February 02, 2006

AN INTERESTING LOOK at reconstructing -- or really, constructing -- the power grid in Iraq, from the IEEE Spectrum. Excerpt:

Most officials, Iraqis included, agree that there is more power available in Iraq now than there was before the 2003 war. However, that fact is less germane than most people realize, because the allocation of electric power has shifted seismically, and more or less in sync with the shift in political power. Basically, parts of Baghdad and central Iraq now get much less power than they did before the war, while parts of the south and north actually get considerably more.

For many years, the mainstays of Iraq's electrical capacity were steam generating plants near the huge oil fields in the south and hydroelectric plants ["Power Corridors" in the Kurdish regions in the north. Relatively few plants were concentrated around Baghdad, where most of the demand was. So to keep parts of the city energized close to 24 hours a day, as Saddam wished them to be, operators had to black out different parts of the Shiite south and Kurdish north on a rotating schedule.

Rotating blackouts are still a way of life in Iraq's electrical sector, but now they're not done for Baghdad's benefit. The city still gets about half of its power from the north and south, but these days city residents get anywhere from 6 to 9 hours of electricity a day, compared with about 15 hours for people living in Basra.

In the most recent survey by the International Republican Institute, a prodemocracy advocacy group in Washington, D.C., 2200 Iraqis were asked which of 10 different problems "requiring a political or governmental solution" was most important to them. The first choice, by a margin of about 10 percent, was "inadequate electricity." "National security" came in fifth; the "presence of multinational forces" was seventh; and "terrorists" was eighth.

Read the whole thing, which has a lot of interesting technical information on what's being done, and what's been done wrong -- much of it, it seems, in an effort to move too fast. But there's also this, which is a kind of good news:

Because electricity is essentially free, Iraqis have responded much as you might expect: by buying and using air conditioners, television sets, and refrigerators in record numbers. "We don't even know what demand really is, because it is unconstrained by price," says Crane, the Rand economist. Until the ministry begins charging more realistic rates for electricity, he warns, "you could put a hundred billion dollars into the electrical system and not satisfy demand."

With its huge oil reserves and socialistic society under Saddam, Iraq always had some of the lowest electricity rates in the region. But those low rates didn't keep pace with soaring inflation in Iraq in the 1980s and, especially, the 1990s. Under Saddam, when middle-class Iraqis made just a few dollars a month, few of them could afford refrigerators and air conditioners. Now average family income is $150 a month and a lot of people can afford appliances, as the runaway electrical demand attests.

Unless you're in charge of meeting that demand, it's good news.

UPDATE: The Iraqis can take comfort in this: "we are in danger of doing a far worse job rebuilding New Orleans than rebuilding Baghdad."