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Southern village enjoys 24-hour power.

Summary: The little hilltop town of Kherbet Silm in south Lebanon used to get, on average, 12 hours of electricity a day from the state-owned Electricite du Liban.

KHERBET SILM, Lebanon: The little hilltop town of Kherbet Silm in south Lebanon used to get, on average, 12 hours of electricity a day from the state-owned Electricite du Liban. Those who could afford to bought an extra few hours of power from noisy private generators, which barely produced enough energy to keep the food in the refrigerator from spoiling, let alone to power the water pump, air conditioning and lights.

Since May 25 -- Liberation Day, local officials are quick to point out -- residents have also been liberated from the burden of having to buy and maintain their own supplemental power sources. The municipality now owns and operates two large diesel generators that switch on automatically when the power cuts, providing the town with 24-hour electricity for the first time in its history.

"It's a 190-degree change," joked Mohammad Hammoud, 25, a butcher who used to rely on a costly and unreliable private generator to keep his meats refrigerated.

Under the new system, each home or business has been fitted with a meter and will pay according to usage. Moreover, officials say that by centralizing the network and sharing the costs of administration and repair, they expect to charge less than the price recommended by the Energy and Water Ministry, which is set according to the price of diesel.

Several residents also pointed out the environmental benefit of noise reduction, with both the generators in out-of-the-way places surrounded by high fences.

"Electricity is important, especially during Ramadan when you have guests," said Hala Hussein Ftouni, a 42-year-old mother of four who stopped by Hammoud's butcher shop. In addition to fasting, which is made considerably more difficult without air conditioning or fans in the dead heat of summer, Ramadan is also a time of late-night gatherings and elaborate meals.

"Every year, the politicians kept promising [to fix the grid], and it never happened, so we stopped waiting," said Ali Sherri, the mayor of Kherbet Silm. Earlier this year, caretaker Energy Minister Gebran Bassil promised 24-hour electricity by 2015, but popular and press reactions were skeptical.

"Everyone is calling to thank us," he said, adding that many nearby towns were considering taking the same step.

Khalil Sherri, the village mukhtar, said having electricity all the time would also help preserve people's ties to the land and boost the economy by encouraging them to stay.

"Already I've noticed people who usually come only on the weekends are spending more time in the village, so you can see it's really affected the community," he said.

Kherbet Silm is not alone in taking the power crisis into its own hands, although it offers arguably the most successful example. From Khiam in the south to Hardeen in the north, municipalities are investing in communal generators, offering a regulated option for residents caught between the dysfunctional state-owned electricity and predatory private generator operators.

"We're not offering an alternative to the state," said Mohammad Shban, a local engineer and a member of the core team that put the Kherbet Silm network in place. "We're offering an alternative to the companies."

Legally, only EDL is authorized to sell electricity. But since the end of the Civil War, authorities have turned a blind eye to private generator companies, which raked in an estimated $1.7 billion in 2010, Bassil said in 2011.

According to Kherbet Silm officials, the municipality is in compliance with the law because it is not making a profit off the network, although the legality remains a gray area. Mayor Sherri said that the municipality had informed EDL of its plans "out of courtesy."

In the past two years, the ministry has made some effort to regulate generator subscription fees based on the price of diesel. The ministry relies on municipalities to enforce the prices, although the practice is still illegal and generator operators are more or less free to charge what they like.

In small towns like Kherbet Silm, home to about 5,000 residents year-round, generators are relatively small businesses and organizing residents around a common goal is much easier. In larger municipalities, generator operators make thousands of dollars a month in profits, and often have political connections which they use to ensure their monopoly.

In Aley, the municipality recently negotiated an agreement with private generator operators that would bring them under the umbrella of the municipality's scheme. Municipal council member Naqoula Haddad said he hoped to see the municipal generators up and running within the year.

In the past, the ministry has fought efforts to decentralize power production, which would eat into a vital source of state revenue. Electricite de Zahleh has been petitioning for years to reopen its hydropower plant, but to no avail. Even efforts to move to green energy have been shut down for either political or financial reasons.

Hardeen and Beit Kissab, two small villages just outside Batroun that share a municipality, have also bought a communal generator which has more than doubled the number of hours local households and shops get electricity, although they still fall short of 24 hours.

Municipal council member Ghassan Abboud said the town had previously applied for permission to use solar energy to power public buildings and infrastructure, but that the minister had rejected the request "for electoral reasons."

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Publication:The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Geographic Code:7LEBA
Date:Jun 11, 2013
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