Faltering power plant brings Iraq’s electrical woes to light
September 29, 2006
MUSAYYIB, Iraq — For the American soldiers and local Iraqis who live in the shadow of an aging electrical power plant, the single, enormous plume of smoke that billows from just one of the facility’s four towering smokestacks is a constant reminder of both the promise and disappointment of electrical power in Iraq.
While the old Soviet-designed Musayyib Power Generating Plant is capable of producing more than a quarter of the electricity required to adequately power Iraq, the plant produces only a third of the electricity it was built for.
“When the coalition showed up in 2003, most people imagined they would fix the problem in two or three months,” said Jawad Abed Al-Kadoom, editor of the Aroos Al-Furat newspaper in Musayyib. “Right now, people are very disappointed.”
For Lt. Col. Patrick Donahoe, commander of the 1st Battalion, 67th Armor Regiment, 2nd Brigade, 4th Infantry Division, the disappointment that Iraqis complain of is particularly pointed. Donahoe and his troops live within the sprawling power plant facility and are responsible for protecting the facility and shepherding improvements there.
“Whenever we do ‘atmospherics,’ power is always an issue,” Donahoe said. “It’s frustrating because power is so important. The problem is — the fixes are not quick.”
A quick look around Forward Operating Base Iskandariyah, where the Musayyib plant is located, will give observers an idea of the challenge facing engineers and power officials here. The base is filled with all manner of abandoned and rusting equipment — enormous turbine fans, cooling rods and pipes large enough to drive a car through. The slag piles give a clear indication of the neglect the facility suffered in the years leading up to the fall of Saddam Hussein.
“Just take a look at this place. It’s like something out of ‘Mad Max,’ ” Donahoe said, referring to the series of movies set in a world of ruin and exhausted natural resources. Donahoe said the degraded state of Iraqi electric-producing facilities has been the primary hurdle to increasing electrical production.
Only recently has Iraq begun to show progress in the production of electricity. In March, Iraqi power generators finally began producing energy at a slightly greater rate than before the 2003 invasion — about 4,000 megawatts a month. Today, Iraq is producing roughly 4,500 megawatts a month, according to U.S. Department of State and Department of Defense calculations. However, that rate still falls short of the 6,000 megawatts a month that coalition forces had hoped to achieve by the end of 2004.
Much of that gap has been made up for with small, gas-powered generators that many Iraqis own, but increasing fuel prices are causing more and more families to shut the devices off.
In Musayyib, commanders have great hopes for a new, $100 million jet turbine power plant being built on the base. The plant, which uses four 747 jet engines, will produce another 600 megawatts of power. The facility is 95 percent complete, Donahoe said.
At the same time, officers with the Army Corps of Engineers and the 412th Civil Affairs Battalion are hoping to find money to make upgrades to the nearby Seddah hydroelectric plant, a dam on the Euphrates River. The dam is capable of producing 16 megawatts of power, but produces only one megawatt currently due to a buildup of river silt that blocks the dam’s intake channels.
“Power is a big part of what we do here, and it has to be,” said 1st Lt. Colin Pascal, 24, a civil affairs officer from Manhattan, N.Y. “It’s the most visible improvement we can make here. We can build 50 schools here and people will be aware of those improvements for eight hours a day. But if they can go home, flip a switch and have power, they’ll know every second that things are getting better.”
“Recently the minister of electricity was interviewed on TV and promised that the power situation would be better by 2010,” said a Musayyib City Council member through an interpreter. “Believe me, if this guy waits until 2010, you will see half the people in Iraq in the crazy hospital.”
During a recent visit with Musayyib City Council members, a company commander in Donahoe’s battalion was met with many complaints about lack of electrical power. One council member said that he believed the coalition forces were the greatest roadblock to power production in Iraq, while others said they had only a few hours of electricity a day — a claim that the company commander said was greatly exaggerated.
“To be fair, the electrical problem was much bigger than we thought or the Iraqi people realized,” said Capt. Irvin Oliver, commander of Company D, 1-67.