Updated Monday, January 28, 2013 at 10:46 PM
KABUL, Afghanistan — There were fresh-cut flowers and a bouquet of two dozen microphones at the news conference Monday for the notorious warlord who’s now Afghanistan’s utilities minister and a distinguished visitor, his Iranian counterpart.
And with the flourish of a pen, the electricity-hungry Afghans had two big power plants. That they already owned. And never use.
That’s because the plants are powered by expensive imported diesel fuel, just like the even larger — and seldom-used — Tarakhil power plant that was built with U.S. money by Black & Veatch, an engineering and construction firm based in Overland Park, Kan.
The Tarakhil plant was labeled a white elephant even before it was completed in 2010 at a cost of $300 million, but at least it’s more efficient than the two plants Iran officially signed over.
“This was silly anyway, because you can’t afford to run those Iranian generators,” Mirwais Alami, a senior executive with Afghanistan’s state-owned but independently run power company, DABS, said after the news conference. “You would have to have a line of tanker trucks, or an oil well right beside them.”
Iran actually had given the two 50-megawatt plants to Afghanistan a decade ago, but Alami, who oversees the provincial offices for the company and its business development, said that in four years on the job, he’d never heard of the Iranian generators being used and that he didn’t expect them to be put into service anytime soon.
The news conference, at the sleek Serena Hotel, was jammed with Afghan journalists and government dignitaries.
Signing the agreement for Afghanistan was the striking, white-bearded Ismail Khan, a famed commander during the war against the Russians and in fighting against the Taliban after the Russians were gone. He’s now the minister of energy and water.
For Iran, there was the more button-down minister of energy, Majid Namjoo.
The bureaucratic theater of it would be entertaining if the need for cheap electricity weren’t so critical in a place where the savage cold routinely kills scores of people each winter.
Or if electricity weren’t such a crucial part of what it means to have a stable government or create more industry, things Afghanistan badly needs as it braces for another presidential election and a major drawdown of U.S. and other foreign troops in 2014.
The Iranian power plants can produce electricity at a cost of nearly $1 per kilowatt hour.
The 105-megawatt American-built plant, meanwhile, is much more efficient, at perhaps 23 cents per kilowatt hour.
Still, it’s far too expensive to run except for a little while on the coldest days, when Kabul’s demand peaks, or if something goes wrong with the transmission lines from Uzbekistan, which sells Afghanistan power for 7 cents per kilowatt hour.
Afghanistan did get something new from Iran but will have to pay for it: a deal to allow it to buy more electricity for the region in the west that borders Iran.
Afghanistan buys about 80 percent of its power from various neighbors and generates most of the rest via modest hydroelectric plants.
There are some hydroelectric projects making slow progress and others are in the planning stage, but not enough money and no quick solution coming.
“If we need 3,000 megawatts of electricity over all of the country, and we are supposed to produce this amount of energy from our own plants, we will need 16 to 17 years and $5 billion to $6 billion,” Khan said.
Most Afghans don’t have access to electricity, but DABS is working to add households to the grid; 175,000 more were hooked up last year, Alami said. In Kabul, 75 percent of the population is connected.
Even for those who are hooked up, there isn’t enough imported power for full 24-hour service in the city, so it’s not unusual on the coldest nights for customers to find themselves without power for hours.
The wider availability of power turned out to be a mixed blessing, since it created more interest in electric heaters rather than the traditional bukhari wood-burning stoves, and in turn more demand per capita for electricity.
In November, DABS issued a warning that it would be forced to increase outages if the use of heaters continued to increase.
The American plant, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, is useful, Alami said. It’s important to have a backup source of power.
Still, he was nothing short of wistful when talking about what could have been done with so much money. Specifically, he said, it could have paid much of the cost of a 200-megawatt hydroelectric plant, which would need no diesel fuel.
“We have a lot of water in those rivers, so we have to convince the donors to focus on generation, instead of importing,” Alami said. “That’s the only way.”
Ismail Khan, Afghan head of energy and water