There were fresh-cut flowers and a bouquet of two dozen microphones at the news conference held Monday by the notorious warlord who’s now Afghanistan’s 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.
That’s 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 it’s more efficient than the two plants Iran officially signed over.
"This was silly anyway, because you can’t afford to run those Iranian generators," Mirwais Alami, a senior executive with Afghanistan’s 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.”
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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, he’d never heard of the Iranian generators being used and that he didn’t 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. He’s 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 weren’t so critical in a place where the savage cold routinely kills scores of people each winter. Or if electricity weren’t 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, it’s far too expensive to run except for a little while on the coldest days, when Kabul’s 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.
He said it was important for Afghanistan to be able to generate its own power. In addition to being self-reliant, it could be like countries – such as Turkey and various European nations – that ease costs by using their transmission systems to buy power from neighbors that can make it cheaply and resell it to others that can’t, at a profit.
Afghanistan buys about 80 percent of its power from various neighbors and generates most of the rest via modest hydroelectric plants. There are some hydroelectric projects making slow progress and others in planning, but not enough money and no quick solution coming.
“If we need 3,000 megawatts of electricity overall of the country, and we are suppose to produce this amount of energy from our own plants, we will need 16 to 17 years and $5 billion to $6 billion,” Khan said.
Most Afghans don’t have access to electricity, but DABS is working to add households to the grid; another 175,000 were hooked up last year, Alami said. In Kabul, 75 percent of the population is connected.
Even for those who are hooked up, there isn’t enough imported power for full 24-hour service in the city during the cold stretches. Tarakhil is too expensive for the cash-strapped government to run at full power, so it’s not unusual on the coldest nights for customers to find themselves without power for hours.
Kabul, which has more than 5 million residents, uses just under 370 megawatts at peak, 260 of that from Uzbekistan and the rest mainly from small hydroelectric plants. It could use even more if more customers were connected. "And remember, Kabul is growing," Alami said.
The wider availability of power turned out to be a mixed blessing, since it created more interest in using electric heaters rather than the traditional bukhari wood-burning stoves, and in turn more demand per capita for electricity. In November, DABS issued a warning that it would be forced to increase outages if the use of heaters continued to increase.
The American plant, which was funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, is useful, Alami said. It’s important to have a backup source of power.
Still, he was nothing short of wistful when talking about what could have been done with so much money. Specifically, he said, it could have paid much of the cost of a 200-megawatt hydroelectric plant, which would need no diesel fuel.
Asked what could solve the energy shortage, Alami outlined an Afghanistan that would be among the greenest producers of electricity in the world. Hydroelectric power would have to lead the way, given the estimated 24,000-megawatt potential of the rivers, but there also is plentiful sun and wind.
"We have a lot of water in those rivers, so we have to convince the donors to focus on generation, instead of importing," he said. "That’s the only way."