Electricity Demand Soars in Iraq

With soaring temperatures in Iraq, the demand for electricity is increasing. Despite concerns about security in Iraq, it's electricity — and why there isn't more of it — that dominates conversation among ordinary Iraqis.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

To Iraq now where security may be the biggest problem, but the issue most Iraqis talk about, the one that dominates conversations, is electricity and why there is not more of it. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports.

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PETER KENYON reporting:

On a sweltering late spring day in Baghdad, a familiar conversation unfolds. A customer haggles with a vendor over the price of a block of ice.

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

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KENYON: `How much for one bar?' is the question. `Fifteen hundred Iraqi dinar,' says the seller. That's about a dollar. `I'll give you 1,250,' says the buyer. `No.' `Why do you treat me this way?' he asks in mock anger. Soon money changes hands and the sparkling shards of ice fly in the 105-degree heat as the three-foot block is cut in two for easier transport.

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KENYON: It's a seller's market for ice this year. Iraq's embattled Electricity Ministry finds itself once again well behind the power demand curve as Iraq begins its annual summer roast. For the ice men of Baghdad, that's a blessing and a curse.

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KENYON: At the Crystal Ice Factory water is turned to ice the old-fashioned way, in a 20-hour process involving ammonia and circulating salt water. Alfred Lassow worked at this plant for 50 years. He's now one of the owners, but still comes by to help supervise the mechanics who keep these old machines clanking and wheezing along.

Mr. ALFRED LASSOW (Owner, Crystal Ice Factory): I call them my children because I taught them exactly what to do. So we make all the maintenance ourself and the big problem, as I say, is the electricity.

KENYON: Business should be booming in the ice trade, but there's a catch. The same problem that sends demand for ice soaring, the lack of electricity for air conditioners and refrigerators, often makes ice production either impossible or prohibitively expensive.

With Iraq's national electricity grid limping along, plagued by unannounced shutdowns every few hours, this factory is almost entirely dependent on generators, and the gas to run them devours most of the profits. Lassow says two-thirds of his company's earnings go to fuel costs.

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KENYON: At a district maintenance station, Iraqi Department of Electricity engineer Sallah Hasham(ph) and his colleagues scramble to deal with a never-ending stream of damage reports. Transformers are blown or malfunctioning, and in more remote areas, the wires themselves are disappearing. Hasham says two years after the worst looting subsided, thieves are still taking the electric lines to salvage the copper.

Mr. SALLAH HASHAM: (Through Translator) Yes, we see cases of wire theft, especially in remote places. The high-tension wires are looted. We send out our patrols. They tell us 600, 800 meters have been stolen or something like that. That's really damaging the network.

KENYON: Forty-one-year-old schoolteacher Abu Norh(ph) is at his wit's end. He says he's been coming to the Electricity Department hundreds of times and still the power to his house is so bad, he can't keep a fluorescent light going.

Mr. ABU NORH: (Through Translator) Now I spend my day at the electricity office. I come in the morning and leave in the afternoon. Now the excuse is that there are no converters. OK. So what can we do? Where can we go? It's a disaster. It's a tragedy.

(Soundbite of street activity in Iraq)

KENYON: As the temperatures soar, so do Iraqi tempers. Forty-year-old Josef Butros(ph) sarcastically wonders why the government seems caught off-guard when--surprise, surprise--it gets hot in the summer.

Mr. JOSEF BUTROS: (Through Translator) The government is spending millions of dollars, billions, to reconstruct Iraq. So why can't they fix the electricity? Is this nuclear science? Never mind the saboteurs. Why do the Americans have electricity and it doesn't go out for a minute while we suffer all the time?

KENYON: In the flat glare of the afternoon sun, Sami Abbas(ph) has just bought a generator, his third in a matter of days. He says the first one broke down after six hours and the second one exploded. When asked what he thinks of the situation, Abbas says, `It's a crime.'

Mr. SAMI ABBAS: (Through Translator) I wish the man in charge of all this would live one hour like us and see what we are facing. They should know that there are children, sick people. The situation is unbearable. Let him come and live without a generator. I want to see how he would live.

KENYON: The target of Iraqi wrath is electricity minister Mohsen Shalash. At a news conference Sunday, he said his workers are doing the best they can, and then he made the one announcement certain to provoke even more hair-pulling anger from sweat-soaked Iraqis. The price of the electricity, which is so rarely present in their homes, is about to go up.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Baghdad.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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