Libya: energy, the economy and national security
The North African country's electricity grid relies on the oil and natural gas that fuel its power generation plants. Hence security associated with these resources is key and there should be a focus on decentralized electricity systems

Energy security and reliability are vital for the economic, political, social and human security viability and development of Libya. Libya cannot move forward without such energy security and reliability. Libya is facing grave threats to its energy security and reliability, and not just in the exploration, production and use or export of its oil and natural gas. The oil and gas aspects of Libya’s energy problems are far more well-known than the problems it has on the ground with electricity security and reliability.  I will focus on the uncertain electricity systems of Libya. Energy for a country is really a set of systems within systems connected with systems nested in other systems. Oil, gas, and electricity are not stand alone systems. Electricity in Libya relies a lot on oil and natural gas to fuel its generating plants. When the pipelines are damaged or otherwise not reliable that means that the resultant electricity is also not reliable. Oil and gas pipelines are often the foci of militia battles or the political maneuverings of various parties vying for power.

One key aspect of the future peace and prosperity of Libya will be a reliable, secure and developing electricity system that is sustainable in the longer run.

Energy Security is more than just Oil and Gas

Oil and gas pipeline systems are complex. They involve a lot of information and control via SCADA (Supervisory control and data acquisition) and other systems. They also involve not just pipelines, but pumping stations, pressurizing stations, oil fields, processing facilities and more. There are various nodes of vulnerability that have been and will be exploited by many parties in the country to the detriment of energy security and development of Libya. Importantly, these oil and gas systems also need electricity to work. Electricity grids are extremely complex and very information intensive. They hold within them many vulnerabilities, both physical and cyber. Electricity systems include generating stations, switching stations, transformer stations, transmission lines, for examples, and, importantly, the connections with the oil and gas systems that fuel the ultimate sources of electricity in Libya, the oil and gas generation stations.

Targeting of Electricity

Centralized electricity grids in Libya have been a target over recent years, and the country has paid heavily for these attacks. Blackouts are rather common in the country. When a section of a large grid is shut down due to an attack or electricity diversion the electricity system still has to make sure that supply and demand of electricity are equal at all times. When they are not balanced the system can shut down or become unstable. Attacks on interconnections, including those tall pylons used to transmit electricity over long distances, between regions are not uncommon. When these happen the overall systems become unstable and could and often does blackout or brown out. The electricity generation has to go somewhere, and if that somewhere is not there the system becomes unstable and could crash. Industry, hospitals, schools, the government, households, commerce, water treatment and transport, banking and finance, communications and more rely greatly on electricity. When electricity is not reliably available, many of these sectors of the economy are further damaged and economic and political risks increase – and people can lose jobs and hope. Which could lead into generating a spiral of further instability and violence. Energy systems reliability and development are directly tied to peace and prosperity of a country.

A Solution with important Changes

Libya used to have a well-connected grid system. It now has 4 (and sometimes more) disconnected islands of electricity production. It may be best in many areas of Libya, at least for the medium term future to focus on the development of separated grid systems, micro-grids and the like, and focus more on decentralized electricity systems. If the facts on the ground do not allow centralized power systems, then reasonable adjustments are required. It may also make some sense to focus more on renewable energy systems, instead of oil and gas as fuels, for these regional and local energy systems. Solar and wind farms can often be more economically and technically resilient to attacks than large centralized generating stations. These two changes, a move toward less centralized electricity systems and a move toward renewable, may enhance the reliability of electricity enough to help certain areas of the country to move forward economically and energetically. These islands of electricity reliability could be incorporated into a future energy grid for Libya in the future as the stability of the country improves. These micro-grid and off-grid systems could be integrated into a country-wide grid system in the future. As these off-grid and micro-grid systems take hold the regions where they will work may find themselves improving in many ways. Such systems, if developed properly, could become less vulnerable to attack than the larger grid systems, and, when such attacks occur on them, the spread of the energy problems will be limited by their lack of interconnectedness with other areas.

Energy as a vehicle for peace

Indeed there are huge benefits from power pooling and domestic and international interconnections. But there are also huge risks to a centralized grid in certain political and military environments. The choice in its simplest form is: decentralize and head towards more renewables or continue on with centralized electricity systems and take the risks involved in such a situation of violent conflict and heated emotions. The determinants of that choice depend on security and stability situation for some time into the future. (And the decisions may need to change if  the country moves towards more peace in the long run.) Volatility of electricity supply and political volatility on the ground are directly connected in the ways described so far. But one key aspect of the future peace and prosperity of Libya will be a reliable, secure and developing electricity system that is sustainable in the longer run. Such separate systems could also take advantage of improved battery and other storage systems to enhance their reliability. Libya could benefit from the future improvements in energy storage as well as any other country in its position might. However, as the electricity systems, as well as their connected energy and non-energy systems are developed, improved laws, regulations, and maintenance systems also need to be developed. An improved culture of maintenance and reliability will also help this phasing-in of new and improved energy systems work better. Libya may also benefit from offsets from the foreign investors who will make these projects work better. These offsets would include the education and training of Libyans in the workings of energy systems and education about energy in general – and how energy is a set of systems within systems nested in other systems and connected with other systems.

Greater emphasis on protecting plant and equipment

Demand management also needs to be considered. More Libyans need to pay for their electricity. Less electricity theft should occur. The price of electricity needs to be phased upwards to help pay for the improved generation, transmission and distribution systems that will be required in the future. Energy waste seems to be the norm in Libya. Subsidies have led to overuse. A history of low to no prices has also led to an unsustainable view toward electricity in the culture of the country. Theft of parts, supplies and even electricity poles and pylons materials is common—and it makes the situation worse. There is also a lot of electricity theft. Behind closed doors GECOL discusses the loss and an unaccounted for quantity of 500 MW by illegal connections to the power grid. That is exactly the current production capacity of Alkhoms power station in Libya. Importantly, usual peak times in countries like Libya do not apply to Libya. Oddly, residential sector accounts for the largest share of electricity consumption representing 35%, followed by street lighting (15%), public building (18%), commercial building (12%) and industry (8%). Why?  Many Libyans stay at home for security and other reasons, such as no work. And this has thrown off the usual views of scheduling the balancing of the electricity system.

A stronger focus also on the Environment

Libya’s electricity use is often higher than its neighbors. Yet, its industrial and economic situation is worse than many of its neighbors. That is also a manifestation of unsustainable subsidy programs for electricity use. When demand is more than supply often diesel generators kick in. The price for diesel is very cheap in Libya due to subsidies. This leads to not only excess use of diesel in a country with severe constraints on the refinery capacity. It also leads to greater pollution in the areas where the diesel generators are used, which could have health effects on the people exposed to these generators. This is yet another reason why solar, wind and other renewables may have a greater place in Libya as it tries to dig itself out of the very difficult situation it is in. Libya cannot move forward economically or even socially, such as in health and education, without an improved and more reliable electricity system. Let us hope that they can find their way forward on many levels for Libya is now further developing into a terrorism incubator that is showing strong signs of it spreading more globally. Energy is strongly connected security, economy, health, education, and even national and international security. And Libya is a prime example of this.


*All opinions are Professor Sullivan’s alone. This is based on a speech Professor Sullivan made at a conference on Libya at the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, DC on May 10, 2017.