KABUL, Afghanistan -- There were fresh-cut flowers and a bouquet of two dozen microphones at the news conference held Monday by the notorious warlord whos now Afghanistans utilities minister and a distinguished visitor, his Iranian counterpart.
And with the flourish of a pen, the electricity-hungry Afghans had two big power plants. That they already owned. And never use.
Thats because the plants are powered by expensive imported diesel fuel, just like the even larger and also seldom-used American-funded Tarakhil power plant that was built with U.S. money by the American company Black & Veatch, an engineering and construction firm based in Overland Park, Kan. The Tarakhil plant was labeled a white elephant even before was completed in 2010 at a cost of $300 million, but at least its more efficient than the two plants Iran officially signed over.
"This was silly anyway, because you cant afford to run those Iranian generators," Mirwais Alami, a senior executive with Afghanistans state-owned but independently run power company, DABS, said in an interview after the news conference. "You would have to have a line of tanker trucks, or an oil well right beside them.
Iran actually had given the two 50-megawatt plants to Afghanistan a decade ago, but someone in the Iranian bureaucracy lost some paperwork or someone needed different paperwork, Alami said.
Alami, who as the chief commercial officer oversees the provincial offices for the company and its business development, said that in four years on the job, hed never heard of the Iranian generators being used and that he didnt expect them to be put into service anytime soon.
The news conference, at the sleek Serena Hotel, was jammed with Afghan journalists and government dignitaries. Signing the agreement for Afghanistan was the striking, white-bearded Ismail Khan, a famed commander during the war against the Russians and in fighting against the Taliban after the Russians were gone. Hes now the minister of energy and water. For Iran, there was the more buttoned-down minister of energy, Majid Namjoo.
The bureaucratic theater of it would be entertaining if the need for cheap electricity werent so critical in a place where the savage cold routinely kills scores of people each winter. Or if electricity werent such a crucial part of what it means to have a stable government or create more industry, things Afghanistan badly needs as it simultaneously braces for another presidential election and a major drawdown of U.S. and other foreign troops in 2014.
The Iranian power plants can produce electricity at a cost of nearly $1 per kilowatt hour. The 105-megawatt American-built plant, meanwhile, is much more efficient, at perhaps 23 cents per kilowatt hour. Still, its far too expensive to run except for a little while on the coldest days, when Kabuls demand peaks, or if something goes wrong with the transmission lines from Uzbekistan, which sells Afghanistan power for 7 cents per kilowatt hour.
Afghanistan did get something new from Iran, but it will have to pay for it: a deal to allow it to buy more electricity for the region in the west that borders Iran.
Khan, responding to questions, said it was a good thing to have the Iranian generators, regardless of their voracity, as a backup to the backup: the U.S.-funded Tarakhil plant.