By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 1, 2006
KIRKUK, Iraq, April 30 -- V94, known to U.S. officials as the "mother of all electricity generators," stands four stories tall and is surrounded by a silvery forest of transformers, an island of modernity amid the dust-streaked farmlands and medieval mud-brick houses of the northern Iraqi countryside.
The Kirkuk power plant, which became fully operational a month ago, is a $178 million chunk of the more than $18 billion the United States has spent in rebuilding Iraq. It is the most powerful and sophisticated electric plant in the Middle East, according to its Iraqi plant managers and U.S. officials who gave reporters a tour of the site Sunday morning. Its two gas-fired turbines, V94 and V64, generate a combined 325 megawatts to Iraq's national power grid -- enough, in theory, to give Iraqis an extra three hours of electricity each day.
But mending Iraq's power grid -- one of the most important tasks of the reconstruction effort -- has proved as difficult and intractable as defeating insurgents or controlling ethnic and sectarian rivalries. Hundreds of millions of dollars and massive projects -- such as the construction of the Kirkuk plant, which began in January 2004 -- have made hardly a dent in the problem, even as the United States begins to shift responsibility for Iraq's reconstruction to the national government.
Forced to deal with an aging, poorly maintained electricity infrastructure, ongoing insurgent attacks on gas and transmission lines, and the ever-increasing demand of Iraqis, Iraq still averages only about 13 hours of electricity a day nationwide, with only six hours on average in Baghdad, the country's largest population center, according to U.S. officials. Iraqis consider the lack of power to be among their most serious problems, especially during the summer, when temperatures can top 120 degrees.
Before the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, Saddam Hussein's government routed power to Baghdad, which received 18 to 24 hours of electricity a day while the rest of the country received two to four hours. Since then, Iraq's electricity generation capacity has increased from 2,500 megawatts to approximately 5,000 megawatts, but attacks and maintenance problems have kept another 3,500 megawatts offline.
The problems start at the oil and natural gas refineries that provide fuel for the electricity generators. Attacks on the plants or pipelines can cut off the fuel supply or reduce its quality. Then there are attacks on the generating plants themselves. Finally, insurgents have targeted transmission lines, which stretch for more than 10,000 miles.
U.S. and Iraqi forces have tried to secure the plants and their lines, and cite some success as in a decline this year in attacks on pipelines.
Maintenance problems also contribute to power shortages. Refineries and generators received little maintenance under Hussein, and much of the U.S. spending has gone toward urgently needed repairs.
Although the work has improved the overall generating capacity, the increasing demands of Iraqis have outstripped the increasing supply. Before 2003, when the country was under U.N. sanctions, electricity-guzzling appliances such as air conditioners were too expensive for many Iraqis. When the sanctions ended with the fall of Hussein, consumer goods flooded the market. The demand for electricity is expected to hit 10,000 megawatts this summer -- almost twice what the overtaxed system can provide.
"Demand is increasing by 15 percent a year," said John Dempsey, a consultant to Iraq's Electricity Ministry.
All of which makes the Kirkuk plant a small step on a long road. Daniel Speckhard, the U.S. Embassy official who directs the Iraq Reconstruction Management Office, said he had heard that the complete rebuilding of the electrical grid, to the point where it could provide continuous power, could cost as much as $20 billion.
Speckhard described the Iraqi government's plan to make major improvements to the electricity infrastructure within five years as "feasible but optimistic."
The U.S. role in that project, he said, would be limited. "We're not going to be doing new construction projects, but we will continue to fund sustainment," he said. "We're going to help Iraq do its own programs and infrastructure development. I think that's part of the transition to self-reliance."