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Facing Electricity Cuts, Aleppo Creates a Generator Economy

As power shuts off for days at a time, residents of Aleppo have created their own unofficial energy economy, importing large generators and selling their services.

Written by Mohammed al-Khatieb and Karen Leigh Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes

Abu Ahmed, who lives in the opposition-controlled Aleppo neighborhood of Sha’ar, needed to invest in a large generator.

“I needed electricity to run the sewing workshop that I own, and with the continued power outages I decided to bring a large generator so my neighbors and I could use it. All shops and houses in the neighborhood are using it now.”

He’s made himself an alternative energy business, by selling power to his neighbors.

His diesel-powered generator “is available [to rent] at affordable prices. I am happy that I can provide electricity to my neighborhood, and I earn some money at the same time.”

Aleppo’s ongoing battles have moved from one neighborhood to the next, destroying the municipal infrastructure of entire areas: water, electricity and communication networks. The absence of services to repair the damage is leading residents to seek alternative solutions.

Large generators are the newest electricity craze. As fighting here worsens and power outages are more frequent, they now operate in most Aleppo neighborhoods, with one serving an entire community. In some neighborhoods, like al-Sukkari, there are as many as eight.

Residents say the number of generators in a neighborhood depends on the income of its residents, with wealthier areas buying more, and on the presence of a commercial market, since businesses need electricity to operate.

Of the 13 functioning electricity transformers in Aleppo before the war started, only four are still at full capacity. The other nine have either been damaged, shut down due to the difficulty reaching the areas in which they are located, or cut off from the main government-controlled electricity supply.

The main source of electricity in Aleppo was a thermal power station north of the city of Sfira, which has been out of order for months due to clashes in the region. Local officials say that earlier this year, after the power went off in most of Aleppo for more than two weeks.

Because fighting often leaves repairmen unable to reach damaged transformers, many opposition-controlled neighborhoods have been cut off from electricity for months. Government-controlled neighborhoods have access, though it is irregular – residents say they get electricity for five hours most days, but that it frequently cuts off for days at a time.

The situation has led residents across the city to seek alternative sources of electricity. Large generators were brought into the city of Aleppo by traders. Generator use by those who can afford to buy and run them has now spread across areas controlled by both the opposition and Assad forces.

“My financial situation before the revolution was very good, but as with many other people, it got worse after the revolution,” says Abu Ahmad, one of the many civilians who have made an unofficial business out of the new source of power. “I could not keep my sewing workshop operating, and it was difficult for me to afford the high-priced generator.

“Since I bought it, I have had two incomes: the workshop, which is operational again, thanks to the generator, and returns on the investment in the generator. My financial situation is back to normal. The only difficulty I faced was the high price of the generator itself. Operating expenses, like diesel, are manageable.”

Most large generators in Aleppo run on diesel because, residents say, it is cheaper than other fuel. Because the price of large generators can reach 500,000 Syrian pounds, they say there is no major distributor of generators in Aleppo, with the machines usually purchased directly from neighboring countries and smuggled in.

Despite a hefty fee for such generators, demand is high – they’re one of the only guaranteed ways to provide electricity. Weekly service fees range between 400 ($2.50)and 500 Syrian pounds ($3.125) per ampere. Most people prefer a two ampere service, which can run lighting systems and low-watt devices like computers.

Electricity subscriptions for large generators are charged per ampere. The price for one ampere ranges between 400 and 500 Syrian pounds per week, on par with prices for electricity provided by the government, which costs an average of 2,000 Syrian pounds per month.

Uthman, a resident of al-Sha’ar, says the generators actually save her money – and effort. “In the past, I spent 600 pounds daily in order to provide electricity to the clothing store that I own, using a small generator,” she says. Now, with a larger, more advanced generator, “I spend a quarter of that amount and provide electricity to both my shop and my house.”

Due to electricity shortages and the high cost of running small generators, “most electricity dependent shops, such as sewing workshops, electrical appliance workshops and printing presses, had stopped functioning. But after the arrival of large generators, electricity is available for reasonable prices and they are additionally capable of running larger workshops which the small generators could not power,” she adds.

Because of the high initial price of large generators, which can reach 500,000 pounds, residents here often collectively buy one to serve the whole neighborhood. One person receives usage fees in exchange for tending to the daily operating and repair costs.

“Our generator now serves about 150 houses in the neighborhood and operates 12 hours a day. The generator belongs to all residents of the neighborhood and we all have a stake in maintaining and protecting it,” says Uthman, who has been deemed responsible for operating it each day.

Since the fighting began in Aleppo in spring 2011, electricity has been spotty. In the best times, residents say they have electricity for five to eight hours daily, depending on the neighborhood. They also say that even before the war, electricity delivery was worse in summer due to the higher consumption of cooling systems. The additional pressure on the electricity network led to rolling electricity cuts in order to preserve the available power.

Today, they say that electricity service in government-controlled neighborhoods of western Aleppo is more consistent than in opposition-held areas, which have been largely under siege since December. Six months ago, they say, the opposition-affiliated Public Administration Services and Council of the Province of Free Aleppo were out in charge of repair and maintenance, but are unable to make the necessary fixes as they lack proper equipment and are working around daily shelling.

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