Officials Reach for Realistic Targets for Iraq’s Electric Supply
By Tim Kilbride
Special to American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jun. 12, 2007 The goal for Iraq’s electrical sector is to meet roughly 50 percent of demand over the summer, a U.S. reconstruction official said.
Army Col. Michael Moon, director of electrical sector development for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Gulf Region Division, spoke with “bloggers” and online journalists on a June 9 conference call. He said he expected to have between 5,000 and 6,000 megawatts of power on the Iraqi grid by summer’s end.
Steady generation of 5,000 megawatts would represent 56 percent of the electricity demand for the country and just over 50 percent of the demand for Baghdad, Moon said.
“One good, positive trend is that actually our generation numbers are increasing,” he said. “It's been an upward trend for about the last 30 days, keeping in mind that demand has also been increasing during that time period.”
Even upon reaching the 6,000-megawatt target in the near-term, Moon said, demand will continue to outstrip supply. But even at less than 100 percent, he noted, most Iraqis are receiving more power than they did under Saddam Hussein.
Prior to the U.S. invasion in 2003, Moon said, electricity was rationed as a political spoil. Baghdad was kept illuminated at the expense of the outlying provinces.
“After Operation Iraqi Freedom, 75 percent of Iraq automatically was receiving twice as much power as they did before,” Moon observed. “Unfortunately for the residents of Baghdad who were used to that lion's share, they saw the reduction.”
In light of rising demand, “the goal right now is to provide 10 to 12 hours of power daily throughout the country,” Moon said. “And again, even before 2003, there (were) no 24-hour operations for electricity. … And it's not necessarily our goal to get there, but that's just kind of the metrics.”
Obstacles to progress abound, the colonel noted. The insurgency represents an omnipresent shadow on construction of a fully functioning national electrical grid, and transmission is affected as a result.
“It's so easy to disrupt the electrical system,” Moon said. “It's so easy to pull down a tower and … cause a blackout across the country.”
As an example of the threat to the transmission sector, Moon pointed to a hydroelectric generating station in Anbar province.
“That was an isolated power-generation unit. … And by linking it back to the grid, that has improved dramatically some of the electricity that's available and getting into Baghdad,” he said. “Our big concern is that insurgents or terrorists are going to knock that line down again.”
Never knowing when a portion of the national grid might go down makes it extraordinarily challenging to balance the power supply, Moon explained.
“If you get into the real technical parts of it, it is almost impossible to develop a national grid on a rolling blackout system,” he said. “It's incredibly complex. It's technical. It requires a great deal of cooperation.”
The challenge cannot be considered in the same context as the United States, where the electrical system has been refined over decades, Moon said.
“In our society, we've had 100-plus years of improving it and making it work with long-range planning always looking out ahead to meet … the growth of our nation,” he said. “That has not been the case in Iraq, where you've had infrastructure deterioration for over 20 years and they haven't had 24-hour electricity to begin with.”
Similarly, he pointed out, the maturation of bureaucratic functions to oversee the industry takes a long time. While the United States has established agencies with clear regulations, Iraq is still learning to govern itself and share power at the national and provincial levels, he said.
“As much as we hate the bureaucracy in America, boy, I've really learned that it gets stuff done; it actually works. And the problem is, there is absolutely no bureaucracy here,” Moon explained.
In the case of the Iraqi minister of electricity, he said, that translates to extreme political hurdles for every new project undertaken.
“His hands are virtually tied in terms of threshold limits that he can actually commit and authorize and has permission to use,” Moon said. “Every project he's got to put together sort of a packet, and he's got to go brief the cabinet, he's got to brief the deputy prime minister, he's got to brief the prime minister. If that system was in place in America, the Cabinet official in charge of the Department of Energy wouldn't get squat done.”
Inefficiencies at the national level often are misread for neglect and hostility at the provincial level, Moon noted.
“I can tell you, there's 18 governors … throughout Iraq in the provinces, and they all think the minister of electricity's screwing them,” Moon said. “It's the kind of guy that no matter what he does, somewhere somebody's going to hate him.”
In fact, the colonel explained, the minister is a “technocrat” with a Ph.D. in electrical engineering.
“He is the kind of guy you need,” Moon said. “He has grown up in the Iraqi electrical industry; he was a plant manager. He has worked many of these issues: generation, transmission. He knows what he needs to do. (However,) he doesn't have the resources; he doesn't always have the political backing.”
Still, Moon noted, reconstruction of the electrical sector continues to hit milestones, bit by bit. If maintenance improves while generation capacity is increased up to 6,000 megawatts, Moon predicted, “that will definitely be a success.”
Reaching that goal by the end of summer would allow coalition assets to switch focus to “serious maintenance” on the turbines and generators, Moon said, “in order to facilitate long-term growth and health of the system.”
The colonel reiterated that where Iraq’s power situation stands now vs. where it was in 2003 is well advanced from reasonable expectations and historical precedent.
“We forget sometimes how big a project we take on. We forget how big some of these issues are,” he said. “But in context of the scope and scale and the security situation, we've got guys that are doing incredible work under arduous conditions, doing the best they can.”
(Tim Kilbride is assigned to New Media, American Forces Information Service.)