Iraq's Electricity 'Surge'

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Those of us stationed in Iraq have been keenly aware for months that the counterinsurgency strategy, popularly known as the “surge,” has been very effective. That truth is just now being widely recognized.

Naturally, the focus has been on military and security actions that have led to dramatic reductions in violence and civil strife. And indeed American and Coalition troops and their Iraqi counterparts deserve every bit of thanks and praise that grateful nations can muster.

Another angle to the story, however, has not quite found broad dissemination: the improvement in delivering essential services to the population, especially electricity. And yet this improvement is also a key element to our counterinsurgency strategy.

On that score, Iraq reached a major goal last month. The Iraqi Ministry of Electricity surpassed the power generation levels that it and the Coalition set in 2004 as the benchmark for the sector’s jumpstart. With peak power production in excess of 6,000 megawatts one day last month, Iraq generated 50% more summer peak electricity than the Saddam regime ever did.

Now this may seem pretty mundane measured against the dismantling of al-Qaeda in Iraq and the ability of families in Baghdad to picnic on the weekend and shop in the evening without fear. But it is one of those quiet achievements that similarly allows Iraqis to live more normal lives.

Iraq’s electricity industry has faced unique difficulties that are nearly beyond the imagining of Americans accustomed to “always on” electricity. Consider how an American utility might have performed if a half-dozen top executives had been murdered, many dozens of experienced professionals had quit for fear of their lives and literally hundreds of other employees had been killed or wounded while just going about their jobs repairing lines or reading meters. That’s what happened here.

When we toppled Saddam we found the condition of the electricity system far worse than imagined. Damage from the First Gulf War was still largely un-repaired. The fuel distribution system had deteriorated and the electric transmission system was decrepit. But Saddam’s disinformation had been so effective he managed to present Baghdad as a Potemkin village of lights, while depriving the rest of the country of all but a trickle of electrons.

As Coalition troops entered Baghdad, frightened Ministry of Electricity employees abandoned their posts, leading to the widely reported looting of equipment and valuable copper cabling. During the insurgency, the bad guys cannily targeted the transmission network and power station fuel shipments, cutting power to Baghdad sharply and undermining popular confidence in the government. Let’s admit that they did a pretty good job there.

While it was a tough call, the Coalition concluded that allocating the remaining scarce electricity equitably across the country was the right thing to do. But this decision wasn’t without its costs. Baghdadians, accustomed to 24/7 power, suffered big reductions in service and were naturally resentful. Insurgents also sabotaged the high voltage power lines and interrupted electricity flows to the other areas of the country that had already gone without for so long.

Critics, and there are plenty, point out that the grid today is only supplying a little over half the demand connected to it. The average Iraqi family has to get a majority of its power from its own small private generators or from local neighborhood suppliers who connect customers and charge typically 1,000 times more than the utility’s tariffed price, although few pay for grid power in any case. Nationwide blackouts still happen too, although fewer this summer than last.

So where is this good news again?

First, the reason Iraq only supplies about half the electricity demanded is that freedom has loosed a deluge of pent-up consumer demand. Iraqis are buying home appliances and energy-hungry business equipment at a rapid rate. What’s happening here is similar to what happened in America after WWII, when the rush for the normal life after years of economic depression and total war ignited a consumer boom.

So far in 2008, average daily kilowatt hour production for the grid has been roughly 102,000 MWHr, compared to 91,800 MWHr per day during the same period last year, an 11% growth rate. Yet estimated demand has grown at a 12% clip in this time. That’s an indicator of rising Iraqi expectations and a sobering challenge for a utility.

The insurgents’ electric embargo of Baghdad has largely been lifted, however. Of the eleven major transmission lines downed by the insurgents, all but four are up and back in service. Working together, the Coalition and the Iraqis have created an Iraqi combat engineer battalion; it goes out to repair lines in battle zones, fixes the damage, protects the Ministry workers and fights insurgents all at the same time.

Six major power plants that produce about half of the country’s electricity have increased their output by 30% in the past six months due in great part to a modern program of maintenance and employee training that is making these stations more reliable, more efficient and safer than ever. This program will be replicated throughout the Ministry’s system.

More fuel is getting to both Ministry power plants and to private and neighborhood generation. Insurgents who used to interrupt or control supply delivery have in many case been put out of business – permanently.

The Ministry of Electricity is learning to operate more like a normal utility than a government agency under siege. It’s improving its business practices and even now is negotiating with international equipment suppliers and power plant developers to spend billions of dollars of Iraqi money on new capacity and improved transmission.

There is still a long road to travel before Iraq can have the kind of electricity service we are accustomed to at home, especially as long as demand growth continues to outpace supply additions. But the Iraqi people have now achieved levels of service that seemed unobtainable 18 months ago. Moreover, the Iraqis are showing the commitment of money and spirit that will take them the rest of the way to a fully modern utility sector.

Ambassador Charles Ries is the Minister for Economic Affairs and Coordinator for Economic Transition in Iraq.
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