it’s called “power” for a reason

This story from Rajiv Chandrasekharan about two rival approaches to sorting out Kandahar’s electricity supply is informative, but not just about its apparent topic. Basically, the US Army wants to go for a quick fix, installing a lot of mobile generators and trucking in the diesel fuel, in order to get the lights on as soon as possible. The US civilians in Afghanistan disagree, on the grounds that it’s a temporary hack that will be far too expensive for the Afghans to support in the longer run.

Incredibly, it turns out, the US/NATO base at Kandahar air field produces and consumes about 100 megawatts of electricity; the estimate for the gap between current levels and requirements is 42 megawatts. Obviously, the military has a point in that if it’s possible to produce that much electricity in the field, it may be foolish to keep playing around with grandiose projects when a call to Aggreko could cut it.

On the other hand, as in Iraq, electricity is deeply political. We speak of generating power for a reason.

Deploying 42MW of mobile diesel gensets to Kandahar is one kind of solution; it defines the issue as a discrete project, which can be solved by standard logistics methods, drawing on a private contracting firm that specialises in delivering surprisingly large electricity projects in containerised form. It also commits whoever rules in Kandahar to import large quantities of diesel through the shaky logistics pipeline from Pakistan, which means that somebody has to find the foreign exchange to back the most expensive way possible of generating power, and keep the roads reasonably open, which has its own military and political consequences.

You could argue that it’s not actually a solution – in fact, it’s a substitute for a solution, a temporary, containerised fix delivered as part of a standard tool-kit for counterinsurgency. A lot of people would argue that there is no such thing. Certainly, though, this option implies that donors continue to pay the bills, somebody continues to patrol the roads, and someone continues to pay off the Taliban between there and Quetta. I can’t help thinking, looking at a lot of the growing technology of instant urbanism (suitcase GSM base stations, palletised VSATs, Aggreko gensets, Sun Microsystems containerised data centres…) that a lot of this stuff might actually be a sort of negative toolkit of local optimisations. I’m trying to be optimistic, though; a less depressing example is here, in which South Sudan gets its own brewery. (I never realised producing beer was so bulk-increasing that it was worth importing all the inputs except for labour.)

On the other hand, the US civilians’ alternative is to press on with the Kajaki Dam project; the British Army brought off an incredibly complex tour de force in finally getting its new turbines delivered, involving a major operational-level deception plan, the building of a new road, and 4,000 men, but it’s still not making much progress. Adam Curtis would probably have something interesting to say about the fact that it’s been the major development plan for southern Afghanistan since the 1950s. The reason is, of course, that it embodied a particular political vision.

In terms of what might be called conflict urbanism (see this post) the Kajaki dam would seem to be a really bad idea; the plan is to generate power out in Taliban territory and have Kandahar depend on that. We know how well long-distance transmission lines survive in an environment of insurgency and counterinsurgency from Iraq; not at all. Of course, given that something like 40% of the power goes missing in transit, this is itself a sort of suboptimal political solution on the part of the people who live near the wires.

By comparison, generating power in town and having it radiate out to the villages is obviously a very different kind of politics – the conceptual fit with the counterinsurgents’ intellectual legacy is quite clear. However, I can’t help but doubt that anyone’s going to be importing all this diesel into Kandahar in two years’ time, nor that Aggreko or whoever’s expat staff will be entirely cool with a stint there. Of course, the problem is deeper than that; the contractors’ war-risk insurance policies come to mind.

The bill is apparently a cool $200 million; at $4/watt, a 42MW concentrating solar power plant would come in at $168m and produce power independently.

But I suspect this is as likely to happen as the other way of getting enough foreign exchange for Kandahar to buy its own fuel is to be accepted. Another notable fact is that the US Army is looking at getting the GCC countries to pay for the diesel bill – entrenching, in other words, southern Afghanistan in the Saudi sphere of influence.

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