Private Power Companies Helped Israel Avert Massive Blackout During Storm

State-owned Israel Electric Corporation turned to rivals as energy use reached record levels over the weekend and reserves came close to zero.

Last Friday, during the peak of the winter storm, Israel was one step away from a massive blackout, the result of insufficient generating capacity.

By the afternoon, it was obvious to officials that torrents of rain and snow and unusually cold weather was expected to boost electricity usage over and above what the state-owned Israel Electric Corporation could provide.

As a stopgap measure, IEC urged the public to stop using non-critical appliances like washing machines and use others, such as electric heaters, as little as possible. But at the same time IEC quietly turned to the country’s private power companies with an urgent request for help.

Over the last several days, the private power company OPC supplied some 130 megawatts of power to the electrical grid, on top of the 300 megawatts it normally supplies to its own customers. To help with the effort, OPC redirected power away from some of its usual users, including the desalination plants at Hadera and Palmachim, which suspended operations.

IEC also turned to the private generating plant operated by Nesher Cement in Ramle. Dorad, another private producer, kicked in 100 megawatts to the power grid, even though the company’s plant is in the running-in stage and is a month away from starting full commercial operations.

On Friday, when electricity use broke previous records, there was only 425 megawatts of spare capacity, equal to about 3% of the country’s total. Without the private power companies, the reserve would have been close to zero.

OPC also agreed to stop firing its plant with natural gas from the Tamar field as heavy usage by it and other plants threatened to lower pressure in the pipeline feeding them. Instead, OPC used diesel fuel. Over Saturday, OPC was generating 480 megawatts of power, 50 more than it usually does.

New record consumption levels were set again on Sunday due to the cold, reaching 11,400 megawatts in the afternoon and 11,640 in the evening. This time there were reserves of 1,000 megawatts, thanks both to the private providers and stepped-up generating capacity at IEC plants.

The public utility’s generating capacity was reduced from its usual level of about 13,000 megawatts a few weeks ago, as one of its coal-fired generators at the Orot Rabin plant in Hadera suffered a breakdown, TheMarker learned on Monday. The problem was not disclosed to the public at the time.

On Monday IEC gave the government’s Yogev Committee the outline of its latest reform plan, which includes cutting its payroll by 2,000, consolidating operations and reducing management ranks by 15%.

The plan is the third offered up by the IEC in the past five-and-a-half years. But unlike the first two that were never implemented, this one was presented jointly by management, whose chairman is Yiftah Ron-Tal, along with IEC’s powerful workers’ committee and the Histadrut labor federation.

The plan is intended to be the utility’s contribution to the power industry reforms being considered by the government’s Yogev committee. Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Minister of National Infrastructures Silvan Shalom established the committee in August.

The plan is also more modest than the first two, and while it proposes to reduce IEC’s bloated workforce, it comes after years of extra hiring amounting to no less than 1,000 net new staff, which leaves the utility’s payroll bigger now than it was under the two earlier plans.

The IEC plan envisages cutting 2,600 staff over the next five years - half through ordinary attrition and half by voluntary retirement. However, IEC would also take on 600 new temporary workers, so the next drop in staffing would be just 2,000.

On the management side, which includes personnel from department head and up, some 70 people would be let go. That’s the same number offered by IEC in 2008, but since then the number of deputy CEOs has grown. In addition, the number of districts would be cut from five to three.

The IEC plan did not address the issue of management flexibility nor salaries and other benefits for employees, two issues regarded by critics of the company as vital components of any overhaul.

Moti Milrod