After 4 years, electricity still luxury - Iraqi struggles endure despite billions spent
By James Janega, Tribune staff reporter. Nadeem Majeed in Baghdad contributed to this report
Copyright © 2007, Chicago Tribune
Published June 25, 2007
BAGHDAD -- Surviving without electricity in the simmering Baghdad summer poses an unwelcome choice for 22-year-old Ferrah al-Caisy.
With the limited amperage of her family's generator, she can use their second-rate air cooler to battle temperatures pushing 120 degrees, or she can switch on the pump to pull water to their fourth-floor shower.
But neither the timid cooler nor the tepid water really cools her off, she says, and it takes full-blown city power to run an air conditioner -- a forgotten luxury now that electricity is available barely two hours a day.
"Sometimes I cry, I swear," she said as a fan churned hot air through her apartment. "This stuff? It doesn't help that much, you know."
This is about as good as it gets for Baghdad residents, who have waited four years since the U.S. invasion for the lights to come back on -- and will have to go on waiting into the foreseeable future.
Under pressure to find an endgame for American involvement in Iraq, U.S. officials ordered a surge of troops to open the broad offensive last week against insurgents. At the same time, officials are wrapping up once-ambitious efforts to restore Iraq's electricity, far short of original goals.
The U.S. is within months of exhausting its $4 billion reconstruction fund for Iraq's electrical sector, meaning the end of American efforts to underwrite what had been the signature reconstruction mission of the initial occupation.
Nowadays, when American electrical advisers in Baghdad discuss projects to "generate capacity," they refer not to new power plants but to training Iraqis to take over the complicated rebuilding effort.
Fuel problems, sabotage, regional disputes and overdue maintenance dogged the first months of 2007, contributing to average generation of 3,877 megawatts of power, less than the estimated 4,300 megawatts produced before the war. Though outlying provinces gained more electricity than they had under Saddam Hussein, feeble production and surging demand have meant far less for Baghdad, and it is reliable nowhere.
Within the next year, fixing the problem will fall to Iraq's government ministries. And under the best of conditions, Electricity Minister Karim Hasan says, it will be years before supply reaches demand -- 2010 at the earliest.
Fuel supply, security problems
Officials say ultimate relief will depend on a steady fuel supply from Iraq's Oil Ministry, which supports Iraq with proceeds from exports but has proved less keen on providing fuel for power generation. Also required will be better protection for power lines and vigilant upkeep from Iraqi workers as they inherit from U.S. contractors unfamiliar generation plants with fussy, ill-used machines that need intensive care.
"As you know, the ministry, the power sector and the power plants were all in very bad condition," Hasan said, summarizing the sad state of the sector when he took over last year. "The last two ministers were focused only on new generation, and they forgot about improving the reliability of existing plants, improving performance of each plant to increase generation. Projects and execution have been stopped by lack of funds and corruption from the last two years."
It is hoped, he added, that those days are past.
Iraqis began complaining about the lack of electricity soon after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, asking how a country strong enough to seize their capital in weeks could fail to restore electricity to run streetlights, washing machines and televisions.
Looking back, the severity of Iraq's electrical woes was a grim surprise, described by a U.S. Embassy official last month as a network "held together with baling wire and parts from China."
Now, American advisers say regional fights over electricity have been added to problems that include petty saboteurs and insurgent attacks. The difficulty isn't electricity, the experts say, it is Iraq.
"Any group of engineers could come in here and fix this, with enough time and without people shooting at you," said Col. Michael Moon, director of electrical sector development for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Gulf Region Division. "Technically, this is not hard. It requires time, and it requires money."
But both have run out, he said.
Of the $4.03 billion obligated for electrical sector repair under the Iraq Relief and Reconstruction Fund, all but 15 percent has been used, and the remainder will run out this year, U.S. officials say.
The good news is that Iraq has gained thousands of megawatts of capacity in the form of new electrical generators. The U.S. Embassy says there are now enough generators to provide 8,400 megawatts.
The bad news, say U.S. and Iraqi officials, is that problems have relegated the output to a theoretical number, leaving Iraqi homes -- particularly in Baghdad -- with little real benefit. And at a time when no more U.S. reconstruction money is expected, Hasan said it likely will cost $27 billion more before Iraq's electrical grid can power the entire country.
Until then, officials must run Iraq on a system of intentional blackouts or risk damaging its overtaxed grid.
Adding to Iraq's power woes, the country's most productive electric generators are run on the wrong fuel.
A recent report to Congress from the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction showed the country's natural gas turbines -- many imported since the invasion -- produce less than half the power they could because they are run on heavy fuel oil. There are no natural gas pipelines to which they could be connected, experts say.
Still, U.S. advisers say the machines offered the best solution to a complex problem when the Coalition Provisional Authority brought them early in the U.S. occupation. They can be transported almost completely assembled and will run even on the wrong fuel, making them a better short-term solution than oil-burning plants that need to be built from the ground up.
The inspector general's report notes that roughly enough power for nearly 2 million homes is lost daily because the turbines don't use natural gas.
"Most of our effort has been to put in gas turbines, under the assumption we would get the right fuel," said a departing U.S. Embassy official, who has overseen power generation matters in Iraq since early 2006. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak on the record.
"We actually have to [shut down] units as a result of their burning the wrong fuels," the official said. Every few days, plants are dismantled to scrub out ash and replace parts corroded by heavy fuel oil. "It's not recommended by anyone to do that, but if we want to have electricity, we have to."
Across the country, most provinces get electricity for 10 to 12 hours a day. Baghdad usually had been getting about two hours, and when sabotage attacks destroyed all but one transmission line to the city in late May, many city residents got just one hour. The capital recently regained four hours of power a day virtually overnight, much of it by reconnecting a downed transmission line between Baghdad and a hydroelectric dam in Anbar province June 7, said Hasan, the electricity minister.
Still, what reaches Baghdad is first diverted to necessary services. Iraqi homes get what power is left over, if any. No one gets special treatment, added Abdul Kareem Lafta, manager of the Baghdad South power plant.
"My wife all the time says to me, 'You work all day at a power plant, but you can't get electricity to your own house?' " Lafta said with a laugh. "Generation is too low for demand."
To reduce Baghdad's dependence on the nation's other power plants, Iraqi officials and American reconstruction experts have worked to boost the number of generators in the "Baghdad ring," the generation plants and high-voltage wires that circle the capital.
Diesel-powered generation plants have restarted, thanks to a deal Hasan recently struck with Kuwait to provide 795,000 gallons of diesel a day. A convoy of nearly 100 tanker trucks crosses some of Iraq's deadliest ground each day but also reduces his ministry's reliance on the Iraqi Oil Ministry for fuel.
A key U.S.-Iraqi conference group in Baghdad has formed to address cooperation between Iraq's Electricity and Oil Ministries. And a still-brighter fuel solution may be available in the form of natural gas flared off as a byproduct of oil production in Basra. Diverted through a pipeline, it would easily satisfy fuel needs at Baghdad's gas turbine generators, if it could be secured.
In the meantime, the people of Baghdad have made their own accommodations, disappointing though they may be.
"A rich man brought a big generator for the neighborhood, and we all pay for it" through usage fees, said Akram Jafar, a 23-year-old master's student in physics at the University of Baghdad.
For three hours each afternoon and eight hours each night, Jafar takes advantage of the 5 amperes of electricity his family has bought for $12 a day from the rich man whose massive generator rumbles in the background. Because of the generators, there is never a quiet moment in Baghdad, and the city smells of diesel fumes.
It is an attempt at a solution, but not a satisfying one.
"Five amps a day is not enough for air conditioning," Jafar said. "You take a shower. Or you run the fan -- the Iraqis invented fans."
It works for now, but the summer's worst heat will come in July and August, and the Jafar family's tricks for beating the heat have run out.
"You can use one or the other, the fan or the shower," he repeated tiredly. "The 5 amps we pay for is not enough to run everything."