Iraq, the ancient Mesopotamia, one of the cradles of our civilization has been blessed with many resources. One of them is sunlight. According to the BBC, Baghdad has an average of 6-12 hours of sunlight daily and the southern city of Basra has 7-11 hours.
During the decades that Saddam Hussein and his associates ruled Iraq, the infrastructure necessary to produce and distribute electricity was neglected. Electrical power was an instrument of coercion, used by the state to reward loyalty and, by denying access, to punish disloyalty. At the time of the Coalition invasion in 2003 the city of Baghdad had electricity 24 hours a day while parts of the Shia dominated south had little or none at all. Electricity was generated through a number of hydroelectric dams and use of the country’s abundant supplies of oil and natural gas.
Since 2003, Iraq’s ability to generate electricity has increased slightly while the demands of the people have surged well ahead of production capacity. The electrical grid and the production infrastructure have been improved but have been subject to terrorist attacks and the time delays inherent in the manufacture of complex equipment. Demand for electricity has far outraced supply.
The government of Iraq has also changed the management of the grid’s distribution of electricity. Available power is shared among all the provinces, not just those formerly favored by Saddam. The combination of increased demand and redistribution has been seen in Baghdad where available power has dropped to an average of 8-12 hours daily where it once was available 24 hours a day.
Darkness breeds fear, and crime and for Iraqis it breeds terrorism. The provision of electrical power for hospitals, schools, police stations and for municipal lighting has been a priority for the Iraqi government and its Coalition partners.
With electrical power as a priority, the sunlight that has blessed Iraq has been seen as a very real solution. Solar power projects have been built throughout Iraq and more are under construction or planned. While large solar power complexes have been attempted, progress is being seen in small installations. The equipment is inexpensive enough that thousands of individual placements have been made. As one visiting specialist pointed out, it is difficult for terrorists to bomb everything. Large projects provide a target that small ones do not.
A medical clinic in the Baghdad neighborhood of Ameriyah has been outfitted with a solar power system. The system receives an average of ten hours of sunlight daily which is enough to power the clinic for three days.
The Rabi Fish Market in another part of Baghdad received forty solar powered street lamps. This has allowed the vendors in the neighborhood to open in the evening and has brought a thriving marketplace to a once dark street.
More solar powered street lamps were installed in other Baghdad neighborhoods. and in the city of Taji. In a Los Angeles Times report, solar power is said to be six or seven times as costly as other forms of electrical production. But because of the infrastructure challenges, the Iraqis are committing to installing tens of thousands of such lights. The least expensive are reported to cost about $2,000, while the bullet resistant ones as much as $6,000.
Dr. Ali Allak is an adviser to the Iraqi Ministry of Electricity and to the Coalition on solar power. He has described the advantages of solar power in terms of lifetime costs. Other forms of generating electricity require significant maintenance and the replacement of worn-out parts on a routine basis. Solar power installations have very little maintenance, merely keeping the panels clean. With an anticipate life of 25 years, a solar installation pays for itself easily with low maintenance costs and a long useful life.
The Iraqi government is exploring the potential of a “household” solar power installation. The specifications call for a system that will provide about 2.68 kilowatts of power over twelve hours. This is enough power for one day in a typical Iraqi home without air conditioning.
Solar power generation is a continuous process as long as there is light. Low light means less efficiency, and the intense sunlight of Iraq is what produces the most efficient solar power generation. The lack of such intensity does not rule out its use and there are many places in the United States where the hoursof sunlight is similar to that in Iraq.
Los Angeles and San Diego are two such cities. Minneapolis and Chicago for more than half the year have numbers similar to Iraq’s. There are a great many places in the United States where solar power could be feasible.
Nellis Air Force Base, outside Las Vegas, Nevada, recently opened a 70,000 solar panel, 140 acre electricity generating facility. Through arrangements with a private contractor and the local utility, this installation will generate nearly 15 megawatts of electricity and fill a ten megawatt need in the local power grid. Another military base, Camp Pendleton in southern California, uses over 300 solar powered lights on streets and in remote locations on the base.
The New York Times recently profiled employment in the solar power industry, predicting massive growth for the next few years. Walmart has installed generating facilities at more than twenty of its stores and other buildings.
Cities as diverse as Louisville, Kentucky and East Grand Forks, Minnesota have installed solar powered street lighting. The Oakland Zoo has a solar generating system in use for one of its buildings.
Up fronts costs for solar have been a deterrent to their use. The Federal Government and several state and local governments now offer incentives, low interest loans and tax credits to encourage the use of solar power, and as much as 30% of the origianl cost may be saved that way. In addition, a variety of leasing and purchasing programs have been created to spread the costs over time, as reported by the Wall Street Journal.
Iraq is filling in the gaps in its electrical grid with innovative use of solar power generation. As the government explores new types of uses, the potential exists for many households to generate their own power, and to feed any excess to the grid to earn additional income.
Many areas in the United States have the same potential ability to generate electricity from solar. The industry is beginning to enjoy its first expansion in its thirty year history and the end is not in sight. Nearly every home, store, business or government building has space on its roof where solar could be put to work. Solar power remains vastly under used but changes in funding, manufacture and in society will make it more common in the future.