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Wednesday, April 10, 2024

Inside the Haywire World of Beirut's Electricity Brokers

A fading skirt of tawny light sets the city aglitter. The glare undulates for miles across the hillsides, touching cozy homes and glitzy high-rises and bullet-perforated storefronts. As the sky darkens, the Beirut power grid blossoms into a light show—flickering under the smallest of strains, at once beaming and struggling to burn, an electrical constellation to compete with the stars.

Below the hills of light there is one building whose marquee never dims or darkens. A large brutalist structure in the Mar Mikhael neighborhood of Lebanon's capital, the top floor is adorned with a white sign that seems to swallow all available surrounding light, stealing it from residential buildings nearby. On a clear night, the marquee shines through a nearby apartment overlooking the sea.

"If the Israelis come again, I hope they strike that building," Sam, the apartment's owner, says to me one evening. (His full name is withheld at his request because he fears legal trouble.) He points toward the imposing building, its windows filled with thrumming air conditioners. We are standing in Sam's apartment on a recessed central bay porch on the third floor of a qasr—a broad three-story residence overlooking the Mediterranean. Amid scattered beer cans and takeout bags on the balcony, Sam and a group of his friends maunder in the glare of the marquee during an electrical blackout.

One time, the marquee had broken and a single letter darkened, the missing Arabic character changing the meaning of the sign. "It once spelled 'Lebanese Bananas,'" he says. Given that the concrete building was the headquarters of Electricité du Liban, the state-owned power company and overseer of all things electric, to imagine one of the letters darkening is to fully realize the struggle over power (electrical, political, social) throughout Lebanon: Sometimes the lights do not stay on, even for the power company. Yet on this evening, the sign was glowing and the air conditioners below it were on, seemingly mocking the power outages elsewhere.

Electrical power here does not come without concerted exertion or personal sacrifice. Gas-powered generators and their operators fill the void created by a strained electric grid. Most people in Lebanon, in turn, are often stuck with two bills, and sometimes get creative to keep their personal devices—laptops, cell phones, tablets, smart watches—from going dead. Meanwhile, as citizens scramble to keep their inanimate objects alive, the local authorities are complicit in this patchwork arrangement, taking payments from the gray-market generator operators and perpetuating a nation’s struggle to stay wired.

Lebanon has been a glimmering country ever since the 15-year civil war began in 1975, and the reverberations from that conflict persist. These days there is only one city, Zahle, with electricity 24/7. Computer banks in schools and large air conditioners pumping out chills strain the grid, and daily state-mandated power cuts run from at least three hours to 12 hours or more. Families endure power outages mid-cooking, mid-washing, mid-Netflix binging. Residents rely on mobile phone apps to track the time of day the power will be cut, as it shifts between three-hour windows in the morning and afternoon, rotating throughout the week.

Once called the Paris of the Middle East, sometimes the region’s Sin City, Beirut’s supplementary power needs are effectively under the control of what is known here as the generator mafia: a loose conglomerate of generator owners and landlords who supply a great deal of the country’s power. This group is indirectly responsible for the Wi-Fi, which makes possible any number of WhatsApp conversations—an indispensable lifeline for the country’s refugees, foreign aid workers, and journalists and locals alike.

Electricité du Liban, the Lebanese electricity company, has a meager budget and relies on a patchwork approach—including buying power from neighboring countries and leasing diesel generator barges—to produce power; meanwhile, corruption in local and state politics means that government-allocated funds often do not reach the people or places for which they are intended. The community—or mafia—of generator owners is thus a solution to a widespread problem, and it has grown into a cottage industry, both intractable and necessary.

Sam says he doesn't buy backup juice for his apartment, which he rented last spring. Somewhere along the electrical wires cast like nets across the city, a bootlegged electrical line running from a generator was spliced in his favor: A single “magic” outlet powers his wireless router during outages. It’s one thing to be kept from doing your laundry, and another thing entirely to be kept from your friends or family. Besides, tracking down the generator owner responsible for this one outlet would be a journey of more than 1,001 nights. In the city of Beirut alone, there are roughly 12,000 generators and their owners. Though it is technically illegal, regulators have a hard time squashing the network, which has grown to cover most of the country. Officials aren’t so much paid off to look the other way; they’re paid because, it is said, they own some of the generators.

In the Mreijeh neighborhood, one of the electricians is known to locals as “the real energy minister.” His wiring, strung between generators and buildings to which they pump power, are so thick that they blot out the sun. In the Bourj al-Barajneh neighborhood, some residents share their power "subscription," perhaps with magic outlets of their own; the subscription operator and generator owner turns a blind eye. In the district known as Shiah, the "Dons" do not allow any such manipulation—they do, however, have a weakness for European soccer matches and boost power on game nights. And in al-Fanar, it is important that the distributors of this power pay close attention to usage and monitor peak hours, doing their best to keep service operating when the state fails.

"We cover where there is no state," says Abdel al-Raham, an owner and operator of generators in East Beirut. He began with a small generator, which he used to power his house, around the start of the civil war in 1975. But the generator was loud and noxious, so over time, as a gesture of good faith, he would give his neighbors a lamp connected to his generator. "Just enough for them to light their house and to make up for all the annoying noise," he says.

But because of his generosity, his wife soon became unable to run the washing machine. He went out and bought a new, bigger generator. Then shop owners nearby needed more power, and his brother came to him and proposed they split profits on the power they could sell to the neighborhood. Self-sufficiency turned into entrepreneurship.

Raham, like other operators, complains about repair costs; under-the-table operating fees—essentially, bribes—to the local municipalities in which they operate; the unpaid bills by some of the country's Syrian and Egyptian refugees who are using an estimated additional 486 megawatts; and the increasing cost of diesel fuel to run the generators.

But Raham felt a responsibility to his community in which three-quarters of the homes rely on his generators for some portion of their power. In some of those homes, he says, elderly people rely on medical devices 24 hours a day. A lack of electricity would be a threat to their health.

"I can't leave this job. … It's a labor of love," he adds. "The people I provide electricity for have also become my friends. The government tries to crack down on us and calls us, I don't know, 'mafias.' … They have no right to consider us a mafia, because we don't impose on anyone to do anything. We just let people reap the benefits of our electricity."

Residents of Lebanon have three basic options: buy a generator subscription, own your own generator, or splurge for what’s known as an uninterruptible power supply.

When you move into an apartment, you will most often connect with the local generator owner who will set up a subscription for 5 amps, 10 amps, 15 amps, or more, depending on your budget and consumption during the scheduled power outages. Residents will also do this with their water providers—one bill and service provider for filtered water, and another bill and service provider for gray water. (Water utilities are likewise a … gray area.) Internet is handled by another ad hoc collection of quasi-legal independent operators, as is trash, which the city is supposed to take care of but often fails to collect. These entities are more than private providers or secret crusaders. They are a necessary convenience to which one is connected through inconvenient terms.

Though they claim they make little money on their ventures, generator owners can net tens of thousands of dollars in monthly revenue. They also undercut one another, vying for customers in any given neighborhood. Elie Haddad, a reserved, middle-aged banker, told me a story about the situation in his building. A generator owner offered a lower subscription cost for energy to power the elevator. The homeowners' association decided it would switch generator providers. The dispossessed generator operator would come around, "complaining about how we've left their business and all that. But what can I tell him?" Haddad says. "He charged way too much and the other guys offered us a better deal."

At his apartment in the Jdeideh neighborhood, Haddad pays two bills a month: one to Electricité du Liban and one to the generator provider for his building. "As someone who works in a bank, you should know that there's something fishy about constantly having to account for things twice."

Many developing countries suffer from electricity problems, but a World Bank report from 2015 suggested that Lebanon's problems go beyond technical issues. It would cost the government $5 billion to $6 billion to bring 24-hour power to the country, according to one estimate, and yet the government spends roughly $1.4 billion a year just to cover the cost of fuel. “The technical solutions are all proven and tested; what is needed is the political will to make a decision,” Husam Beides, a Beirut-based World Bank official, told Reuters in 2015. The report also noted that, on average, Lebanese households spent more than $1,300 a year on electricity in 2016 at a time when gross national income per capita was roughly $9,800.

Haddad pays for 10 amps a month (roughly 2,200 watts, or enough to power an electric kettle and desktop computer concurrently) and also receives a separate bill for the building elevator and hallway lights. It used to be that residents paid $90 for 10 amps, which cost $14 to generate, but Haddad says that today he pays $267 for 5 amps every month—about four times the amount he pays concurrently to Electricité du Liban. Municipalities now regulate the maximum cost the generator owners can charge their clients, though their control over the generator owners is hardly comprehensive. It is a tractor-pull relationship between local officials and generator owners. “The policy by which the municipalities and generator owners are connected is neither legal nor organized,” Antoine K. Gebara, the mayor of an eastern Beirut suburb, told me. “There is no system. … It should not be like this.”

The generator owners stepped in when the government could not provide services, but had to be controlled and regulated (as best as one might regulate a network of entrepreneurial privateers) by the same municipalities that couldn’t effectively supply power. Now, the generator owners turn around and pay the municipalities for the pleasure of dominating a market in which other generator owners might come to set up shop.

And so the rolling blackouts continue.

A man in black loafers stands in the corner of a wedge of a smoky office, sipping a dainty cup of espresso and peering at a wall of digital voltage readouts. Beside him is his boss, whom we will call Antanios, seated at a chipboard desk covered in cigarette ash. The office is a new space, trimmed in faux-gold and tiled with marble floors. Opposite the desk is a cabinet jammed with large fuses, copper wires, and electrical boxes that seem to report through digital readouts the voltages coursing through them.

Antanios wears a Grøn Tuborg T-shirt, on which he cleans his fingers after picking his ears. He waves a sheaf of receipt papers at me while he speaks, struggling to juggle the receipts, his coffee, cigarette, and a phone whose ringer never settles. “They call us criminals, electricity thieves, robbers with generators. How are we the criminals?” Antanios asks me, his voice a rasp. “Yes, it’s extremely expensive. But that’s the government’s fault.”

He reaches into a drawer and pulls out another sheaf of receipts from the municipality and one signed by a local politician, each one totaling around $1,300. He had paid his commission to the politician—a headache Antanios wishes he could avoid (though perhaps it is better than being under the thumb of Hezbollah factions, who at times questioned me while working on this story as I sought answers about generators and their owners)—along with his taxes to the city government. Such a monthly burden meant his business had to generate substantial cash. He tells me he can sometimes get $32,000 a month in revenue. But he is quick to point out that he works hard for the money. For example, Antanios says, the night before he and his electricians spent six hours trying to identify the cause of a shortage throughout the neighborhood.

Just then the room darkens. A loud popping rips through the room, as though someone were stepping on a floor made of light bulbs. From across the street, emerging from a shantytown, from under an umbrella of corrugated metal, several of Antanios’ workers race to the office. The power from Electricité du Liban had cut in his sector, and now the breakers and generators were turning on, feeding into the lines that were cast out from his office and the nearby generators. But the switchover happens smoothly. An oscillating fan in the office hadn’t come to a stop before the power kicked back on, less than 30 seconds later.

Embracing the darkness is something of an inherited pastime for Ibrahim Azzam, 26, whose family home rarely has power. It makes getting out of the house that much easier: With no power to operate fans or air conditioners, it's too hot to stay inside, so he must step out into the breeze. “There is no need for an electricity generator,” Azzam says. “People just need to switch to equipment that consumes less power.”

He often navigates Beirut on his track bicycle usually wearing an organic vapor mask to block out the smog.

Last year, researchers visited the Hamra neighborhood, a popular tourism and shopping district in Beirut, to study the health effects of generator usage. Fifty-three percent of the 588 buildings there had diesel generators. The study, by the American University of Beirut's Collaborative for the Study of Inhaled Atmospheric Aerosols, found that throughout the city, the 747 tons of fuel consumed during a typical daily three-hour outage resulted in the production of 11,000 tons of nitrogen oxide annually. The territory of Delhi, India, relies heavily on diesel generators too, but Beirut emissions are more than five times worse per capita than those in the Indian capital.

“Every time I go cycling outside of Beirut, coming back to see this thick smog caused by all these generators being turned on—it’s really saddening,” Azzam adds.

He and his family have found creative ways to live without a generator subscription, which leaves them with as many as 20 hours a day without electricity. They use an assortment of batteries connected to a 1,000-watt solar panel array, which Azzam says is far less expensive (even accounting for the battery replacement) than a generator subscription. He bought the setup three years ago when his area, near the university in Haddat, suffered four to five days without power. His fan, laptop, and portable batteries can all be charged at once, while simultaneously powering a wireless router and small LED lamps.

When he was younger, his father used the plastic eggs of Kinder Surprise candy to house a circuit, LED, and a sensor. The homemade devices would power on when they sensed the light had turned off in the apartment, allowing the family to navigate the darkness.

Today, Azzam works on a Lenovo Thinkpad and uses a Caterpillar cell phone, which has a battery life of nearly five days. He’s not only conscious about his energy consumption, but he also has become increasingly aware of the relationship between electricity and social media. The energy—psychic and personal—he puts into social media could be funneled to someplace more enlivening.

“The power cuts make me more outgoing and active,” Azzam says. “Lots of people have electricity all the time. Generators and air conditioning tend to make people stay at home a lot.”

At his office, where he works as a cybersecurity analyst, seated behind a computer all day, he says he can feel the generators churn on around the neighborhood. He notices the way he feels around fluorescent lighting—uncomfortable and vaguely ill, like Chuck McGill from "Better Call Saul," who suffers from extreme electromagnetic hypersensitivity (though less neurotic and unreasonable). He says he welcomes his time outdoors, disconnected, free from the electric, tethered world.

“I think our phones are like pets. I was always anxious, ‘Oh, my battery is going to die, I have to charge it right away.’ My phone can’t talk, can’t speak, can’t see anymore when the battery goes off: It’s like your third eye is blinded.

“It’s a sickness I went through,” he says.

Now he’s seen the light.

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