KABUL, Afghanistan — The Tarakhil power plant started with the highest of ambitions, but it has fallen short on all counts. The nearly $300 million project is currently running at just over 2 percent capacity according to a recent USAID audit.
If the power plant had been working at the recommended 90 percent since it was handed over to Afghan officials in 2010, it would have produced a whopping 2.9 million megawatt-hours of electricity. Instead, a combination of poor planning and inadequate training have limited the plant’s output to a meager 63,000 megawatt-hours.
The chairwoman of the Homeland security Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., recently sent a letter to USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah demanding answers.
McCaskill was enraged over the situation which she called, “entirely predictable and preventable.”
The ensuing audit revealed the contributing factors behind the Tarakhil power plant’s failure. First, the plant runs on diesel, which is both costly and dangerous to import to Afghanistan.
It was for that reason that USAID, “claimed to be against building the plant from the very beginning and expressed concerns about the project.” Still, political pressure forced USAID to continue with the flawed plan anyway.
The next problem came in the choice of contractor. USAID hired Black & Veatch for construction purposes. The contractors ran way over budget and hit constant roadblocks, eventually leading to their termination in 2009.
The biggest problems came when USAID handed the power plant over to a relatively untrained Afghan staff in 2010. The staff was unprepared for the task of operating a fully functioning power plant. They failed to fix broken parts and had difficulties operating the malfunctioning computer systems.
As a result, most of the plant’s generators have sat idle since 2010. This is not only damaging to the equipment which degrades and eventually fails without use, but it’s damaging to the Afghan people who desperately need electricity.
In fact, only one in seven people in Afghanistan has access to electricity. According to USAID, the city of Kabul needs about twice as much power as it currently survives on.
The Tarakhil power plant was supposed to provide that electricity, but oversight from a variety of organizations have cost hundreds of thousands of Afghanis access to electricity.
Still, the project was not entirely a failure, and there is cause to hope that the plant can be turned around. Currently, it operates as an emergency generator by powering Kabul during blackouts or in times of high demand.
In yet more good news, despite the failings of the Tarakhil power plant, USAID has increased the percentage of Afghans who have access to electricity from 6 percent to 18 percent since 2002. More than two million people in Kabul now enjoy the luxury of electricity 24 hours a day.
However, the Tarakhil power plant has the potential to extend those benefits to hundreds of thousands more. USAID currently plans to retrain the Afghan staff and redouble its efforts to bring the power plant to full running capacity again.
– Sam Hillestad