For the last year Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, his deputy Hussein Shahristani who is in charge of energy policy, and the Electricity Ministry have promised that Iraq would solve its chronic power shortages by the end of 2013. This was met with plenty of criticism, and by the middle of the year even Maliki and Shahristani were saying that the Ministry could not be believed. Then in October it stated that the country was receiving uninterrupted power, and that the national grid had finally met demand. Power usage is down in Iraq as the summer is over, but the long-term outlook for the country being able to meet its growing electricity needs is still dim.
The Electricity Ministry has been saying for years that a solution to the country’s power problems is just around the corner. On October 11, 2013, the Ministry issued a statement saying that Iraq was receiving 24 hours of uninterrupted power. It went on to say that security had become a problem when a series of power pylons were blown up on October 3. In a way it was giving itself an escape if electricity were ever to go out again, because it could point the finger at the insurgency instead of its own failings, which usually get blamed by the public. Since the 1991 Gulf War when the U.S. led Coalition destroyed the country’s national grid Iraq has had power shortages. Under Saddam, the provinces were starved of electricity so that Baghdad could maintain year round energy. Then when the U.S. invaded, the Coalition Provisional Authority claimed that it would restore the nation to its prewar electricity levels within just a few months. That was the beginning of a series of unfulfilled promises that would continue for the next ten years. In more recent times Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told the press in February 2011 that there would be no more power shortages by May 2012. Then a year later, Electricity Minister Abdul Karim Aftan stated that most issues with the power grid would be resolved by early 2014. Having failed to produce, Maliki and Aftan both revised their earlier claims in January 2013 to saying that the power situation would be fixed by the end of the year. They repeated that promise over and over to never ending criticism and ridicule since both the Americans and Iraqis had failed to meet the country’s growing demand for electricity in the past. It’s within that context that made most skeptical of the recent story that 24 hours of power was no available.
Power plants like this one opened in 2008 in Muthanna have not been able to keep up with the unchecked demand (U.S. Army)
Iraq faces a multi-dimensional dilemma with its electricity network. First, the amount of power that the country has needed has constantly increased since 2003. In 2002 peak demand was at 6,049 megawatts per day. That was up to 8,120 megawatts by 2007. Average demand reached 9,708 megawatts by 2008, and now it is about 14,700 megawatts. That was due to the ending of sanctions and the increase in buying power by average Iraqis who bought up consumer goods like air conditioners, televisions, refrigerators, etc., which increased demand. Second, there is no check on power usage as there are high subsidies and many people do not pay their bills. The government had plans to increase charges and go after illegal taps into the public power network, but backed off when protests emerged in Iraq over services in recent years. Third, since the fall of Saddam Hussein the capacity of the national grid has gone up, but it has not grown as fast as demand leading to constant blackouts and the widespread use of private generators to meet the shortfall in public supply. Fourth, the Electricity Ministry lacks the capacity to handle large projects such as repairing and expanding the power network and building power plants. Examples of that abound. In 2008 the Ministry bought 72 combustion turbines from G.E. and Siemens. None of those were taken out of storage until 2011, and the first one wasn’t successfully installed until April 2013. Those turbines and others are supposed to run on natural gas, but Iraq does not have the infrastructure to do that yet so they are fueled by oil, which reduces output and degrades the equipment faster. In addition, the Electricity Ministry inspector general issued a report at the end of the summer finding that $2 billion was wasted on contracts with foreign companies to repair and expand the national network. Fifth, Iraq’s ministries are controlled by different political parties that run them like personal fiefs. As a result, they do not cooperate with each other. The Oil Ministry for instance, is supposed to provide fuel for the country’s power plants, but the Electricity Ministry constantly complains that supply is not adequate. Instead of honing up to these short comings Baghdad just makes more empty promises. In June 2013, the Electricity Ministry celebrated the fact that its capacity had reached 10,000 megawatts. 20% of that was unavailable because of the lack of fuel, lower water levels at hydroelectric plants, and maintenance shut downs. The inefficient power network also meant that another 25% of supply was lost before it reached consumers. Together that meant the actual amount of electricity available was only 5,500 megawatts. At times the government has admitted that the Electricity Ministry should not be believed. In September 2012, Deputy Premier Shahristani told the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction that the Ministry’s numbers were theoretical and that its predictions should not be listened to. Then in July 2013 Maliki attacked Shahristani and Electricity Minister Aftan for not providing realistic figures on power supply, and that there were problems with the contracting for new power plants. That same month an adviser to the premier said that the power problems would not be fixed until 2015. Even after that the Ministry still claimed all the issues would be resolved by the end of the year, and now says it has accomplished its goals. Given that history there’s no reason to believe that the Ministry has met demand or will do so any time soon. Until there is a check upon usage, the government learns to cooperate, and the Electricity Ministry has trained and experienced staff, and ends all its corruption there’s no chance of the power outages ending. Unfortunately that’s not going to happen. Baghdad does not want to add increased hardships upon the public like increased bills, while the lists that run the ministries are more interested in their own concerns than the nation’s, which means continued mismanagement. The Iraqi government is simply not structured to resolve these large scale problems.
In the coming months the Electricity Ministry is likely to issue more statements about its steady progress. Power production is increasing and more plants are coming on line. The problem is that there is massive waste involved in many of those projects. Once they are completed they can’t operate at capacity, electricity gets lost before it reaches consumers, and most importantly there is no cap on usage. The supply and demand issue might be alleviated a bit now because the summer is over and temperatures have dropped, but once the heat returns so will the power outages. There’s also nothing being done about solving the structural problems with the government that would make it more efficient to provide services. In Iraq the government earns the vast amount of money through the oil industry and therefore does not feel accountable to the public. Until the country’s leadership feels like they have to answer to the people problems like the power network will continue to fester.
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