[Mb-civic] Save Iraq One Switch at a Time By GLENN ZORPETTE
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Thu Mar 2 11:29:13 PST 2006
The New York Times
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March 2, 2006
Save Iraq One Switch at a Time
By GLENN ZORPETTE
LAST fall I was allowed to sit in on a high-level meeting at Iraq's
Electricity Ministry in Baghdad. The minister, Muhsin Shlash, arrived 20
minutes late. Around a big table, several small groups of officials from
the ministry, the American State and Defense Departments, and the British
Foreign Office sat in separate cliques, and gave essentially separate
reports. Toward the end of the meeting, Mr. Shlash's deputy fulminated at
the Westerners, accusing them of keeping ministry officials out of the loop:
"Always we are getting this news, this is cancelled, there is no budget for
this, the plan is changed."
Thus, it was hardly surprising to me when the United States special
inspector general for Iraq reconstruction told Congress how dismally efforts
to repair the country's electrical grid are going. Iraq is now producing
only about 4,000 megawatts of electricity, as opposed to 4,500 before the
war, despite huge increases in demand because of the widespread availability
of household appliances since the Baathist regime fell. Baghdad, which had
consistent power under Saddam Hussein, now gets only about four to six hours
of electricity a day. (Other areas of the country that were slighted under
the dictatorship have seen improvements in service.)
Electricity has become a main focus of the struggle to win Iraqi hearts and
minds, with the insurgents doing everything they can to damage power grids
and stop the Americans and Iraqi government forces racing to patch them up.
In the United States Government Accountability Office's hierarchy of
reconstruction financing, "electricity" is now second only to the category
called "security and justice." More than $5 billion of American funds and
about $1 billion of Iraqi money have gone into repairing the grid. Yet all
this money and effort has done little to brighten the lives of Iraqis.
The reasons are many and complicated. One of the biggest, of course, is the
insurgents, who have kidnapped, tortured and killed dozens of electrical
workers, knocked over scores of transmission towers, and bombed substations
with astoundingly effective timing and precision. If you had a few thousand
terrorists like these blowing up electrical plants in Texas or Quebec or
Austria, you'd have serious trouble with the grids in those places, too.
Nonetheless, there are plenty of problems that have nothing to do with the
violence. And there are many steps the Electricity Ministry and its Western
patrons should be taking to improve daily life for now and to prepare for
the day when the insurgency is more manageable.
First, the ministry needs to get serious about collecting revenue. It could
start by charging realistic rates. At the moment it charges residential
customers less than a tenth of a cent per kilowatt-hour, even though most
analysts agree it would have to charge at least 15 or 20 times that just to
break even and more if you include adequate financing to maintain and
expand production plants and distribution networks. Even Syria, hardly a
rich country, charges residential users the equivalent of nearly 2 cents per
kilowatt-hour; New Yorkers pay an average of 17.5 cents.
The ministry also needs to crack down on electricity theft and install more
electricity meters. Its own figures show that it manages to collect what it
is owed for only about 30 percent of the electricity it produces.
Reconstruction officials told me that 10 percent to 25 percent of that power
is simply siphoned off with illegal taps. And, officially, 25 percent to 30
percent of Iraqi homes and businesses wired to the grid do not have a
working electricity meter, and are therefore not being billed.
It's also likely that those figures are overly optimistic. A National Guard
officer I met in Iraq last October, who also happened to be an executive at
a Nevada electric utility, told me that in his several months of moving
about Iraq he had not seen a single meter.
The Electricity Ministry is also plagued by administrative problems. In the
absence of an adequate banking system, most workers in Iraq, including
government employees, are paid in cash. This makes it hard to do rigorous
accounting at the ministry. Since 2003, its payroll has swelled by 10,000
people, to 48,000. No one doubts that this number includes hundreds, maybe
thousands, of "ghost employees" people invented so their pay can be taken
by somebody else.
Ghosts aren't the ministry's only serious personnel problem: some among its
ranks almost certainly collaborate with the insurgents. Attacks on
transmission networks have often taken out the specific lines that would
cause the greatest disruption to the overall electrical network, and they
have often been timed so perfectly for example, when the lines are
carrying their highest loads of the day that many conclude the insurgents
have to be getting information from within the ministry. More stringent
efforts to spot traitorous employees, including periodic lie-detector tests,
would be very unusual in an electricity bureaucracy, to be sure. But these
are unprecedented times in Iraq.
And then there is the big problem: too few megawatts. Iraq's electrical
sector is suffering to a significant extent from one bad decision made in
2003, as reconstruction was getting under way, involving the two main types
of generation systems. The American authorities chose to install only
combustion-turbine generating plants and no steam-thermal ones. Briefly,
steam plants take three to five years to build, and they are costly, but
they are easy to operate and maintain and they can burn just about any kind
of fuel. Combustion-type plants can be built in as little as 18 months, but
they are harder to maintain especially if you are trying to burn anything
in them other than natural gas.
Iraq has lots of natural gas, but very little of it is being captured,
pressurized and distributed. And the insurgency has made it almost
impossible to build new pipelines to get the gas from where it comes out of
the ground to the combustion turbines where it's needed. So the 30
combustion turbines put in by reconstruction officials have had a terrible
operating record. Many of them are simply sitting idle.
It is time to stop throwing good money after bad reconstruction officials
need to refocus their attention on steam plants to augment the combustion
fleet. An official at the American Embassy in Baghdad told me that among
Iraq's aging steam plants are a few that are operating at only 50 percent of
capacity because they need refurbishment. Renovating or replacing them could
be a start.
We should also break ground on some new steam plants. Yes, it will be costly
and it will take time. But I am reminded of something an American civilian
engineer told me last October when I asked him why his predecessors didn't
put in any steam plants to begin with. "Everybody said it would take too
long," he said. "Sure, it'll always take too long unless you get started.
If we'd have started then, and protected the assets during construction, we
would have had those assets coming on line now, or in the next six months."
To provide some electricity in the meantime, the ministry should take a page
from the playbook of the illegal entrepreneurs all over Iraq who are
operating thousands of portable diesel generators and selling the
electricity during the times when the ministry isn't providing it. The
government should crack down on these dirty and dangerous generators, which
have electrocuted people all over the country, as part of a coordinated
program to replace them with government machines that are cleaner and safer,
and whose output would generate additional revenue for the ministry's
Admittedly, running a bunch of diesel generators, even comparatively clean
ones, would be an environmentalist's nightmare, and will do little over the
long run. But such concerns miss the larger point: every day average Iraqis
lack electrical power is a day the insurgents gain political power.
Glenn Zorpette is the executive editor of I.E.E.E. Spectrum, the magazine of
the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.
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