Baghdad (UPI) Aug 16, 2005
On the horizon all around Basra, there is a ring of what appear to be setting suns - dozens of flaming oil wells, burning off the natural gas that helps force up the crude oil from beneath the desert.
Those flames are an opportunity lost.
The long pole in the tent of Iraq reconstruction - the one piece that absolutely must be in place for anything else to work - is electricity.
It must be generated and it must be distributed.
The United States government knew this when it came into Iraq and made electricity one of its top reconstruction priorities.
Yet, despite $5 billion already spent by the United States, officials say they are not even close to meeting the demand for power from ordinary Iraqis.
A look at one of the main projects for electrical restoration - the so-called Phoenix Project - reveals some of the reasons why.
Phoenix took 26 natural gas turbines - which generate electricity for distribution nationwide - and brought them back on line. Some had been abandoned, others allowed to fall into disrepair, and others were never completed by Saddam Hussein's regime. All were designed to run on natural gas. But they are currently being fueled by black crude oil.
Iraq is awash in black oil, a byproduct of the refining process. Tankers full of crude oil are heated to three different temperatures. At each temperature a different kind of fuel is drawn off - kerosene, benzene and diesel, each of which is devoured by the civilian economy to run generators and cars.
What is left is black oil, a dirty fuel that the refinery must pump out in order to take in more crude to refine into the useful fuels Iraq so quickly consumes.
The black oil is pumped to factories and to Project Phoenix gas turbines - electrical generators designed to run on a different fuel entirely.
The Army Corps of Engineers has spent millions of dollars to convert the turbines to run on black oil. But that conversion carries another cost: the turbines are harder to maintain, do not run efficiently, and frequently have to be shut down and cleaned out, temporarily reducing production.
The Corps also spent $50 million building two gas turbines at Bayji, north of Baghdad.
"There was a commitment they would be run on natural gas, and now we are spending millions getting it converted" to run on crude, a U.S. official said in Baghdad.
"The fuel issue is a big problem. Getting the right fuels in the right places is a big problem," said another U.S. official in an interview with United Press International.
The problem is one of both politics and technology. The generation of electricity is the responsibility of the Iraqi minister of electricity. The exploitation of natural gas is the province of the oil minister.
The two would have to collaborate to re-convert the turbines to natural gas, and thus far the government has shown little interest in exploiting the vast stores of the resource.
"There was a lot of money given to them to do gas development and it didn't happen," a U.S. official said.
Iraqi engineers believe the pressure from natural gas helps force the oil out of the ground. Drawing off the natural gas, Iraqi officials reason, will make it much harder to pump up crude oil - which in many places gushes out from the ground because of sheer natural pressure.
"I've said just capture and give me what you flame off (the wells in the south), and that would be enough," a U.S. official said.
So far the answer has been no. The turbines grind on, inefficiently and periodically breaking down.
The Iraqi government is also refurbishing eight thermal turbines, powerful generators that are designed to run on black oil. It will be years before those come on line, but when they do they will add vastly to the electricity available in the country.
The U.S. government didn't know how bad the state of the country's electricity system was until the invasion in 2003. It might have had some inkling. In the 1991 Persian Gulf War, U.S. bombs specifically targeted the electrical system. A decade of sanctions and Saddam's twisted priorities prevented the system from every being fully restored.
Phoenix is meant to provide as much electricity as quickly as possible to make an immediate impact. It has succeeded, by some measures. When the war ended there were 2,300 megawatts produced a day. Now they are producing about 4,500 to 5,000 megawatts a day.
But the Iraqi appetite for electricity is about 8,500 megawatts a day and growing. It is unchecked because electricity is provided free of charge by the government, and because of the brisk market in refrigerators, air conditioners and washing machines.
"We are chasing a moving target," said Bill Thompson, the deputy project manager for electrical generation in the Project and Contracting Office, in an interview with UPI last week.
The U.S. government's intention is to leave production at around 5,000 megawatts per day.
"It isn't about anything but money," said Thompson.
The Corps of Engineers has put about $5 billion into the electrical grid, and the account is tapped out. To produce enough to meet Iraq's daily needs would cost around $18 billion.
The head of the effort for the Corps of Engineers is well aware of the problem.
"I am already starting out in the hole. We can make things a bit better, but we aren't even close to meeting that national need in any area at all," said Karen Durham-Aguilera, the director of programs for the Project and Contracting Office.
"But we have made things better. When we came in prior to March 2003 Baghdad had 16 - 20 hours of power a day and everyone else had four hours or none.... All the power (under Saddam's time) led in and out of Baghdad, and we've tried to distribute it" nationally.
It will be up to the fledgling Iraqi government to add capacity to the national grid - despite the fact that the lack electricity is among the top sources of discontent among Iraqis and one of the frustrations that feeds anti-coalition sentiment and therefore support - if only passive - for the insurgency.
In southern Iraq last week, for instance, a demonstration about the lack of power and water turned violent - at least three were killed - and led to the temporary ouster of the provincial governor. The power and water issue was jumped on by the cleric Muqtada Sadr, who coalition forces say seeks every chance to exploit problems to advance his political career.
Most of the country only has power half of each day, usually two or three hours on and then two or three hours off. In addition to frustrating the population, the lack of electricity has cascading effects: the water system can not run without electricity, nor can sewage treatment plants. The oil refineries and pipelines - which provide fuel for electricity turbines - run on electric power.
It is the real life equivalent of a Rubik's Cube. Every move made has the potential to trip something else up.
"It is a very complex system to put back together," said Thompson. "You kind of go around in circles ... It's a nightmare for the guy trying to bring back up the water."
"They picked something very hard to do to have an immediate impact," said Dennis Karns, who works with Thompson on electricity. "To fix that is going to take decades, not one or two years."
The importance of generating electricity to improve material conditions in Iraq - and hopefully winning over who might otherwise support the insurgency -- cannot be overstated.
"If we are just treading water, we are losing ground," said Thompson, who spent 40 years in the United States working in the electric power business. "And we are losing ground."
Generating sufficient electricity is one challenge. It must then be transmitted and distributed to the customer.
The transmission lines are frequently targeted for saboteurs, cutting off power to whole regions until the lines are replaced. So too are pipelines, some of which provide fuel for the turbines.
"The reason we can't get power to certain areas is not because of planning but the insurgency," Thompson said.
Less nefariously, individual Iraqis also tap into lines to run additional power into their homes, forming spiders webs of cables between concrete houses and across back alleys. The extra lines overwhelm the system and cause shorts.
In the United States if a transformer shorts out, breakers are tripped that prevent further damage and power is routed down other lines. There are no such fail-safes in the Iraqi system. Transformers are regularly damaged, further diminishing the delivery of power to consumers until they can be repaired.
Thompson estimated about 30 percent of the electricity generated is lost in transmission due to inefficiencies.
The final hurdle is a long-term one: whether the Iraqi government will be able to take the work already completed by the Corps, maintain it and add to the capacity.
The track record so far is not encouraging.
A number of Project Phoenix gas turbines were turned over to the government of Iraq to maintain last September, and they have since been handed back over because they could not be properly managed.
Nevertheless, Thompson - who took the job "for the challenge" - is optimistic about Iraq's power grid.
"Eventually the thermal turbines will come on line, and the World Bank or private money will get involved" if the country gets more secure, said Thompson.
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