the load” on the grid, says Seddiq.
The outages have even begun to disrupt the food supply.
“A few days ago,” says Seddiq, “the bakers in our village were unable to prepare the subsidised bread in time for people to collect it in the morning. The power went out from 5am to 12 noon, so people just took the raw dough home to bake themselves.”
Bread is the main staple in the diet of most Egyptians, who are entitled to five loaves a day according to a state-subsidy program.
Assiut suffers from a poverty rate of nearly 70 percent, the highest in Egypt, and 2.4 million residents have poor access to food according to a 2013 World Food Programme report.
The governor has assured the press that a power plant built by Orascom Construction with a total capacity of 1 gigawatt will start operating in stages between the end of this month and the end of August, and will resolve the crisis.
Parts of the rural north are also affected.
Ihab, a 33 year-old father of one who works in downtown Cairo and lives with his family in a Menoufiya village, complains that the power to his home goes out on average three times a week.
“The government keeps telling people that there is not enough electricity because people waste it, but we only have a few fans, a refrigerator, a washing machine, and a television, and no air conditioning.”
The government of President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi has said it will put an end to the outages by adding 6 gigawatts of electricity to the national grid by the end of the calendar year.
A little over 3.6 gigawatts of those are due to be added between May and August as part of a $2.7 billion emergency plan to boost production by as much as 9.6 percent.
Egypt has already passed a law to open the power generation and distribution to the private sector, and set feed-in-tariffs to enable investments in renewables such as solar and wind power.
The most highly anticipated new project in the plan is the installation of 46 gas turbines delivered by General Electric which are scheduled to add 2.6 gigawatts to the grid this month, according to the initial announcement of the deal, but will probably be completed by August, Yehia Shankir, director of business development for renewables at GE’s sub-contractor El Sewedy Electric told Ahram Online.
GE told Ahram Online "the projects are not delayed."
Within the same period, German industrial group Siemens is providing four gas turbines with a total capacity of 650 megawatts for a plant near Suez, and Italy's Ansaldo Energia has agreed to supply two gas turbines with a combined capacity of 350 megawatts.
Gas supply is also improving, particularly with the arrival of a floating liquefied natural gas (LNG) import terminal leased from Norway’s Hoegh LNG at the Ain Sokhna port early last month.
About 86 percent of the country’s power stations are designed to operate mainly on natural gas, Minister of Electricity Mohamed Shaker said last February.
Egypt also signed deals to import 35 cargoes of LNG from Russia's Gazprom over five years, in addition to 55 cargoes of LNG in the next two years.
The country has issued a tender to lease a second floating terminal and is preparing another port for it to dock between August and September of this year, a government official told Ahram Online.
‘Stock up on candles’
Still, Egyptians are bracing themselves for a tough summer.
Ashraf, the manager of a downtown Cairo branch of a popular chain department store, says sales of battery-powered fans, torches, and bulbs are higher this month than they were this time last year.
“Sales are already about 10 percent higher, but a lot of people just come to see what we offer, so that they can be ready if the situation gets worse to buy these devices.”
“We will just stock up on candles,” Ihab, who earns LE1,050 ($138) a month, says wryly when asked about his contingency plans for the summer.
6 gigawatts a year
In the long term, Egypt needs to keep upping its current output of around 30 gigawatts by 6 gigawatts each year for the next 7 years to keep up with growing demand, Minister of Electricity Mohamed Shaker told investors at an international conference held in Sharm El-Sheikh in March.
Egypt’s economic growth rate is predicted to reach 4 percent the end of the fiscal year in June, according to Minister of Planning Ashraf El-Araby, up from just 2.2 percent last year.
The government is targeting 6 percent of growth by 2018/19, El-Araby said earlier this month.
Wind, sun and coal
Renewable sources of energy, namely solar and wind power, are set to make up 20 percent of the country’s energy mix by 2020.
The government has already received bids for around 4 gigawatts-worth of solar and wind projects, though an expert says it will take another year or two before these stations become operational.
“Because wind and solar strength have to be measured for months before construction can begin on a project, it takes on average one and a half years to establish a solar-powered station and two years to establish a wind-powered station,” says Shankir.
The government has also approved the use of coal for power generation, as well as to fuel energy-intensive industries such as cement and steel.
The plan initially encountered staunch resistance last year by then-environment minister Laila Iskander, though following a cabinet reshuffle, her successor has allowed the passage of the coal bill under the condition that Egypt abide by international standards of safe usage.
Coal will account for less than 5 percent of Egypt’s energy mix by 2020, Minister of Environment Khaled Fahmy has assured in statements reported by state-news agency MENA.
*This article was updated on 20 May 2015