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.
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.
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.
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.