Power key to Iraq's future

12 Jul 2003 | Army Spc. Melissa Walther

Throughout Iraq, military civil affairs and civilian contractors have been working to restore the country to prewar standards by repairing schools, hospitals, water treatment plants. However, all require electric power to work.

"Power is a number one concern because it controls so many other things," said 1st Lt. Lawrence Garcia, a Lubbock, Texas resident assigned to the 358th Civil Affairs Brigade's public facilities team. "Without power, all the other facilities we repair are useless."

Right now, most of the power plants are running at less than full capacity, with many of them being at less than half power. 

"A big part of the problem with rebuilding the system is that the plants were neglected for so long under Saddam," said Lt. Col. Matthew Gapinski, public facilities team deputy with the 358th, which is based in Norristown, Pa.  "The Iraqis have done a credible job of patching the systems, but they were given very little money to work with and had to improvise.  As it is, we can't afford to take one generator offline to repair it because we need all the power we can get."

Typically, general repairs and maintenance on equipment occur in the low peak months of January, February and March. However that cycle was interrupted because of the war.

"Whatever problems they had before are just being compounded now by running equipment that needs to be fixed and could have been," said Peter Gibson, senior Coalition Provisional Authority advisor to the Ministry of Electricity.  "We'd like to have 4,000 megawatts of power by July 25, and it looks like we're going to do it, but we're going to have a lot of repair work to do as well."

"Our first task is to restore the country's power grid to prewar standards, not pre-Saddam ones," added Gibson, a resident of Portland, Ore.

Not only are generation stations going to have to be repaired, but the entire infrastructure from distribution centers to power lines need to be overhauled, Gibson said.  He estimated that it would take about two years to repair the entire system.

One of the major obstacles is getting fuel, according to Gibson.

"Most of these plants burn oil or gas," said Gibson.  "But the refineries need power to make the useable fuel.  No fuel, no power; no power no fuel.  It's a catch-22."

Right now, 200 megawatts of electricity are being sent to refineries in order to solve this problem, but there is still a proposal to import power from Syria and Turkey.

Currently, power all over the country is unstable, but it is getting better, according to Gapinski.

"There are some governances almost completely without power, while others have quite a few hours of uninterrupted power," said Gapinski, a Jacksonville, Fla., resident.  "We would like to see things even out more in the future."

Currently, historical records on power consumption are being used to determine future user capacity, but this presents other problems, according to Navy Lt. Cmdr. William Howel, a public utilities specialist with 4th Civil Affairs Group of Washington, D.C.

"Minorities and people like the Shi'ites were deprived in the past under Saddam and under this system of predicting future use, they would be deprived again," he said.  "But for now, we need something to go by until we get a better system."

"We need a complete repair of the current system and we need to fairly allocate the power," Gibson said.  "And I do mean fairly, not equally.  Not every governance needs the same amount of power."

Right now hospitals, water treatment plants, sewage treatment facilities and residential areas are the top priorities for power distribution.  However, new emphasis is being placed on powering industries such as brickworks and cement factories that employ hundreds of Iraqis.

"People are sitting at work doing nothing because there's no power," Howel.  "Idle hands breed trouble.  Industry needs to start taking precedence."

In that vein, Gapinski said power is key.

"It's the key to getting the economy back up and running," he said.