Electrifying Afghanistan is power struggle for the ages

A battle wages at the original center of the War on Terror, one actually meant to enlighten and elevate the poorest of the oppressed poor but likely lining the pockets of the most corrupt on the front lines.

Much of Afghanistan is still in the dark, even 15 years after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks sparked a concurrent U.S. invasion and revitalization plan which has spent billions while suffering untold delays due to equal doses of conflict, corruption and, sometimes, construction.

The first chapter of a report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) is focused on the “power struggle” in electrifying the country amidst age-old violence and upheaval. This part of the July report received little attention at first glance but we at Electric Light & Power are revisiting it after SIGAR earlier this month released the first of its “Lessons Learned” updates indicating the entire reconstruction effort has fallen victim to repeated breakdowns in one of the world’s most corrupt political systems.

The 30-page section published in July, “Power Struggles: Electrifying Afghanistan,” underlines the hurdles facing those who want to connect most, if not all Afghans to some kind of power grid. Only one in three Afghans has that connection currently, while the country imports 80 percent of its electricity, according to the report.

“Per-capita consumption of electricity in Afghanistan is very low, at about 100 kW a year, according to an ADB (Asian Development Bank) energy assessment; that means the average Afghan’s total energy consumption is the equivalent of powering a 50-watt light bulb—but no other electrical gear—about five and a half hours a day for a year,” reads the SIGAR report.

The developed world is trying to help. Since fiscal 2002, the U.S. alone has obligated about $3 billion toward power-sector projects in Afghanistan, with remarkably little to show for it. Construction takes several times longer than planned and costs much more, if completed at all.

“Electrifying Afghanistan will continue to be a slow and hazardous process,” SIGAR concluded. “It requires not only cash and hard work, but also the prudential tasks of taking into account the historical record of delayed, troubled or failed projects; the physical, technical and financial constraints of the operational setting; the security and political environments; local capabilities to operate and maintain plants and equipment; and the probabilities of different risk scenarios.

“The cost and consequences of failed projects are too high, both for Afghan citizens and U.S. taxpayers, to assume that proposed energy projects have been fully vetted, assessed against local conditions, carefully selected and executed as intended,” the report charged. “Robust oversight will continue to be needed.”

Without it—or even with it, perhaps—projects like the Salma Dam construction are common in Afghanistan. The SIGAR report opens with a vignette about the inauguration ceremony at that rebuilt dam which is supposed to produce about 42 MW of capacity.

Work on the Hari River dam in the western province of Herat has endured stops, starts and stops again for nearly 50 years. The Afghan part of the joint effort with India began in the 1970s, interrupted by civil war and then the Soviet invasion and occupation. Optimistic forecasts in 2004 predicted the project would cost about $79 million to complete in four years. By the dam’s inauguration earlier this year (eight years later than expected), the cost had more than tripled to $260 million.

Salma is not the exception but symbolic of the disappointing norm. SIGAR’s report details the effort to repair the Kajaki Dam, including a 2008 episode in which U.S., British, Afghan and other allied troops had to escort the transport of a turbine for 18.5-MW Unit 2 and fought their way through the hills, “suffering deaths and wounds in the process.”

By 2013, news releases were saying that Kajaki’s Unit 2 was still two years from coming online. By September 2015, contractors had to evacuate due to the persistent dangers.

Still hope reigns eternal for those trying to get work done in that region. “We are conscious of the difficulty of the path, and we know that destroying it is easy and rebuild is difficult,” Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said at the ceremony for the Salma Dam on the Hari River.

They also have some successes, particularly with smaller electric-generation and transmission efforts. In May of this year, for example, a northern Afghanistan transmission line was energized to connect 3,000 villagers to renewable energy from Tajikistan. The U.S. Agency for International Development provided $1 million and the Aga Khan Foundation another $464,000 for that project.

Yet the gap is outgrowing the progress to fill it. Planners expect a 3,000-MW supply shortfall by 2020 and predict that imbalance will double within 12 years after that. Afghanistan hopes to draw up to 5,000 MW of supply augmentation from renewables such as solar, biogas and micro-hydro projects. The government this year is seeking bidders to carry out 30 of those projects to provide about 100 MW.

“Whether projects are large or small, Afghanistan needs more power,” SIGAR added, “not to mention prudent resource planning, solid project management and effective oversight to bring power projects to useful and sustainable completion.”


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