Rethinking U.S. Foreign Aid -- Make Iraq a True "Green Zone"

Rebuilding with solar electricity may alleviate Iraqis' suffering -- and the climate crisis.
There is no good solution to the pain of Iraq, and there might be no good or sufficient solution to the enormously greater problem of atmospheric carbon and climate change. Mitigating climate change, though, must be at the core of everything our society does for the foreseeable future -- including the way the United States does foreign policy and foreign assistance. And including America's plans for ending the war in Iraq and addressing the challenges of the Middle East.

One of the Iraqi people's greatest burdens is the lack of sufficient and reliable electricity, a worse problem now than before the U.S. invasion. In the violence-ridden heat island that is much of Iraq, insufficient electricity for cooling, refrigerating, lighting and running computers and TVs makes Iraqis' lives even more grueling. "Deploying additional forces [won't] solve Iraq's problems, but providing jobs, electricity and drinkable water [will]," U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, then commander of the Multinational Corps of Iraq, said in 2006.

According to a March 8 CBS News report, at the start of 2007 the United States had already spent more than $4 billion on restoring electrical power in Iraq -- with very limited progress. How much solar electricity generation capacity could $4 billion buy? At a conservative cost of $10 per watt installed, $4 billion could buy 400 megawatts of solar photovoltaics. At 3 kilowatts per home, that's enough to power 133,300 homes.

When President Bush announced the so-called troop surge earlier this year, he said the initiative must go "beyond military operations," and ordinary Iraqis "must see visible improvements."

"But they won't see lights at the flip of a switch until 2013, six years from now and 10 years after the war began," The New York Times reported in March. "That's how long U.S. officials say it will take to fix the electricity, a disturbing timeline given that the restoration of basic and essential services is seen as a key element in gaining the confidence and support of normal Iraqis."

Solar Electricity to the Rescue?
The United States should devote some of the estimated quarter-billion dollars a day it spends in Iraq to purchase solar photovoltaic (PV) panels, tiles and materials, and inverters, batteries and other components, in the largest quantities PV manufacturers can produce them. This distributed generation would restore some electricity and help relieve the daily hell of Iraqis' post-invasion lives. Solar water-heating components could be included too. The federal funds could be used to distribute the materials to Iraq's communities for Iraqis to install at their homes and businesses. This solar infrastructure might turn out to be the one unambiguously good thing that results from the gargantuan U.S. enterprise in Iraq.

This investment would also create many badly needed jobs. "If I could drive down unemployment in this country," Chiarelli said, "our casualty figures would not be so high, nor would Iraqi casualties ... nor the level of violence."

"The name of the game in Iraqi electricity now is going local," suggests Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow and geopolitical analyst at the Brookings Institution. He told me, "At present the effort is dominated by diesel generators with all that requires in terms of difficult, dangerous supply lines and sooty air. Thinking solar may, if the economics work, go a long ways towards improving this situation to the benefit of not just Iraqis but American forces presently involved in much of the fuel resupply effort."

While voicing reservations about Iraq's instability and political situation, D. Yogi Goswami, Co-director of the University of South Florida Clean Energy Research Center, told me, "I think it would be great to set up solar systems and power plants in Iraq or anywhere in the Middle East, where there is a tremendous solar resource available."

A Vehicle for Hope and Healing
The United States, with international allies including wealthy Persian Gulf states and the United Nations, can make a well-funded, large-scale effort to solar-electrify Iraq a core part of a retooled reconstruction program. Such a program might even make Iraq one of the world's model solar nations -- representing a piece of the badly needed sustainable energy infrastructure humanity needs to establish rapidly to head off an irreversible global climate crisis. Raising the standard of living in poor countries while stabilizing or even reducing their fossil fuel-burning emissions would be a wonderful core goal of international foreign assistance.

Professor Dieter Holm, director of ISES Africa and the Sustainable Energy Society of Southern Africa, believes that "solar energy is the vehicle for the democratization of power, [literally bringing] power and democracy to the people." In the case of Iraq, he told me, solar energy could bring "new hope after hell! I trust that this renewable energy program shall support the recovery of the population and bring new hope and healing."

This new hope and healing, via a nation-scale installation of solar electric technology in Iraq that grows into a regional commitment to solar energy in the Middle East and a core of international foreign assistance programs worldwide, could also be the hope and healing of our warming planet.

"Republished courtesy of SOLAR TODAY (November/December 2007), published by the American Solar Energy Society, www.solartoday.org. The article appears at //solartoday.org/2007/nov_dec07/readers_forum.htm, with a complementary commentary, "Make Renewable Energy, Not War: For International Security, Foreign Aid Should Include Renewable Energy and Efficiency," by Frank Zaski."
About the author: Gregory Wright ([email protected]) is a writer and solar energy advocate whose main interest is creating strategies to speed the large-scale adoption of renewable energy and radical energy conservation to ward off the worst versions of the globally warmed world that, if these efforts fail, could turn out to be humanity's unpleasant home for our entire future.
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