Uncertain Future

Update on Afghanistan’s power sector

War-torn Afghanistan is taking small steps to restore its power sector, which is in a shambles like its economy. Due to international isolation following the political crisis arising from the takeover of Kabul by the Taliban in August 2021, foreign aid and funding have stopp­ed completely, leading to a contraction in economic output. The World Bank’s latest update on Afghanistan, Towards Econo­mic Stabili­za­tion and Recovery (April 2022), notes th­at cessation of grant in­fl­o­ws, loss of acc­ess to overseas central ba­nk assets, and the breakdown of international banking re­la­tionships caused Af­gha­nistan’s economic output to decline by one-third during the last months of 2021. The country had lar­gely been dependent on international aid for over two decades – grant support av­eraged 60 per cent of the country’s gro­ss domestic product between 2001 and 2020, helping the Afghan economy grow by an average of over 7 per cent year on ye­ar during this period.

With the cessation of funding support, several projects, including those in the power sector, came to a halt. Turkmenis­tan’s 500 kV electricity transmission link to Afghanistan is one such stalled project. The link is being developed to transfer el­ec­tricity from the Turkmenistan border to Sheberghan’s Aqina port, then to the Al­va­zun plain of Kunduz and finally to the Arghandi district of Kabul. The project, funded by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), is 90 per cent complete, and the remaining 10 per cent can be completed in about six months if funding resumes. Likewise, works on several other major tra­­nsmission projects including the Cen­tral Asia South Asia Electricity Transmis­sion and Trade Project (CASA-1000); the Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Af­­­g­h­a­­­­nistan and Pakistan (TUTAP) project; and the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakis­tan (TAP) interconnector were stalled in the second half of 2021.

Further, power shortages have been posing a grave challenge to the country, whi­ch meets nearly 80 per cent of its power re­quirement by importing power from nei­g­h­bouring countries such as Uzbekis­tan, Ta­ji­kistan, Turkmenistan and Iran. These sh­ortages are mainly because of mounti­ng dues to foreign suppliers, as well as out­a­g­es due to damage done to cross-country po­wer lines by insurgents. Afgha­nistan is re­quired to make a monthly payment of $20 million-$25 million to power suppliers in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Iran. As of October 2021, the country’s un­paid bills stood at $62 million. The Afghan government had requested $90 million from the United Mission to clear the dues.

In recent months, the government was able to enter into discussions with its neighbo­uring counterparts, and resumed and/or extended power supply contracts. For ins­tance, in December 2021, Afgha­nistan’s el­ec­tric utility Da Afghanistan Breshna Sher­kat (DABS) signed a contract with the Na­tio­nal Electric Grid of Uzbekistan for el­ec­tricity imports through 2022. In January 2022, DABS signed an agreement with Taji­kistan’s Tajik Electricity Company for ex­tension of electricity import.

Steps are also being taken to restore electrical infrastructure damaged due to ex­treme weather (such as snowstorms) and insurgency-related events. In October 2021, an explosion hit a high voltage line supplying imported power to Kabul and some other provinces, plunging the capital into darkness. Similarly, in June 2021, arou­nd 25 electricity pylons were destroy­ed or damaged by explosions. In March 2022, the power supply from Uzbekistan and Tur­k­menistan returned to normal after damaged transmission lines were fixed and technical issues were resolved following a snowstorm. This helped mitigate the electricity shortages in Kabul and downstream provinces to some extent. Recently, a new 160 kV power transformer was inaugurated in Ghazni province.

Institutional structure

The wholly government-owned vertically integrated utility DABS operates and manages the entire electricity infrastructure in Afghanistan, including generation, impor­ts, and transmission and distribution activities. The utility was formed in 2009 follo­wing the restructuring of the Afgha­nistan Electricity Organisation (DABM), a department under the Ministry of Energy and Water (MEW). The MEW is responsible for policy and strategy development for the electricity sector. It is engaged in planning, strategising and ac­cessing power sector developments. The Renew­able Energy Directorate, created in 2009, is the technical body concer­ned with the development of renewable energy projects at the MEW.

Sector overview

The total power generation capacity in Afghanistan stood at 641 MW in 2020 as per the latest available statistics from the International Renewable Energy Agency. About 52 per cent of the capacity (333 MW) was accounted for by hydro, 43 per cent (277 MW) by thermal and the remaining 5 per cent (31 MW) by solar. Genera­ti­on capacity addition has been paltry over the years, with the installed capacity re­cor­­ding a compound annual growth rate of 2.8 per cent between 2006 and 2020. Some of the key power plants in the country are the 100 MW Naghlu hydroelectric project (HEP), the 66 MW Mahipar HEP, the 105 MW Tarakhil thermal power plant (TPP), the 63.5 MW Kandahar TPP, and the 50 MW Khairkhana TPP. In April 2022, DABS installed the third turbine of the Salma dam project, taking the total plant capacity to 30 MW.

Electricity generation declined by nearly 20 per cent to 1,031 GWh in 2020 from 1,285 GWh in 2019. Domestic generation acco­unts for only 20 per cent of electricity supply in the country, while the rest is met by imports. During 2020, electricity imports stood at 5,152 GWh, an increase of about 5 per cent over 4,912 GWh in 2019.

Regar­ding transmission, the segment is highly fragmented, comprising isolated grid systems that are fed power from various pla­nts and import sources. The po­wer system is divided into four networks – the North Ea­st Power System, which is connected with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan; the South East Power System; the Herat Zone Sys­t­em, which is connected with Iran and Turk­menistan; and the Turkme­nistan System.

Need to expand generation

To improve energy security, Afghanistan needs to invest in generation projects, but new project announcements are few and far between. Recently, the Khepelwak Gr­o­up Company expressed interest in setting up a coal-fired power generation plant in the country.

Earlier, in September 2020, a $160 million deal was signed between Afghanistan, the US, Turkey and India to add 110 MW of solar and wind capacities in the country. The projects were proposed to be de­veloped in Kabul, Balkh and Herat by a local company with partners from other countries. However, the status of the deal following the change of political regime is uncertain. The proposed projects include the 25 MW Western Herat-I solar plant, the 25 MW Western Herat-II wind plant, the 40 MW Northern Balkh solar plant and the 25 MW Naghlu Dam floating solar plant.

Another important project is the 58.6 MW Mazar-e-Sharif gas-to-power project, which will be the first independent power project in Afghanistan. The $89 million project is proposed to come up at an industrial site about 20 km southwest of the city of Mazar-e-Sharif in the north-wes­tern part of Afghanistan. In June 2020, the ADB and the Afghan Power Plant Company (APPC) signed a $10 million loan as part of a fin­ancing package. The APPC is a special pur­pose vehicle owned by the Ghazanfar Gro­up, one of Afghanistan’s largest con­glo­­me­rates, and Egypt-based constru­c­tion company Hassan Allam Holdings. How­ever, the project’s future is uncertain unless multilateral funding resumes.

Update on key transmission projects

The $1.2 billion CASA-1000 is a 1,270 km long, 500 kV power transmission line project funded by the World Bank, which aims to facilitate the trade of 1,300 MW of electricity among four countries – Taji­kistan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Afghanis­tan and Pakis­tan. It entails the transmission of surplus energy from hydroelectric power projects in the former two countries to power-deficit Pakistan (1,000 MW) and Afghanis­tan (300 MW). Afghanistan’s DABS, the joint stock company National El­ectric Grid of Kyrgyz­stan, the National Tra­ns­mission and Des­patch Company of Pakistan, and the open joint stock holding company Barki Tajik of Tajikistan are the project de­ve­lopers. In Afghanistan, the main project activity is constructing 570 km of trans­mission lines. However, the Wo­rld Bank, which is the main stakeholder, halted work on the line section, expressing its inability to maintain financial terms with the new Kabul administration. It is fe­ared that the project might face delays, with works currently halted in the country.

Another key project is the TAP inter­connector, which is funded by ADB. The project entails the construction of around 500 km of 500 kV transmission lines bet­ween Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Pa­­kis­­tan. Once completed, the project will be able to transfer up to 4,000 MW of po­wer from Turkmenistan to Afghanistan and Pakistan. The framework agreement for the project was signed in 2018. TAP is be­ing phased into two concurrent stages.

The ADB-funded TUTAP interconnector project aims to provide an export route from Afghanistan’s Central Asian neighbours, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Taji­kis­tan, and from Afghanistan itself, to Pa­kistan. Pul-e-Khumri in Afghanistan will se­rve as a hub for power exports from Tur­kmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

In recent months, DABS has been working to complete certain crucial domestic projects. For instance, it is reconstructing the 110 kV Kandahar-Kajaki line in Hel­ma­nd. Another key ongoing project is the construction of the 220 kV Ghazni-Ka­ndahar transmission line and associated substations in Ghazni province. The timely implementation of the 220 kV project is crucial as it connects Kandahar to the national power grid. Recently, a trilateral energy sector de­velopment protocol was signed between Afghanistan, Turkmenistan and the Turkish company Çalik Holdings. The protocol in­clu­des a contract between DABS and Turkmen Energo for the expansion of the Noor-ul-Jahad substation from 110 kV to 220 kV, and to accelerate the Sheberghan-Dasht-e-Alvan 500 kV line project, which will enable electricity transfer from Turkme­nistan to Kabul and other provinces.

Conclusion

The outlook for Afghanistan’s power sector is, at best, uncertain given the international isolation that the country is facing, resulting in paucity of funds to complete critical projects. Although political conflicts and insurgency continue, Afghani­stan’s electric utility DABS seems to be making efforts to secure electricity supply contracts with its neighbours as well as to restore electrical infrastructure. However, there is a pressing need for the international community to step in and find ways to support sustainable economic growth in Afghanistan.

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