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Sunday, October 16, 2005

Operation Solar Eagle
One of the major challenges faced in Iraq is electricity generation. Even before the war, neglect of an aging infrastructure forced scheduled blackouts. To compensate for the outages, Saddam distributed power to desired areas, while denying power to other areas. The war naturally worsened the situation (especially in the immediate aftermath, as there was no security at all), and the coalition and fledgling Iraqi government have been struggling to restore and upgrade power generation facilities since the end of major combat. Many improvements have been made, but attacks on the infrastructure have kept generation at or around pre-war levels for most areas (even if overall generation has increased, the equitable distribution of power means that some people are getting more than they used to, while others are not - ironic, isn't it?).

Attacks on the infrastructure have presented a significant problem, especially because some members of the insurgency seem to be familiar enough with Iraq's power network to attack key nodes, thus increasing the effects of their attacks. Consequently, security costs have gone through the roof. The ongoing disruption and inconsistency of power generation puts the new government under a lot of pressure. The inability to provide basic services like electricity delegitimizes the government and makes it more difficult to prevent future attacks and restore services.

When presented with this problem, my first thought was that solar power may actually help. There are many non-trivial problems with a solar power generation network, but Iraq's security situation combined with lowered expectations and an already insufficient infrastructure does much to mitigate the shortcomings of solar power.

In America, solar power is usually passed over as a large scale power generation system, but things that are problems in America may not be so problematic in Iraq. What are the considerations?
  • Demand: One of the biggest problems with solar power is that it's difficult to schedule power generation to meet demand (demand doesn't go down when the sun does, nor does demand necessarily coincide with peak generation), and a lot of energy is wasted because there isn't a reliable way to store energy (battery systems help, but they're not perfect and they also drive up the costs). The irregularity in generation isn't as bad as wind, but it is still somewhat irregular. In America, this is a deal breaker because we need power generation to match demand, so if we were to rely on solar power on a large scale, we'd have to make sure we have enough backup capacity running to make up for any shortfall (there's much more to it than that, but that's the high-level view). In Iraq, this isn't as big of a deal. The irregularity of conventional generation due to attacks on infrastructure is at least comparable if not worse than solar irregularity. It's also worth noting that it's difficult to scale solar power to a point where it would make a difference in America, as we use truly mammoth amounts of energy. Iraq's demands aren't as high (both in terms of absolute power and geographic distribution), and thus solar doesn't need to scale as much in Iraq.
  • Economics: Solar power requires a high initial capital investment, and also requires regular maintenance (which can be costly as well). In America, this is another dealbreaker, especially when coupled with the fact that its irregular nature requires backup capacity (which is wasteful and expensive as well). However, in Iraq, the cost of securing conventional power generation and transmission is also exceedingly high, and the prevalence of outages has cost billions in repairs and lost productivity. The decentralized nature of solar power thus becomes a major asset in Iraq, as solar power (if using batteries and if connected to the overall grid) can provide a seamless interruptible supply of electricity. Attacks on conventional systems won't have quite the impact they once did, and attacks on the solar network won't be anywhere near as effective (more on this below). Given the increased cost of conventional production (and securing that production) in Iraq, and given the resilience of such a decentralized system, solar power becomes much more viable despite its high initial expense. This is probably the most significant challenge to overcome in Iraq.
  • Security: There are potential gains, as well as new potential problems to be considered here. First, as mentioned in the economics section, a robust solar power system would help lessen the impact of attacks on conventional infrastructure, thus preventing expensive losses in productivity. Another hope here is that we will see a corresponding decrease in attacks (less effective attacks should become less desirable). Also, the decentralized nature of solar power means that attacks on the solar infrastructure are much more difficult. However, this does not mean that there is no danger. First, even if attacks on conventional infrastructure decrease, they probably won't cease altogether (though, again, the solar network could help mitigate the effects of such attacks). And there is also a new problem that is introduced: theft. In Iraq's struggling economy, theft of solar equipment is a major potential problem. Then again, once an area has solar power installed, individual homeowners and businesses won't be likely to neglect their most reliable power supply. Any attacks on the system would actually be attacks on specific individuals or businesses, which would further alienate the population and decrease the attacker's. However, this assumes that the network is already installed. Those who set up the network (most likely outsiders) will be particularly vulnerable during that time. Once installed, solar power is robust, but if terrorists attempt to prevent the installation (which seems likely, given that the terrorists seem to target many external companies operating in Iraq with the intention of forcing them to leave), that would certainly be a problem (at the very least, it would increase costs).
  • Other Benefits: If an installed solar power network helps deter attacks on power generation infrastructure, the success will cascade across several other vectors. A stable and resilient power network that draws from diverse energy sources will certainly help improve Iraq's economic prospects. Greater energy independence and an improved national energy infrastructure will also lend legitimacy to the new Iraqi government, making it stronger and better able to respond to the challenges of rebuilding their country. If successful and widespread, it could become one of the largest solar power systems in the world, and much would be learned along the way. This knowledge would be useful for everyone, not just Iraqis. Obviously, there are also environmental benefits to such a system (and probably a lack of bureaucratic red-tape like environmental impact statements as well. Indeed, while NIMBY might be a problem in America, I doubt it would be a problem in Iraq, due to their current conditions).
In researching this issue, I came across a recent study prepared at the Naval Postgraduate School called Operation Solar Eagle. The report is excellent, and it considers most of the above, and much more (in far greater detail as well). Many of my claims above are essentially assumptions, but this report provides more concrete evidence. One suggestion they make with regard to the problem of theft is to use an RFID system to keep track of solar power equipment. Lots of other interesting stuff in there as well.

As shown above, there are obviously many challenges to completing such a project, most specifically with respect to economic feasibility, but it seems to me to be an interesting idea. I'm glad that there are others thinking about it as well, though at this point it would be really nice to see something a little more concrete (or at least an explanation as to why this wouldn't work).
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This post is part of the Kaedrin Weblog. It's been categorized under Best Entries , Science & Technology , Security & Intelligence and was originally published in October 2005.

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2 Comments

It makes a great deal of sense for US government investment in infrastructure � whether it is in Iraq or New Orleanse � to be used as a means to drive solar, and other renewable energy markets. It is, afterall, US tax dollars, not private investment capital being used, and the US public would far prefer our monies go to solving two problems (infrastructure rebuild/climate change) at once over less efficient, more vulnerable, central power generation + adding another layers to Bechtel's profit margin.

Well, the problem with solar is that it doesn't scale well. With the high cost of conventional power (due to extra security) and relatively small quantity of power needed in Iraq, it makes more sense, but even in that case, a ROI is not guaranteed. In the US, where conventional power facilities are cheap and demand is high, solar will most likely be relegated to a minor supporting role. If New Orleans is going to be rebuilt, I'm sure that there will be a significant effort to be more environmentally friendly, but I'm not sure how big a part solar will play in that case...

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