Discover more from Ideas Beyond Borders
Solar Power: Surviving Summer in Iraq
As power cuts make life miserable in Mosul, people are switching to solar panels to manage the searing summer heat
By late August, life in Mosul feels relentless. It will be another month before temperatures drop, and there is little respite from the melting heat of another searing summer. Where possible, people stay indoors, blinds drawn against the sun’s fierce blaze. Every few hours, the electricity comes on, and fans creak into gear, temporarily dissipating the thick wall of heat. Those with air-con enjoy the wash of cold air, but only for three hours. Then the power goes off again.
It's been another summer of extreme heat in Iraq, and heightened demand on the ailing national grid has fuelled frequent power outages, leaving Iraqis with little respite. In early August, people in Basra saw temperatures climb above 51C, making it the hottest city in the world that week, while several other provinces suffered similar spikes.
“The suffering of Iraqis during the summer is doubling, and this is not only because of the high temperatures but also as a result of the unprecedented scarcity of water and the acute shortage of electric power generation,” Susan Sami al-Banaa, a UNDP consultant working on Iraq’s Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) implementation plan told Al Jazeera.
Weathering the Crisis
In the northern city of Mosul, the situation is particularly acute, partly due to the destruction of vital infrastructure during the fight to expel Isis. Residents here contend with some of Iraq’s worst electricity shortages, forcing those who can afford it to rely on expensive private generators, which cost around $60 to supply an average home. The rest put up with food spoiling in warm fridges, stifling summer days and sleepless nights. In temperatures like these, life quickly becomes intolerable.
But a new alternative in the form of solar panels is emerging, offering residents a quiet, clean alternative to fill the energy void. In recent years, they have become a familiar sight on public buildings and private rooftops across the city as more residents invest in an energy supply that relies on something Iraq has in abundance – sunshine. “It’s spreading rapidly in Mosul, even the streetlights have solar panels,” says Mustafa Almola, who runs a solar power start-up in Mosul.
The trend began in towns and villages outside the city as international NGOs introduced solar panels to provide Iraqi farmers with power to run their equipment. As interest spread to the city, Almola spotted a business opportunity. In 2021 he launched Megawatt Solar to improve access to electricity and offer a cleaner supply. Now he is looking to expand to other parts of Iraq amid rising demand.
“People are happy with solar power. The units really improve the quality of life. With fewer generators around, the air is cleaner, the electricity bill is smaller, and people are able to withstand the summer,” he says.
Bribes at the Border
At first glance, Iraq appears to be one of the most energy-rich countries in the world, with the fifth-largest crude oil and twelfth-largest natural gas reserves, second only to Saudi Arabia among OPEC’s top oil producers. Despite this, it still imports around a third of its power needs from Iran, leaving it vulnerable to the kind of geopolitical maneuvering that resulted in acute outages when Iranian supplies were cut during a dispute over sanctions waivers in July.
Frustration at the regular power outages, particularly in a country with such massive hydrocarbon reserves, reaches boiling point with increasing frequency. Protests have become a regular feature of Iraqi summers, as people vent their fury at the pervasive corruption and mismanagement that perpetuates the country’s power crisis. “The situation is miserable in Iraq, people are without electricity, so they protest in the streets,” says Almola. “If it wasn’t for the generators and the solar panels being installed, they wouldn’t be able to survive the summer.”
Despite the urgent need for reform, little progress has been made in improving the country’s energy infrastructure and addressing the issues that undermine supply. Meanwhile, population growth and the impacts of climate change place mounting pressure on the dilapidated grid. Iraq is considered the fifth-most-vulnerable country to the impacts of climate change globally, with soaring temperatures, drought, floods and other impacts undermining supply just as demand rockets each year.
In June, the Electricity Ministry announced that power generation stood at 24,000MW, an increase of 22 percent on the previous year, but still far short of the 34,000MW needed to meet demand. Renewables offer some hope for alleviating pressure on the sector and reducing the heavy reliance on fossil fuels. Iraq has high levels of solar irradiance, making it ideally suited to solar power, but support for the fledgling industry has been limited. While regional leaders in the field like the UAE and Jordan have introduced subsidies and other incentives for renewables, Iraqi entrepreneurs face considerable hurdles.
“In other countries across the region, they have waived customs fees for bringing renewable energy materials, but in Iraq you have to pay bribes at the border, which drives the prices up,” Almola says.
The Road Ahead
Using an Innovation Hub grant from Ideas Beyond Borders, he is buying equipment in bulk from abroad. “As a start-up, the biggest challenge is the cost of materials – I usually have to buy at premium prices from local suppliers,” he says. The IBB grant will enable him to order from a new factory in Jordan that produces high-quality renewable energy equipment, allowing him to offer more competitive prices for consumers, expand his business and bolster the local market.
“There are only five renewable energy companies in Mosul, which is a very low number given the high demand,” he adds, pointing to the dampening effects of under-investment and rampant corruption on the sector’s growth.
There is some cause for optimism as the government negotiates deals with foreign companies to construct solar power plants, including a recently announced $27 billion deal with French oil company TotalEnergies, which includes the development of a 1GW solar power plant in Basra – Iraq’s hottest region - to supply the regional grid.
Many Iraqis feel that addressing the problems in the energy sector should be a government priority as extreme weather heightens the county’s dependence on electricity. But the problems persist. In 2020, Iraq’s then-prime minister Mustafa Al-Kahdimi said the country had spent at least $60 billion on the electricity sector since the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, yet there is little evidence of progress resulting from this vast investment.
Almola’s hope is that local projects can bypass the vested interests that govern national agreements and give people a chance to source their own solution to the power shortages they suffer every summer. “Mustafa is offering people in Mosul a viable response to an intractable problem,” says Faisal Al Mutar, President of Ideas Beyond Borders. “Through him, we are investing in the evolution of a renewable energy market, supporting the shift away from fossil fuels and foreign dependence towards a sustainable local supply.
All of IBB’s programs are supported by our valued donors. To receive new posts and support our work, please consider becoming a free or paid subscriber. Paid subscriptions go directly towards funding our Innovation Hub.
This article was written by Olivia Cuthbert.