- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 13, 2015

A government watchdog said Thursday that a $335 million power plant in Afghanistan funded by U.S. taxpayers is operating at less than 1 percent of capacity and is falling into disrepair from lack of use.

Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John Sopko said the Tarakhil Power Plant “continues to be severely underutilized,” despite claims by the U.S. Agency for International Development that the plant remains a “vital component” of the electrical grid serving Kabul, the capital.

The watchdog said the power plant’s failure to generate reliable electricity has the potential to undermine the stability of the country, where the Obama administration has turned over the lead combat role to Afghan forces.

“Affordable and reliable electricity is critical to the economic growth and stability of Afghanistan,” Mr. Sopko said. “However, the construction of a $335 million diesel-fueled power plant outside of Kabul does not seem to have contributed significantly to this important goal since it was handed over to the Afghan government more than five years ago.”

In a letter to USAID, Mr. Sopko said data on the power plant show that it is generating less electricity than it did several years ago. From July 2010 to December 2013, the plant produced 63,000 megawatt-hours of power, or 2.2 percent of its production capacity.

But from February 2014 to April 2015, the plant exported just 8,846 megawatt-hours of power — less than 1 percent of its capacity. During that time, Mr. Sopko said, it produced just 0.34 percent of the total power on Kabul’s electric grid.

Afghanistan suffers from chronic electricity shortages, which have cut factory production and led to persistent complaints about the government’s competence. Kabul gets most of its electrical power from neighboring Tajikistan.

In April, dozens of factories in Kandahar were forced to close after going two months without electricity. More than 4,500 workers lost their jobs.

Donald Sampler, USAID’s assistant administrator for Afghanistan and Pakistan Affairs, told Mr. Sopko that the plant in Kabul was intended to serve as insurance against the disruption of power supplies from Central Asia and as a backup during periods of peak demand.

Mr. Sopko said that claim was refuted by other sources, including USAID contractors and the agency’s inspector general, who indicated that the plant was intended to operate 24 hours per day, seven days a week.

Lack of use has resulted in premature failure of engines and electrical components at the plant, Mr. Sopko said, likely raising the costs of operation and maintenance and risking “catastrophic failure.”

“This information also supports the conclusion that the Tarakhil Power Plant was originally intended to operate on a continuous basis,” he said.

USAID has looked at several other options for running the plant, including the use of heavy fuel oil and compressed natural gas.

But officials have decided to keep using diesel fuel “pending either a large capital project to support the construction of necessary compressed natural gas infrastructure or completion of heavy fuel oil system commissioning and operator training,” Mr. Sopko wrote.

“In the absence of an affordable alternative to the status quo, this apparently ‘vital component’ of the Kabul power grid continues to run far below full capacity, and plant productivity has actually declined in recent months,” he said.

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