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Solar power helping light streets of Iraq

By C. Todd Lopez

WASHINGTON (Dec. 16, 2008) -- Mostly desert and a lot of sun, it makes sense there's a place for solar power in Iraq.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Iraqi government are using solar energy to light the dark streets of Baghdad, Basra, Fallujah, Kharma and Sakalaweyah.

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"The lights that we installed have an 80-watt panel on them, a lead-acid battery and a 18-watt fluorescent light bulb on them," said John Offen, an engineer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. "To date, we've installed about a little over 800 of them, and they're operating just fine. And we still have about 600-700 more to go. The city of Fallujah didn't have power at night and this was an easy way to light up the streets that didn't depend upon any remote source of power."

It was actually the Marines that paid to have those lights installed there, Offen said, to help Marines on patrol feel a little safer at night. If the lights have had any effect on crime in the city though, Offen can't say.

"As far as getting any feedback from the city to see if there's been a noticeable improvement in the safety and security, we don't have that direct information," he said. "But the level of violence, the level of bad activity had definitely been on the decrease -- whether that's related to the solar panels or not, we're not really sure."

In Baghdad, Iraq's Ministry of Electricity has installed some 5,000 solar-powered streetlights, and there are plans to install more, said Dr. Ali Allak, a bilingual, cultural advisor and solar energy expert with the Army Corps of Engineers.

"The message is spreading, and hopefully the use of solar street lighting will increase," he said. "And it is primarily because, at the moment, the streets of Baghdad are dark."

The Corps of Engineers is also looking into solar energy solutions for Iraqi homes, Allak said, something individual residences could use to increase the amount of electricity they have access to, and also the amount of time they have to access it.

"At the moment we're working on 20 units to be installed in various parts of Baghdad," he said. "We want to monitor the performance and make sure that the claims that are made by the companies are justified before we can recommend them and before we can take them a stage further."

The system under consideration will provide 2.68 kilowatts of energy, Allak said, and could provide some 12 hours of electricity a day to Iraqi homes.

"That should satisfy most of the needs of an average Iraqi household," he said. "This will not, obviously, operate an air-conditioning system, but it will ... operate a ceiling fan. It will operate the television or the lights when necessary, the washing machine, et cetera. It will liberate the average Iraqi from having to source out diesel or petrol."

For now the program is in testing, with no homes yet benefitting from the solar-power systems. But the benefits of such a system, and solar power in general, include eliminating the need to purchase power, profiting from feeding electricity back into the local power grid, and even dissipated risk from terrorist threat, Allak said.

"It's virtually vandal-proof," he said, "because you can't go exploding every house in the country."

Start-up costs of solar-power installations can be high, admitted Allak. He estimates the initial cost per watt for solar power is about $4 dollars. For conventional systems that use fossil fuels, it could be less than half that. But when considering continued costs such as maintenance and fuel, the costs of both systems eventually converge.

"The cost of producing electricity by solar energy becomes viable if one takes into consideration that they are maintenance-free, there are no moving parts in a solar panel, and there is no need for any fossil fuels," Allak said. "These are the main reasons that solar panels or solar energy has been used in Iraq, not to mention people are still aware of the pollution and the environmental situation -- but that's a secondary aspect at the moment. It's the lack of electricity that is causing the use of solar panels for generating electricity."

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