Electricity Hits Three-Year Low in Iraq
By CHARLES J. HANLEY and SAMEER N. YACOUB
Associated Press Writers
03/15/06 -- BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) - Electricity output has dipped to
its lowest point in three years in Iraq, where the desert sun is
rising toward another broiling summer and U.S. engineers are winding
down their rebuilding of the crippled power grid.
The Iraqis, in fact, may have to turn to neighboring Iran to help
bail them out of their energy crisis - if not this summer, then in
years to come.
The overstressed network is producing less than half the electricity
needed to meet Iraq's exploding demand. American experts are working
hard to shore up the system's weaknesses as 100-degree-plus
temperatures approach beginning as early as May, driving up usage of
air conditioning, electric fans and refrigeration.
If the summer is unusually hot, however, ``all bets are off,'' said
Lt. Col. Otto Busher, an engineer with the U.S. Army's 4th Infantry
``We're living miserably,'' said housewife Su'ad Hassan, a mother of
four and one of millions in Baghdad who have endured three years of
mostly powerless days under U.S. occupation. Her family usually goes
without hot water and machine washing, she said, and ``often my
children have to do their homework in the dim light of oil lamps.''
Despite such hardships, Army Corps of Engineers officers regard
their Restore Iraq Electricity project as one of the great feats in
corps history, along with the building of the Panama Canal a century
Their efforts and related programs, at a three-year cost of more
than $4 billion and tens of thousands of man-hours, built or
rehabilitated electric-generating capacity totaling just over 2,000
megawatts - equaling the output of America's Hoover Dam.
``It's not a disappointment, not in my opinion. We've added
megawatts to the grid,'' said Kathye Johnson, reconstruction chief
for the joint U.S. military-civilian project office in Baghdad.
For one thing, deprived areas outside the Iraqi capital are doing
better, with a nationwide average of 10 to 11 hours of electricity
daily, compared with three to five hours in Baghdad. That represents
a reshuffling of priorities from prewar days, when the Baathist
government diverted flows from northern and southern power plants to
this central metropolis.
Although the U.S. effort helped boost Iraq's potential generating
capacity to more than 7,000 megawatts, available capacity has never
topped 5,400, held down by plant breakdowns and shutdowns for
maintenance, fuel shortages and transmission disruptions caused by
insurgent attacks, inefficient production, sabotage by
extortionists, and other factors.
In the first week of February, a busy maintenance period, output
dropped to 3,750 megawatts, reports the joint U.S. agency, the Gulf
Region Division-Project Contracting Office. That's a new low since
the period immediately after the 2003 U.S. invasion.
Now the U.S. reconstruction money is running out, the last
generating project is undergoing startup testing in southern Iraq,
and the Americans view 2006 as a year of transition to full Iraqi
responsibility, aided by a U.S. budget for ``sustainability,''
including training and advisory services.
Even that long-term support may fall short, however. The
reconstruction agency allotted $460 million for this purpose, but in
a report to Congress on Jan. 30 the special inspector-general for
Iraq reconstruction estimated $720 million would be needed.
The decline of Iraq's electrical system can be traced back at least
to the 1991 Gulf War, when U.S. warplanes targeted the grid. The
government rebuilt the system to produce 4,400 megawatts, still
short of demand. But damage from the 2003 invasion - and
particularly from looting that followed - knocked production down to
3,200 megawatts and wrecked transmission lines.
The Army engineers who rolled into Iraq in 2003 found power plants
barely operating, lacking spare parts and suffering from years of
neglect brought on by U.N. trade sanctions. They brought in
contractors to upgrade installations, but the looting and sabotage
went on. Insurgents attacked fuel pipelines. Other Iraqis toppled
transmission towers to keep power in their own cities and away from
To battle the insurgency, U.S. authorities shifted more than $1
billion from power projects to security spending. Having planned to
add or rehabilitate 3,400 megawatts' worth of power production, they
settled instead for 2,000. The lack of security also slowed work:
Fewer than half the 350 local power-distribution projects planned by
the Americans had begun as of early this year, the inspector-general
reported Jan. 30.
``It's problems, rather than mistakes,'' said Mohamoud al-Saadi, an
Iraqi Electricity Ministry official, citing the sabotage and
But some believe the Americans also made a critical mistake by
installing gas-turbine generators rather than building or
overhauling more of the oil-fueled, steam-run plants.
Iraq doesn't have pipelines to deliver natural gas from its oil
fields, so plant operators resort to low-grade oil to run the
gas-combustion engines, reducing power output by up to 50 percent
and potentially damaging the machinery.
``Turbines don't run well on that, and that forces us into a
maintenance cycle,'' said Tom Waters, deputy director for
electricity in the U.S. reconstruction office.
Meanwhile, demand kept rising as Iraqis bought imported air
conditioners, washer-driers, DVD players and other power-hungry
appliances. To help fill the gap, households or neighborhood groups
are buying diesel-run generators, stringing dangerous makeshift
wiring around their homes.
Demand, almost 9,000 megawatts last summer, is expected to rise
sharply this year, and the Army engineers responsible for Baghdad
``We're about 4,000 megawatts in the hole nationwide to meet our
needs,'' Maj. Al Moff, 4th Infantry Division electricity specialist,
noted at a recent internal briefing for division officers.
He said the system risked losing 300 megawatts more in hydroelectric
power because the Tigris River was running extremely low. But a
recent agreement by Turkey to release more upriver water appears to
have lifted that threat.
One solution could be power from Iran: one Iraqi proposal is for a
transmission line to import much more than the 100 megawatts of
Iranian power Iraq now buys.
The U.S. Embassy won't talk about it, in view of Washington's
animosity toward Tehran over its nuclear ambitions. But the
reconstruction office's Waters said one of the U.S.-financed Iraqi
substations under construction could handle more Iranian power.
``Completing an Iran transmission line could give them up to 1,500
megawatts,'' said Army engineer Moff.
The Iranian Embassy says Tehran has earmarked $1 billion in loans
for Iraqi infrastructure, mostly for electrical power, the Iranian
news agency reports.
Even if a major Iran linkup is built, however, other projects may
stay in the blueprint stage unless more aid is forthcoming from
Washington or other donors.
``We have a lot of unfinished projects because of a lack of
government funding,'' said the Electricity Ministry's al-Saadi.
Reconstruction chief Johnson agrees with Iraq's five-year cost
estimate. ``It's probably in the range of $16 to $20 billion to
complete the infrastructure to provide 24/7 sustainable power to all
the citizens of Iraq,'' she said.
In the long term, Johnson said, it's essential for Iraq to open its
power industry to private investment. That would mean making it
profitable by following the advice of the World Bank and others to
raise rates; Iraqis now pay 50 cents to a dollar a month.
Can people afford more?
Hassan's family already cannot afford fuel for its small generator.
``Most of the time we can't use it,'' the Baghdad housewife said.
Whether she and others can afford higher rates, a classic ``chicken
and egg'' problem confronts energy-short Iraq, said Moff.
``Before you can raise rates,'' he pointed out, ``you have to have
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006
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