Within days, the plant’s desperate engineers came up with a novel solution: They hooked up 170 twelve-volt car batteries to restart the plant’s turbines. To everyone’s amazement, including the engineers themselves, the impromptu kludge actually worked. ”It was an abnormal situation,” notes Rafiq Maliha, one of the plant’s managers, who holds a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering.
Triumphs, even small ones, are uncommon these days in Gaza, which has endured a devastating run of strife, death, and dysfunction. A three-week war that began in late December 2008 killed 1660 Palestinians and 13 Israelis and left 4000 homes and 80 government buildings wrecked or seriously damaged. Since 2007, Gaza’s 360 square kilometers have been controlled by Hamas, a militant Islamic group that much of the world, including the European Union and the United States, regards as a terrorist organization.
Conceived in 1994 during a short-lived interlude of relative tranquility that began after the Oslo Accords, the Gaza power plant, which operates under the official name of the Gaza Power Generating Co., was part of a larger blueprint to lessen Palestinian dependence on Israel for such basic municipal services as electricity, education, and security. But today, with the other parts of the blueprint long abandoned, the plant’s 100 or so engineers are reduced to operating the 140-megawatt plant in ways its designers never anticipated.
Some days, notes Maliha, the power plant doesn’t even have the fuel needed to provide transportation for its employees, a nightmare for a facility that requires 24-hour support. Other days, something as simple as a faulty temperature sensor can shut down operations, because the plant has no easy way to obtain a new one. ”We managed to survive up till now, but things are becoming more difficult,” says Maliha. ”We try to manage with temporary solutions, but then the temporary becomes permanent, and suddenly you have a complete failure.”
Like the territory itself, Gaza’s electrical system—and its lone power plant—seems stuck in a kind of chaotic limbo. Life for a plant engineer here is a daily struggle to keep the operation running amid chronic shortages of fuel, spare parts, expertise, and basic building materials. Somehow, this solitary power plant wheezes on. This is what engineering looks like at the edge, where engineers keep the lights on amid bombings, embargoes, intrigue, and instability in one of the world’s longest-simmering combat zones.
You approach the power plant in central Gaza on a dirt road in an area that seems to lack any modern infrastructure. Today, on a weekday afternoon in early June, the facility looks all but deserted. A cat is asleep in the guard station. A sign near the entrance to the plant, advertising the number of days with no accidents, hasn’t been updated since 2008. Maliha, who greets a visitor, looks exhausted. He’s been involved with the plant since its inception and is accustomed to patiently explaining its difficulties to visitors. An alarm goes off somewhere in the plant as he is speaking, and he doesn’t even pause.
With its four 24-MW diesel-fueled combustion turbines and two 22-MW steam units, this plant was the longtime dream of Palestinians who wanted to wean Gaza of its total dependence on Israel for power. ”This plant was supposed to cover demand for the whole Gaza Strip,” Maliha explains. But today, only half those turbines are working, and the plant is producing only about 60 out of a potential 140 MW.
The US $140 million project was troubled from the start. Construction had been under way for barely a year when the second Palestinian uprising, or intifada, began in 2000. Worsening relations between Israel and the Palestinian National Authority made any projects more difficult to complete, not to mention risky for private investors. Nor did the situation get any better when the plant began operating in 2002, shortly after one of the initial investors, the notorious U.S.-based energy firm Enron, collapsed.
Today one of the biggest problems is getting enough fuel. It’s one of the many problems you encounter running a power plant in a war zone. Since 2007, Israel has restricted the amount of fuel it rations to Gaza, leaving the plant to operate at only partial capacity. At one point in 2007, the European Union, which pays for the fuel brought into Gaza, cut off the supply because it was concerned Hamas was skimming money. Deliveries soon resumed, and the plant continues to get the rationed fuel. Under the original blueprint, the plant would have been fueled by natural gas, but today it is still dependent on liquid diesel fuel. ”Everything here is temporary,” Maliha says with a wry laugh. He estimates that the plant, which receives about 2.2 million liters of rationed diesel fuel per week, needs over twice that amount, about 4.9 million liters, to operate at full capacity. Without fuel, the power plant stops, and when the power plant stops, things start to break. ”Fuel tanks without fuel become rusty, and they’re destroyed,” Maliha says. The storage tanks grow rusty, the rust contaminates the fuel, and the contaminated fuel damages the equipment. Then the turbines shut down, leading to more failures when engineers try to start them up again.