More Than A Green Economy: The promise of Distributed Energy in Iraq 

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With the ongoing COVID-2019 crisis causing global economic chaos, there will be more focus on resilience for electricity supplies in developed and developing countries. In early March, the North American Electric Reliability Corp issued a directive for utilities to prepare contingency plans to minimize risk of power disruption due to the ongoing crisis. Power outages in California affecting 800,000 people last year have also re-focused minds on distributed power.

Iraq is no stranger to such emergencies, and while the causes are of course man-made, the upshot is that critical health and other municipal infrastructure relies on backup generators, or uses them as a first option.

In Iraq, this is life or death: water and sewage treatment are at risk when power is not available. Vaccines need to be in temperature controlled storage and of course, hospitals cannot function.

While critical infrastructure can be supplied with backup generators, fuel supply may not always be assured in fragile states, where domestic refined fuel demand outstrips refining capacity.

Fuel in a fragile state

This risk is now being seen across Libya as fuel supplies collapse, while Iraq’s history since the late 1980s confirms that generator fuel availability cannot be assured. In October 1991, UNICEF released a study on the potential for the humanitarian crisis in Iraq to worsen following 11 years of war and post Gulf War sanctions. They warned:

“The lack of electrical power has eliminated wastewater treatment in Baghdad and southern Iraq and raw sewage is being discharged into waterways. Sewage treatment is also dramatically reduced because of a lack of chlorine, spare parts and reliable electrical power.”

By 2002, this situation had barely changed in Basra, where the Hartha power station, which provided electricity for sewage infrastructure, was still only partly operational following the 1991 war. Power vulnerability for vital infrastructure continued in 2003. After the invasion, hospital generators were run at night to save fuel. By day, patients suffered with no air conditioning.

Unsurprisingly, generators consume costly amounts of fuel, which may not always be available. For example, Basra Mall in Iraq relies on P550-3 500 kVA – 550 kVA diesel generators. At full demand, these can consume up to 120 litres of fuel per hour. Diesel generators remain a highly attractive proposition in Iraq where fuel subsidies keep costs lower than off-grid solar power, although this is expensive for residential users. But over time, solar is cheaper for buildings such as shopping malls, since the running costs reduce over time, in contrast to large generators which come with maintenance costs. In some ways, sites such as supermarkets and malls could also be considered “critical,” since large amounts of perishable food destruction increases economic fragility.

As one of the fastest growing urban areas in Iraq, Basra remains acutely vulnerable to disruption, and key infrastructure remains reliant on backup generators. During the summer 2018 water crisis an estimated 118,000 residents were hospitalised due to water quality related symptoms, according to Human Rights Watch, as sewage and wastewater treatment once again failed due to lack of power and high salinity.

In order to reduce stress on the population in the long suffering southern port city, the government has expedited large scale power projects and work on the transmission and distribution system. While such efforts are essential, established technology for distributed power is improving, and could be vital in any future crisis.

Possible solutions

Hospital power, sewage and wastewater treatment power supply can all be decentralized. The first possible solution seems rather obvious: solar power. But Solar Photovoltaic (PV) installation is not the only way forward: biogas production from sewage could for example, ensure treatment plants have inbuilt resilience from power outages.

Until recently, biogas production from waste was an option only explored in industrialized countries, but this is changing rapidly. In Chennai, India, seven of the city’s 13 sewage and wastewater treatment plants are now partly powered by their own biogas through anaerobic digestion of sewage sludge. Combined Heat and Power (CHP) units, often seen as a green solution to waste in Europe and North America, could be life saving in Iraq.

In the future, it’s not a stretch to imagine bioreactors with integrated gas reservoirs for anaerobic fermentation at any of Basra’s 12 existing sewage plants, processing Basra’s daily estimated 100,000m3 of waste.

The future

Distributed power is now well established in many developing countries, but a number of innovations could see further progress. Perovskite Solar Cells (PSCs) for example, are generally more efficient than the common crystalline silicon cells, which have a typical power conversion efficiency of 18-22%, compared to conversion rates up to 30% for PSC.

At the moment, PSCs are very much in the development stage: a report by IRENA highlighted “some barriers” still needed to be overcome, including durability (Perovskite crystals are not very resistant to humidity). The report did not mention one of these issues is the presence of lead in Perovskite, but there are ongoing attempts to tackle this problem.

If anything, the biggest obstacle to PSCs is attracting investment to scale up to mass production. Until that happens, PSCs will remain high cost, for niche applications, according to a recent MIT study on economies of scale for PSC development. Some companies, such as Oxford PV, are moving ahead with “tandem” Perovskite-silicon cells, which will be manufactured by Swiss company Meyer Burger in Germany this year.

What might this mean for Iraq? Africa’s rapid adoption of distributed solar power, initially an entirely aid based effort but increasingly involving private sector micro-grid startups, could be instructive.

While those efforts often involve electrifying very remote communities, cost is still an issue. At some point in the future, it’s possible to imagine PSC cost coming in below first generation solar power, for rooftop and microgrid solar, which could be game changing.

Already, communities in Ramadi and other liberated areas are seeing rooftop solar implementation, while the MOE are planning to roll out 8 MW of rooftop solar nationally. Meanwhile in the Kurdish region, there has been growing interest in commercially available rooftop solar.

While the economic benefits of municipal solar are clear, and the need to ensure resilient critical infrastructure is pressing, there are also opportunities for off-grid power in industry.

For example, globally almost 3.5 GW of distributed renewable energy is currently in operation or being installed for mining operations. This has important implications for Iraq, where industrial electricity demand may rise substantially, in the best case scenarios for Iraq’s economic diversification. Indeed, growth sectors in Iraq such as cement and fertilizer production could benefit immensely from the potential of solar.

As an example, the Akashat phosphate fertilizer processing plant was once Iraq’s main facility for processing high quality phosphate rock for fertilizer, requiring 50 MW of power before its destruction during the war on ISIS. This facility, which once led Iraq’s world-leading phosphate fertilizer industry, was supplied by four diesel generators for highly energy intensive rock processing. With current technology, this would be impossible to provide for with solar alone.

But as battery technology and solar efficiency continues to advance, solar could provide a substantial percentage of power for a future operation at Akashat. For example, the remote Degrussa Mine in western Australia used solar to supply 10 MW of its 33 MW power requirements for copper extraction, the largest off-grid solar installation in the world.

None of these distributed energy technologies will be a silver bullet for Iraq’s development of course, but decentralizing power at critical economic and municipal infrastructure installations would go a long way to strengthening Iraq’s overall resilience, whatever the future may hold.

Editor, Iraq Energy Institute | + posts

Robert Tollast, is a freelance political risk analyst focused on Iraq who is the editor at the Iraq Energy Institute. His previously worked for the Iraq Advisory Group, CEIS (France) and the Brecon Group.

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