Iraq Power Grid Shows U.S. Flaws

The job of restoring electrical capacity is steeped in errors and misjudgment. The effort illuminates challenges of reconstruction.

By T. Christian Miller

Los Angeles Times

September 13, 2004

BAIJI, Iraq — During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, two Tomahawk cruise missiles slammed into the hulking power complex here, leaving dumpster-sized transformers crumpled like balls of tissue paper.

The strike crippled Iraq's largest source of electricity, cutting off almost 10% of the country's power supply. It took two months and 23 days for Iraqi engineers to get the plant running again.

During last year's war, the U.S. military carefully avoided attacks on Iraq's electrical infrastructure, and the plant escaped unscathed. After Baghdad fell, U.S. engineers rushed in with aid to fix the damage from years of disrepair and a spasm of postwar looting.

Today, 17 months and $172 million later, the Baiji power plant — a vast "Lawrence of Arabia" meets "Blade Runner" complex 125 miles north of Baghdad — produces less than half the electricity it generated when it was built two decades ago.

In the long, frustrating campaign to rebuild this country, perhaps no task ha s been more difficult than turning on the lights.

The trouble restoring Iraq's electrical system exemplifies the failures of a larger reconstruction process still marked by tainted water supplies, limited sewage treatment and curtailed construction of public buildings. An effort that was supposed to provide jobs, stability and democracy has instead produced a deep reservoir of confusion and anger that feeds the country's deadly insurgency.

Although electricity was the foundation of the rebuilding campaign, State and Defense department planners vastly underestimated the time, money and effort needed to restore the country's power grid, which had deteriorated far beyond their expectations under 12 years of U.N. sanctions.

A review of the restoration effort shows that it was beset by poor planning, inconsistent leadership, sabotage and deteriorating security.

Today, the campaign is finally producing results, with power generation increasing rapidly in recent weeks. "We are making progress," said Tim Miller, a manager with San Francisco-based Bechtel Corp. who is helping to rebuild the plant. "It's just not as quickly as everyone would like."

The progress has been slowed by intrusive and haphazard U.S. oversight, sources say. U.S. officials in Washington and Baghdad placed enormous pressure on their underlings, setting such high goals that engineers sometimes skipped maintenance, ran generators harder than normal and gambled on untried techniques to raise output.

A Pentagon decision to rely on private contractors to do much of the rebuilding also slowed work. Rather than depend on Iraqis to make quick fixes, the Pentagon decided to spend money on complex, big-ticket infrastructure — a strategy that would meet long-term goals rather than the nation's immediate needs, critics said.

Congress' insistence on using the federal government's cumbersome procurement system also meant long delays. Understaffed and overworked contracting officials compounded the prob lem, U.S. officials in Iraq and Washington say.

At the same time, work in Iraq was roiled by constantly changing leadership, vision and emphasis. Since rebuilding began in April 2003, seven people have overseen the electricity project — the equivalent of a new CEO every 2 1/2 months for one of the most complicated and expensive tasks in Iraq.

"It was absolutely horrendous," said Michel Gautier, head of the United Nations' Iraqi infrastructure office. "We could never collaborate because of the continually changing people. It was extremely inefficient and destructive."

Military mistakes exacerbated the situation. The failure to secure Iraq after the March 2003 invasion permitted widespread looting of power plants and electricity lines. Much of the $5.6 billion in U.S. taxpayer funds dedicated to restoring Iraq's power is being used not to build new plants but to replace what Iraqis stole.

Even more serious has been the insurgency. A wave of guerrilla violence has crippled contractors' ability to work. Companies such as Bechtel, Siemens and General Electric occasionally have had to suspend operations, U.S. officials say. Iraqi workers have been targeted for cooperating with the rebuilding effort. New transmission towers have been destroyed as soon as they were erected.

"We're just not making progress to the extent we could if it weren't for the security issue," said Mike Moseley, a retired Tennessee Valley Authority executive who is the senior U.S. consultant on electricity to the Iraqis. "We're moving forward, but not in a sea of water. We're in a sea of molasses on a cold, winter day."

Even today, the U.S. has not reached the goal set by L. Paul Bremer III, the former head of the U.S.-led occupation authority, to produce 6,000 megawatts of power a day by June 1. By comparison, California has about 50% more people than Iraq but produces up to eight times as much electricity, about 45,000 megawatts at peak summer demand.

Iraq's electrical production tops out at 5,300 megawatts — higher than peak generation in the closing days of Saddam Hussein's regime, but far below the estimated 7,200 megawatts needed to fulfill the rapidly growing demand.

Still, officials say the U.S. reconstruction project is substantially improving the reliability of Iraq's power system.

"Everybody wants simple answers, and there aren't any," said Dick Dumford, perhaps the longest-serving member of the group of U.S. engineers and experts who have labored to get Iraq's electricity running again. "We did our best. Everybody did their best."

Power Failure

Just days before the war began, a worker at the Baiji plant went home without shutting off a fuel-supply valve in one of the main boilers.

The boiler exploded, blowing out inch-thick steel walls, bending beams and turning the generator into a ruined hunk of metal that was incapable of producing electricity and tremendously difficult to repair. It was a sign of the tro uble ahead.

Many State Department and Pentagon officials involved in the initial planning for war assumed that the electricity sector would generally need only repairs and rehabilitation because the military had avoided infrastructure targets.

But as government officials and contractors slowly fanned out after major combat ended, they found that 12 years of sanctions had created a far worse situation than they had realized.

No electric plants had been built in Iraq since the 1980s, and most of the existing ones were nearing the end of their normal life cycles.

Desperately needed maintenance had been put off for years as Iraqi engineers tried to coax more power out of aging systems. The network was a nightmare patchwork of technology, meshing systems from Italy, France, Germany, China, Russia, Yugoslavia, India, Japan and other countries.

Even before the U.S. invasion, Iraq's power production had declined from about 7,000 megawatts in the early 1990s to 4,400 megawatts. Baiji, built in 1983, was a prime example of the disrepair. Its ancient, 300-foot smokestacks belch a constant black smudge against the bright blue sky and rolling brown hills around it. The transformers that loaded power onto the national grid had gone without service for a decade.

"It was like a 1970 Chevelle car engine. You buy it used. When you pull the engine and take off the cylinder heads, you figure out there was a lot more damage than you ever realized," said Maj. Erik Stor, operations chief for the Army Corps of Engineers' Restore Iraqi Electricity project.

While assessing the damage, the electrical team, headed by the U.S. Agency for International Development, was blindsided by a far more serious challenge: looting, sabotage and violence.

Insurgents tumbled transmission towers like dominos. When U.S. assessment teams arrived in Iraq shortly after the invasion, about 30 towers had been knocked down. By September, that had grown to 600 towers, substantially cutting into Iraq 's ability to send power across its grid.

Theft was rampant, and Baiji was hit hard. Bandits in search of copper stole more than 50 miles of high-tension wire between the plant and Baghdad, cutting off the complex from the country's largest population center.

"We buy [electrical parts], the next day they're gone," Jim Guy, a USAID engineering specialist, said during a conference in Washington. "We have to guard everything that's loose, or else it will be gone in the morning."



With the U.S. facing a problem far out of proportion to its expectations, summer 2003 turned out to be disastrous. Blackouts were common. Tempers rose with the temperature.

U.S. officials responded by deciding to distribute electricity more evenly. Under Hussein, Baghdad received up to 23 hours of power a day while other regions suffered. That summer, everyone had three hours on, three hours off.

The backlash in the capital was immediate. To many, life seemed better under H ussein.

By late summer, the battle against the foreign presence exploded. The United Nations building was blown up, prompting the departure of its workers. U.S. troops were ambushed frequently.

Team 4400

At the end of August, Army Gen. John Abizaid, head of the war effort, called the major players together at Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Fla.

"Why is this screwed up? What we are doing is failing, and the Iraqis are getting damn unhappy," Abizaid told representatives from the electricity, oil and communications sectors, according to senior coalition officials who were present.

The money that soon came pouring in was ample evidence of how badly war planners had shortchanged the initial reconstruction effort.

USAID had set aside only $229 million of a $680-million contract with Bechtel to rebuild the power system.

By November, Congress had increased the funding to $5.6 billion — not only for rehabilitating old plants but also for bu ilding new ones.

In the summer, the Coalition Provisional Authority had dedicated five people to the power effort. By the fall, that staff had surpassed 50.

Steve Browning, an Army Corps of Engineers official, led the charge. Bremer assigned Browning to increase Iraq's generation capacity to the prewar level of 4,400 megawatts by the end of September. Team 4400, as it came to be known, often worked from dawn to well past midnight. The team paired Iraqi plant operators with U.S. power experts. It created a new power station police force and focused on boosting output.

Each night, Browning and his team gathered to review the day's performance. The pressure was enormous.

Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz "would say to me, 'I saw your power generation chart today' every day," Browning said. "When people saw there was a drop, they'd say, 'Oh, you failed today.' "

Generators were breaking down as they were pushed to their limits. One plant caught fire, going offline for two weeks.

"It was a soap opera," Dumford said. " 'Did it go up or down? The White House is waiting.' " Then, on Oct. 6, just days after the deadline had passed, Iraq's power production hit 4,518 megawatts.

After midnight, the power team members gathered around a table at the Rashid Hotel in the middle of Baghdad's fortified Green Zone and bought one another drinks.

Someone lighted a candle, placed it on the table and said: "To the people who turned the lights back on in Baghdad."

"It was one of the most exciting nights of my life," Dumford said.

Race to Build

A month after the celebration, Congress passed an $18.4-billion aid package for Iraq. The largest chunk was dedicated to restoring electricity.

The money, though, came with a caveat: All work had to be thrown open to competition among private companies or Congress would have to be informed.

Both Republican and Democrats hailed the stipulation as a way to control Iraq's balloon ing costs. But the process imposed peacetime contracting rules amid a rapidly changing dynamic of conflict.

Through last fall and this spring, reconstruction officials struggled to bid out thousands of projects, including power plants, dams and police equipment. Because of the volume of contracts and the backlog, deadlines were pushed back from November to January to February.

"Think about trying to build Disney World in downtown Memphis in the United States in less than 90 days," said Amy Burns, a spokeswoman for retired Rear Adm. David Nash, the head of the effort. "You couldn't do it any faster than we did."

By spring this year, the electricity project had had a series of leaders, each of whom stayed for two to three months — part of the coalition authority's normal rotation.

However, the constant changes baffled U.S., Iraqi and U.N. officials alike. Goals and priorities were in flux. There was duplication of efforts.

Officials "would come and spend five week s getting to know the place, then four weeks of work and then three weeks getting ready to go back home," the U.N.'s Gautier said of his contacts with top CPA officials.

At the same time, CPA contracting officials were overwhelmed by the workload. The electricity team, facing Bremer's target of 6,000 megawatts by June 1, had no more than three contracting officers trying to bid work for $100 million in parts. Orders that were supposed to have been placed in November backed up for months. Even now, nearly a year later, replacement parts have not arrived.

"It was a pipe dream to think that the CPA was going to award and mobilize construction contracts from coalition countries as fast as Adm. Nash wanted them to be," Browning said. "It was just going to take longer."

In the spring, just as the contracts were finally being awarded, the situation on the ground got worsened.

At the end of March, four private security guards working for Blackwater USA were ambushed and slain in Fall ouja. Their bodies were mutilated, and two of the corpses were strung from a bridge. A few days later, insurgents struck a Halliburton Co. convoy carrying supplies to troops. Four Halliburton employees died, two remain missing and one escaped.

After these events, many contractors panicked. Shippers refused to cross the border into the country. Iraqi workers stopped showing up at job sites.

The surge in violence did not stop the reconstruction effort, but it slowed it. When June 1 arrived, Iraq was producing about 4,300 megawatts a day — far from the 6,000-megawatt goal.

Today, the Baiji plant is slowly returning to life.

Inside, the plant thrums with noise. Warmed by the scorching sun and nearby boilers, the complex is like a huge sauna. Bechtel is rehabilitating the six generators; only one remains out of commission.

Across a field of baked, brown earth from the main plant, Washington Group International is installing, at U.S. taxpayer expense, eight mobile gener ators the size of semitrucks and repairing four gas-fired generators that draw fuel from a nearby oil refinery.

After more than a year of struggle and delay, most of the plant's new and rehabilitated generators are expected to be up and running by November.

It's a trend mirrored throughout Iraq, where the U.S. is adding generation capacity faster than ever now that contractors have finished designing new plants and begun constructing them.

'We Are Behind'

It still isn't enough.

"In general, we are behind. We are 100% behind," Electricity Minister Ayham Sameraei said in an interview. "The growth is crazy right now."

The irony is not missed: Iraq's continuing shortage of electricity is a symbol of its success.

As the economy has slowly recovered, Iraqis have gone on a spending spree. New air conditioners, refrigerators, microwave ovens and other power-hungry appliances are for sale everywhere as Iraqis dole out long-hoarded cash and the consumer m arket opens wider than under Hussein.

At the same time, the reconstruction effort is beginning to have an effect. Small shops are open. Homes are being built. State-owned enterprises shuttered during the war are functioning again.

All the rebuilding has fueled a surge in demand.

"It makes our job that much harder," said Stor, the operations chief for the Army Corps project.

Another concern is the distribution system, which delivers power to consumers. Under Hussein, the system of substations and local connections was neglected. A recent Bechtel report called the system "precarious," warning that it could fail at current demand.

Other problems await attention. Iraqi engineers accustomed to rushing from one crisis to the next must be trained for the long-term planning and maintenance that characterize advanced power plant operations. New Iraqi managers, used to a top-down structure, must learn to make their own decisions.

Schooled in the hard lessons of the last 17 months, U.S. and Iraqi officials expect it to take three to five years to make the entire system fully functional and sustainable.

When it is done, however, both sides hope that the project's impressive scale will be understood — and appreciated — by Iraqis.

"If we achieve our goals, most of our other problems will be solved," said Wafi Mnadi, the Electricity Ministry's director of thermal power plants. "For our people, electricity is life."