In Baghdad, power to - and from - the people

Iraqi entrepreneurs run generators to fill gaps left by the faulty power grid

Every few hours, when the lights go out along his block in the Baghdad suburb of Saydia, Shehab Abu Ahmed marches out of his tiny shack at the top of his street, thumbs his nose at the capital's largest power plant, and fires up his massive 125-kilovolt generator. Within seconds, the power comes back on along his street, one house at a time.

"We have 35 houses connected so far," Mr. Abu Ahmed says. "And more are signing up every day."

Amid one of the worst power crunches Baghdad has ever seen, small-time power generators like Abu Ahmed and his partners have made a business of lighting up the darkness left by Iraq's faulty national grid.

Over the past several months, hundreds of entrepreneurs have installed massive rumbling generators along sidewalks and on city streets, and strung up hundreds of colorful wires along city blocks, all to fill in when the system fails.

"It's like night and day," says Mohammed Sabri, one of Shehab's customers. "We can run a fridge, freezer, TV, and two swamp coolers. It makes our whole ordeal just a bit more bearable."

Not a cheap solution

The idea is nothing new to Iraqi entrepreneurs. Ever since the 1991 Gulf War, Iraq's outlying areas were left with a net power deficit as Saddam Hussein began diverting electricity to Baghdad. In towns like Mosul, Nasiriyah, and Basra, one-man power companies became the lifeblood for most communities.

It's not necessarily a cheap solution, however. Most power brokers operate on the same basic model: For a monthly fee, residents can purchase enough electricity to run most lights and basic appliances. Residents typically pay about $2 to $3 for each amp they use per month. In most locales, the operators run their generators up to four hours at a time, enough to ride out the intermittent power outages.

Ammar Jaber and his in-laws seized on the opportunity in April, shortly after Baghdad fell. They headed up to Mosul, bought a monstrous generator for about $2,000 from one of the local power producers there, and installed it in their neighborhood.

Today, they supply more than 1,000 customers in their largely Christian neighborhood, including several storefronts that buy power during the day, and apartments that buy it by night.

Mr. Jaber and three of his brothers now sell power for $2.50 to $3 per amp. They spend about $1,000 on diesel and maintenance per month, earning close to $3,000.

"This is a good business, but a tiring business," says Jaber. "You have to have a lot of patience to run it."

The four family members manage the mini power plant day and night, taking turns at the generator. A mechanic is also always on hand to ensure proper operation.

When things go wrong, customers are quick to let them know.

"What's most important for us is making people comfortable," Jaber notes. "That keeps them away."

Battling saboteurs

For the past four months, the Iraqi Electrical Commission has sent its 39,000 employees scrambling to add capacity, fix existing generation capacity, and expand distribution even as saboteurs worked to stymie operations.

But the system has yet to recover. In July, power generation in Baghdad only reached 1,300 megawatts while demand hit 2,400 megawatts. That amounted to only about 12 hours a day of power on average, says Nafee Abdul Sada, director of the Baghdad Company for Electricity Distribution.

Baghdad itself has been placed on a rotating schedule - three hours on, three hours off - during the torrid summer months, leaving most Baghdadis fuming and ranting against the occupation. Only hospitals, and those living near them, can count on anything close to reliable power these days.

Part of the problem is low generating capacity, which has lagged far behind demand over the past decade.

During the 1990s, generation capacity dropped even as population growth accelerated. By the beginning of this year, the nation's slated generation capacity was 7,500 megawatts.

But due to dramatic problems with calcification in boilers and heat exchangers, capacity continued to fall, along with plant efficiency.

Hydroelectric power stations in the north, meanwhile, face falling water levels in the Tigris and Euphrates rivers because of dam projects in Turkey that reduced water flow into tributaries.

In Baghdad, long a beneficiary of the nation's power grid, a shortage of generation capacity has left the city in the lurch. The fuel-oil station in Al Dora and the Rasheed plant in the south of Baghdad are based on 1960s technology and are all but obsolete. The Mosul Dam station, which used to be switched on to provide Baghdad with extra power, has not been working since the war began.

Sabotage against the country's power grid has also taken a massive toll. Downed power lines during the war, along with looting afterward, left many lines cut. Many of the the tools and vehicles used for repairing the lines were damaged or stolen. And typically, annual maintenance for the systems is from October through the spring, but this year, the war and the lack of security have left basic maintenance neglected.

Cries of price gouging

The small generator operators have faced their share of criticism. Diesel shortages in recent weeks have forced many to raise their rates and reduce the hours of operation per day, leaving customers feeling gouged.

"The biggest problem standing in our way is diesel," says Jaber. "We have half a tank left and we can't find any. If the coalition can't get us electricity, the least they can do is help us get diesel."

Despite such troubles, the power entrepreneurs are determined to persevere.

"Iraqis are known for being survivors," says Jaber. "We are proving we can do anything we need to, and nothing will stand in our way."

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