The Gaza Strip's only power plant was hit by Israeli shelling and caught fire earlier this week, according to news reports. "The power plant is finished," its director, Mohammed al-Sharif told The Guardian. The plant and its engineers were the subject of a profile in the December 2009 issue of IEEE Spectrum.
Residents were only getting about four hours of power per day even when the plant was functioning. According to The New York Times, the plant was the main source of electricity for the territory, as eight of the 10 power lines coming from Israel had been damaged prior to the power plant's destruction.
An Israeli military spokesman, Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, told the Times the plant “was not a target.”
The US $140-million diesel-fueled plant was conceived in 1994 during a lull in tensions in order to reduce Gaza's dependence on Israel, but it could never eliminate that dependence. From the 2009 profile:
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,” [Rafiq Maliha, a plant manager] explains. But today, only half those turbines are working, and the plant is producing only about 60 out of a potential 140 MW.
News reports say the shelling struck the plant's fuel tanks and set them ablaze, damaging the rest of the plant and forcing its operators to flee. Fuel was always one of the plant's biggest problems.
[Maliha] 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.
Even if the fighting stops soon, electricity is unlikely to be restored quickly. "We need at least one year to repair the power plant, the turbines, the fuel tanks and the control room," Fathi Sheik Khalil of the Gaza energy authority told The Guardian.