April 28, 2008
Pg. 6 Output from hydroelectric plants has been cut in half by drought
By Andrea Stone, USA Today
BAGHDAD — Mohammed Abbas stares into a cooler case in his small grocery store and says the electricity to run it eats up half his profits. He expects to pay $150 a month this summer to keep the meat and cheese from spoiling.
That means his wife and four children must sweat out another summer with a ceiling fan. There isn't enough power or money to run an air conditioner. They suffer heat rashes, headaches and, because windows are left open to catch the breeze, mosquito bites.
Getting electricity — especially when summer temperatures soar into triple digits — may be the most important issue for Iraqis after security. Last year's increase in U.S. troops, or "surge," helped reduce violence, allowing many shops in the capital to reopen.
So electricity demand, which has been growing 7% to 9% each year, "could be greater" this year because of the rise in economic activity, says Charles Ries, the State Department's coordinator for economic transition in Iraq. In the summer, demand can spike about 20% as Iraqis power up their air conditioners, he says.
"There is no chance we will be able to meet demand in the summer," Ries says, even though new power plants are coming on line.
Last July and August, massive blackouts stretched across parts of Baghdad. This summer could be worse because drought has cut in half power generated by hydroelectric plants. Add war, attacks on transmission lines, antiquated equipment, overdue maintenance and local corruption or bureaucracy and reliable electricity remains out of reach for most Iraqis.
"With demand significantly outpacing available generation capability, rolling blackouts are the norm across most of the country," says Navy Capt. Joe Konicki, who works with the Army Corps of Engineers.
The U.S. government has spent about $4.3 billion since 2003 to rebuild and expand Iraq's electrical sector and has told Iraq not to expect much more. Iraq's Ministry of Electricity last estimated two years ago that $27 billion is needed to reconstruct the nation's power grid. About $6 billion has been spent so far.
The State Department says Iraq needs to generate up to 9,000 megawatts of electricity to meet demand but estimates that less than 4,200 megawatts are currently being produced. The Ministry of Electricity, however, says it is generating 5,500 megawatts. As much as 11,000 megawatts could be needed at peak summer hours, according to the State Department.
The Army Corps says Iraq averages 15 hours a day of electricity, while Baghdad gets 12 hours.
"You talk to any Iraqi, they say they only get an hour of power every day. But we have the numbers, we know what's being produced," says Albert Herman, with the U.S. Iraq Transition Assistance Office.
Aziz Sultan, spokesman for the Ministry of Electricity, says, "The Iraqis don't know what's going on and what's wrong. They only want to be provided with power for 24 hours. … We are doing our best."
When power is flowing, it's just a trickle compared to American standards. Instead of using traditional air conditioners, people are scooping up low-power models. Appliance store owner Ali Abbas says he can't keep them in stock, even at a hefty $350 apiece.
U.S. and Iraqi officials blame fuel shortages and a lack of spare parts that often shut down power plants. Iraq has 33 major power plants and several small ones that are connected to form the national power grid.
Sultan says attacks on electrical equipment and siphoning from main power lines are a problem. "Governors and city councils are removing (meters) so they can get more power than others," he says.
Herman says, "Many of the substation operators are threatened if they actually follow the orders of the national dispatch center" that allocates power. "These threats come from both officials in the area or the militias who operate in certain areas."
In Baghdad, hospitals, water treatment plants and other critical facilities do get power 24 hours a day from giant generators. Most high-ranking government officials also get electricity.
Umm Sagad, 32, says her family spends most of the summer at her parents' house in the same neighborhood as Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and receives power all the time. When she is at her own home, she rushes to iron her husband's shirts, wash clothes and cook in the few hours the government provides inexpensive power.
When the power grid shuts down, up to 50,000 private generators fire up, the State Department estimates.
Asad Al-Wazan's noisy, smoke-belching generator on Zewiyah Street supplies electricity to 200 nearby homes through a canopy of makeshift wires. He says his neighborhood gets as little as one hour of government-generated electricity a day. People there are "almost totally depending on private generators," he says.
Electrician Ahmed Jasim, 21, pays $55 a month to a neighborhood generator that should switch on seconds after the city's power goes down. He says the private source "steals" by waiting 15 minutes to rev up.
Like many, Jasim can't afford electricity all day, so his family tries to keep cool when the power is off at night by sleeping on a tile floor covered in water.
Still, there are some signs of progress. The government last month installed solar panels atop streetlights in one neighborhood. Transmission towers are rising in a district in south Baghdad and will soon be connected to a new substation that could improve service there.
"The electric grid was built for 1950," says Maj. Tom Clark, an Army engineer who works on electricity issues. "The Iraqi government is trying to play catch-up. … It's not something you can fix overnight."