Francis Curta, AFP
Last updated: 10 October, 2013

Power-starved Iraqis know amps from watts

In electricity-starved Iraq, just about everyone knows his amperes from his watts, and juggling electrical appliances to run them off a generator is by now second-nature.

Power cuts and shortages have gone on for so long that most Iraqis turned to generators to make up for the lack of national grid electricity.

“In Iraq, there isn’t a single home without a generator… from the most simple abode to the most remote tent,” says Abu Karar al-Quraishi, who sells small generators in central Baghdad.

“And in villages, generators are often as important as food” because they run water pumps needed for agriculture.

But the personal generator business is not what it used to be, and while the government trumpets rising power supplies, most people still require plenty of supplementary electricity.

As time has gone on, many city dwellers have switched to private generator operators who, for a fee, will provide power to a single building, or an entire street, when the national grid is down.

“From 2006 to 2010, I used to sell 100 to 150 generators a day,” says Quraishi. “Since 2011, sales have dropped and I only sell 10 to 15 a week.”

“People prefer buying power from private generator operators because they do not need to buy fuel, change the oil, or otherwise maintain their own generators. It’s easier to let generator operators handle the problems.”

Selling electricity can be good business.

Abud Sajad, a generator operator near Aqba bin Nafia Square in central Baghdad, operates two 500 Kilovolt (Kv) generators from a shack, and guarantees up to 18 hours of electricity a day to his 150 neighbourhood customers.

“It is a hard job,” says the 37-year-old, who previously worked as a car painter and taxi driver.

“You must be on hand day and night to keep an eye on the cables and make sure the generator does not overheat.

“And if the generator shuts down for half an hour you can be sure the customers will be all over you complaining.”

Three amps and TV is on

During the hot summer, prices are fixed by the government which, in exchange, subsidises the fuel needed to run the generators.

In the winter, generator operators pay market rates for fuel, but consumption typically drops as temperatures cool off and Iraqis have less use for their air conditioners.

But even though the government sets prices during the summer, charges vary on the ground.

Sajad charges 12,000 Iraqi dinars ($10) per ampere per month, with a minimum three-ampere contract. Operators in other neighbourhoods, however, charge as little as 7,000 dinars per amp per month.

Three amps, a measure of current, will be enough for a small fridge, a television, a fan and some lights. Ten amps will allow for an air conditioner, and more lights.

When customers exceed their allotment, power automatically shuts off.

That means they must learn to juggle appliances — turning off the television to use a microwave, or shutting everything down to ensure there is enough power to run a small air-conditioner in the summer heat.

From inside his shack where a generator thunders away, Sajad keeps a close eye on the meters.

A maze of cables, which could easily prove a fire hazard, sprouts from the shack into a spidery web which runs off to nearby houses.

Sometimes the jumble of cables outside allows a thief to “hook on” undetected to a wire to steal a few amps here and there. Others just steal the wires themselves.

‘I couldn’t live without my generator’

Officials have poured in billions of dollars since the 2003 US-led invasion to solve the power problem, caused by decades of war and sanctions which led to a reliance on obsolete technology.

And while things are slowly getting better, few actually believe government promises that Iraq will produce more electricity than it consumes by year-end.

Such a date is “unrealistic” according to Suzan al-Saad, a member of Iraq’s parliamentary oil and energy committee.

“There are still many technical obstacles to overcome.”

Saad pointed in particular to a decision to build gas-powered power plants, despite the lack of domestically-extracted gas.

While Iraq sits on a sea of oil, it produces hardly any gas and the little that is extracted, as a byproduct of crude, is “flared off” rather than captured.

The widespread corruption plaguing Iraq is also said to have hampered electricity provision.

According to electricity ministry spokesman Musab al-Mudaris, the national grid now provides 14 hours of electricity per day in Baghdad, and up to 20 hours per day elsewhere in the country.

Many Iraqis would dispute those figures.

Production currently stands at 11,000 megawatts (MW), and is estimated to increase to 13,000 MW by year-end and 20,000 MW by late next year, says Mudaris.

Peak summer demand is pegged at 16,000 MW, and Mudaris says the ministry hopes to meet that demand next year.

But Iraqis aren’t letting go of their generators just yet.

“I couldn’t live without my generator,” said Maria Hawil, a 58-year-old Baghdad housewife who has been using the same one for six years.

“It goes wherever I go.”