Economy & Development

Power to the People: How to extend Afghans’ access to electricity

(Hydro-)Powerful Kabul River, flowing into Laghman. Photo: Thomas Ruttig/AAN.

(Hydro-)Powerful Kabul River, flowing into Laghman. Photo: Thomas Ruttig/AAN.

More than four billion dollars have, to date, been spent on Afghanistan’s power infrastructure. And yet there are still considerable deficiencies, even in the country’s capital, which has seen most of the investment – and most of the progress. At the same time, the demand for electricity is rapidly growing and the supply-demand gap has widened. In the past months alone, Kabul residents have suffered power blackouts of up to 15 hours, many of them scheduled (so-called load shedding) to relieve overloaded transmission lines and substations. The government and international development partners are working on meeting this gap by importing more power from neighbouring countries – however, many of these regional projects face financial and project implementation obstacles. At the same time, there is too little focus on indigenous power generation options, says AAN guest author Mohsin Amin.*

With winter now really getting cold, most of Kabul residents – when coming home from work – would like to switch on their lights and start cooking and heating their houses. However, during these peak hours, from five in the afternoon to ten in the evening, there is regularly a gap of at least 150 megawatts (MW) between what citizens need in terms of electricity and what Kabul’s power provider – Da Afghanistan Breshna Sherkat (DABS, Afghanistan Electricity Company) – can offer. The National Load Control Center of DABS, the 100 per cent state owned but corporatised national power utility and the sole power producer, transmitter and distributor in the country, states that Kabul’s current demand is 530 MW. But the capital currently receives only 260 MW via transmission lines coming from abroad – in winter, from Uzbekistan – and (intermittently) 80 to 115 MW from domestic hydropower plants, for example Naghlu, Mahipar and Sarobi, all on Kabul River Basin. This is why many houses in Kabul stay dark and unheated these days, or have flickering lights and technical devices that do not work due to poor voltage.

There has undoubtedly been progress. In 2002, less than 15 per cent of Kabul residents (less than 8 per cent of all Afghans) had power. Today, 70 per cent of the citizens of the capital – estimated at 4 to 5 million people, of an overall population of around 30 million – are connected to the power grid or have access to electricity. This is an impressive increase. However, looking at the investments made in Afghanistan’s power infrastructure, more could have been expected in terms of the available power’s reliability and sustainability. USAID and the US Department of Defense spent three billion dollars from 2002 to 2013, and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) more than 883 million dollars. The World Bank has added 330 million, and the German government’s financial aid provider KfW (Kreditanstalt für Wiederaufbau) and the government of India put considerable amounts of money into expanding Afghanistan’s ‘electrification.’ Nevertheless: two years ago, load shedding had to be introduced in Kabul in order to ‘share’ power ‘fairly’ among all customers, and it currently shuts down electricity from 9 to 15 hours a day, depending on the neighbourhood.

Currently, Afghanistan’s power system is quite complex. It operates in nine different ‘islands’ – power grids – depending on power supply sources. This means that different regions are supplied by different sources, and due to technical limitations these regions are not interconnected – or synchronised. For instance, Turkmenistan’s network supplies power to the northern provinces of Faryab, Jowzjan and Sar-e Pol and, on a separate network, partly to Herat. Uzbekistan supplies Parwan, Samangan and partly Kabul. Tajikistan supplies Baghlan, Balkh, Kunduz and Takhar provinces and, in summer, it transmits power to Kabul (in winter, Tajikistan faces electricity shortages itself), while Uzbekistan additionally feeds Balkh province in summer. Iran supplies electricity to partly Herat and Nimruz provinces. The south of Afghanistan, that is, Kandahar and Helmand provinces, are supplied partly by the Kajaki hydropower plant (find an earlier AAN report on this project here) and by diesel generators. Other domestic hydropower generation covers some of Kabul’s needs.

The power there is – the problems there are

It is likely that power shortages and load shedding will continue to increase in the upcoming years. This is mostly due to more Afghans demanding power, with the gap between supply and demand ever increasing. Considering the realities on the ground, there will be no solution to the supply shortfalls to Kabul for at least another three years. Only towards the end of 2017, a few of the power projects in the pipeline will – or more accurately, have a chance to – go live: a gas-fired power plant in Sheberghan (in Jowzjan province) that is supposed to produce 200 MW, a new transmission line from Pul-e Khumri to Kabul that can carry 1,000 MW and a 500 kV substation in Arghandi, just outside Kabul. A transmission line from Turkmenistan, bringing additional 300 MW initially and 500 MW later, will reportedly come on stream by 2018.

The planned new transmission line from Pul-e Khumri to Kabul is particularly important for the country’s capital – but its slow progress also shows the manifold difficulties that power projects face. It would be the sole transmission line directly connecting Kabul to the electricity-exporting neighbouring countries of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. Initially, the 2013 Power Sector Master Plan (PSMP) envisaged the transmission line to go through Bamyan province, bypassing the Salang area and leading south through Logar, keeping in mind that there are (potential) future coal-fired power plants (for the Mes-e Aynak copper mine and Hajigak iron ore power plants at Ishpushta and Dara-ye Suf) to come on-stream. (Both would connect with the capital through the Arghandi substation.) But with uncertainties about these projects – both are delayed – and the areas to be crossed, with their security problems, the plan was changed. (1) Now, the transmission line will be constructed parallel to the existing one that currently can carry up to 350 MW via the Salang Pass – and towers need to be erected carefully, to reduce chance technical faults like short circuiting in the rugged terrain and more importantly, does not allow to de-energise lines carrying 1000 megawatts. Construction will take at least three years, even if the procurement process and contractor mobilisation, which has not started yet, accelerates. In short: It is a daunting job.

Another larger, underlying problem is that the electricity-exporting countries Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Iran mostly sell their surplus electricity to Afghanistan. When they no longer have a surplus, they stop supplying. Depending on such less-than fully reliable connections, Afghanistan might face further blackouts at any moment and particularly during a dry year (with less surplus hydropower available for export) or when a neighbouring country’s power system has technical difficulties. Already the 2004 Power Sector Master Plan (not online) described the disadvantages of an import strategy:

The main disadvantage of the strategy is reliance on politically unstable neighbors, limited enforceability of commercial contracts, and lack of certainty about future price trends. Equally important, the long-term availability of power from these sources has not yet been established, particularly the reliability during winter evenings, which is crucial for Afghanistan.

With most exporting countries’ own demands rapidly increasing – for instance in Tajikistan – these kinds of agreements at best make for unreliable solutions. Even with power purchase agreements (PPA) in place that include provisions for financial penalties for non-compliance, it is likely that a neighbouring country will not choose to cut off its own citizens or resort to load shedding in order to be able to meet its commitment with Afghanistan.

Why Kabul faces massive load shedding

Afghanistan’s national power utility, DABS, knows these challenges well, but is still increasing the size of its distribution network in urban areas by hooking up more customers every year. For instance, in 2003, electricity consumers in Kabul numbered 84,831 – at the end of 2014, numbers had increased more than five-fold, to 450,000. DABS is of course expected to increase distribution, as its mandate is to bring electrical power to the Afghan people. It also needs to work profitably, to be able to pay the power exporting countries, as the government, in 2013, stopped subsidising DABS. Distribution expansion usually happens in summer, when the national grid has surplus energy from hydropower plants. However, during winter, when energy consumption increases with the drop in temperature for heating, and due to the non-availability of hydropower (in winter, water levels in reservoirs are low), the shortage of electricity necessitates a high level of load shedding.

A second reason for the load shedding in Kabul is that the initial planning – by the Ministry of Energy and Water and DABS – of the power infrastructure underestimated future demand. It was too quick to decide on solutions that led to the existing and already overloaded transmission system in Afghanistan becoming unable to transmit more power from any supply sources (Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan) to Kabul’s substations and on to consumers. For example, in 2004, the government and international development partners decided to go for a fast-track solution to immediately bring power to the major cities – apart from Kabul, mainly Mazar-e Sharif, Pul-e Khumri and Kunduz – choosing 220 kV over 500 kV lines. These however, are technically not efficient for transmitting power over distances of more than 450 kilometres because of the voltage drop, power losses and other technical difficulties. Specifically, the transmission capacity of the Pul-e Khumri-Kabul line, funded by the government of India, has already been exhausted by Kabul’s energy demand. This was not supposed to occur for at least 15 to 20 years. There might have been a mistake either in the power system planning – or the decision makers at that time had no choice but to align the design and construction cost with the available funding.

The third reason for Kabul’s current power problems is the rapid increase in consumption per household, coupled with rapidly growing electricity utilisation by commercial and industrial consumers. According to the Inter-Ministerial Commission for Energy’s website, its total number of connections in the country rose from almost 75,000 in 1388 (2009/10) to 1.05 million in 1392 (2013/14). This is an increase of more than one third over four years, with more than 90 per cent of all connections being for private households over this period. In terms of revenue, business centres, supermarkets, and registered and unregistered factories are more valuable to DABS than residential consumers; commercial and industrial users pay higher tariffs than residential customers (residential customers pay 1.5 to 8 afghanis per kilowatt-hour; commercial customers pay 10 afghanis). The lower tariffs for private households, some argue, should be raised; then energy consumption would decline, helping to avoid what is perceived as excessive and unnecessary energy consumption. But this would need to be balanced well, in order to remain fair to poorer customers. A rationalisation of tariffs is needed, but the necessary electricity regulatory authority has still not been established. It is envisioned in the electricity law, which has awaited cabinet approval since 2013.

And then, of course, there are those who, with their connections to powerbrokers or politicians, are able to force through their local connection to the power grid regardless of availability of power supply. This forces DABS to connect certain households or areas to the grid, causing further unplanned increases in energy demand in the distribution network.

Regional power projects in the making

The ministry, DABS and development partners are working on meeting this demand-supply gap by importing more power from regional countries. However, as said, these regional projects will take time to come on-stream. One could ask why regional transmission projects are always given priority over the development of indigenous generation (such as the Sheberghan gas plant or the Ishpushta and Dara-ye Suf thermal power plants), knowing that Afghanistan will remain dependent on imported power, with the disadvantages explained earlier.

The answer is not easy and includes a mix of social, environmental, economic and political considerations. One is that constructing hydropower plants take at least six to eight years, and perhaps more, with the uncertain security situation in many of the prospective sites (along upper Kunar river or in Badakhshan, for example) and requires up front huge budgets. Dam and reservoir construction often requires the resettlement of local populations, and the example of the Ainak copper mine in Logar has shown how poorly Afghan authorities have handled compensations and the distribution of alternative land for house building and agriculture. Water sharing agreements with neighbouring countries remains an additional major bottleneck, given long-standing disputes over dividing the water flow of major rivers like the Helmand and Harirud with Iran, the Kunar/Panjsher/Kabul river system with Pakistan and, prospectively, the Amu Darya with the Central Asian republics over when dams are built at its Afghan tributary, the Kokcha river. (Read another article by this author about dams and water sharing agreements with Pakistan for BBC Pashto, here.)

Finally, there is the issue of the regional planning mandate of donors. The development banks active in the region (World Bank, Asian Development Bank/ADB) are interested in regional interconnection projects because they have regional trust funds they can use to finance such projects. The Afghan government now needs to assess and prioritise projects that have funds available and expedite the implementation – in coordination with the different neighbours.

The following regional projects are in the making: TUTAP and CASA-1000.


TUTAP is the acronym for Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan. TUTAP’s largest contributor in terms of supply will be Turkmenistan, the country having the fourth largest gas reserves in the world. The regional project – for which negotiations are ongoing – is supposed to connect the aforementioned countries through a high voltage transmission system. The project intends to meet the energy demands of Afghanistan in a first phase and then transmit sufficient energy to Pakistan, which currently suffers from a severe energy deficit. The peak electricity shortage in Pakistan is during summertime, while Afghanistan requires more power during wintertime. TUTAP’s other advantage would be to ‘unify’ Afghanistan power grid, resulting in an integrated transmission network. (Currently Afghanistan’s power system operates in nine islands fed from different supply sources.) The idea sounds good, but TUTAP, budgeted to cost more than one billion dollars, has one major constraint: so far, the supplier countries refuse to synchronise (2) their four power systems with each other and with Afghanistan’s network. The only way to carry out the TUTAP project is to install the expensive Back to Back Converter Stations (3) either in the territory of each country or in the major hub, Afghanistan. Apparently, the government of Afghanistan and ADB, the project financier, have agreed that this will happen in Afghanistan.

However, if for any reason, the currently ongoing negotiations between Afghanistan and Turkmenistan should not result in a mutual agreement, particularly in terms of the Power Purchase and Sales Agreement (PPSA), then government and development partners will give priority to the Sheberghan gas power plant. The government and USAID, as its development partner, are planning to build this plant through an independent power producer from the private sector (details are here). This again is easier said than done: even if an independent power producer can be mobilised quickly – which seems challenging, considering the current deterioration of the security situation –the earliest the plant can go online, according to both project partners, is the end of 2017. Additionally, this will be subject to transmission lines being in place between Sheberghan and Pul-e Khumri.


CASA-1000, scheduled to be completed by 2019, is the acronym for Central Asia South Asia Regional Electricity Market (CASREM), which will transmit 1,300 MW to Pakistan and Afghanistan through a High Voltage Direct Current transmission system. CASA-1000 is administered by the World Bank with funding from the Islamic Development Bank, USAID, DFID and AusAid; Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan would be the suppliers: Pakistan and Afghanistan would receive the hydropower-generated energy at their end. Afghanistan would provide the path for the transmission line and would be allocated 300 MW for the Kabul network.

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have an energy surplus of circa 6 terawatt hours generated from their hydropower plants. Seasonality is the significant barrier for year round supply, which makes CASA-1000 a less attractive project, since CASA would not be able to provide power in the winter season. Kabul’s peak load is in winter, thus the 300 MW could not be utilised by the consumers in the northern and central regions. The 300 MW can be dispatched to southern and eastern regions – both get their peak in summer – which again, is subject to transmission links with sufficient current carrying capacity. Recently the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan signed an agreement on the transit fee (see here and here). The last Inter-Governmental Council (IGC) meeting was held in Istanbul on 4 December 2014, with an agreement reached on energy sale prices, open access and other legal and business aspects. This is expected to earn the Afghan budget around 38 million dollars per year.

TUTAP and CASA-1000 seem to be promising projects, although the road to their materialisation in their planned full extent will be long. They are dependent on different factors and different players, not least on continued long-term funding. For both, funding for the first phase is secured. More background on CASA-1000 and Afghan-Central Asian cooperation can be found in this AAN report and in a series of dispatches by Reza Kazemi (latest here).

So how can the provider tackle the problem?

The question therefore arises: how can the national utility (DABS) meet the demand of its existing – and additional future – customers, given the limited availability of electricity and keeping in mind that for the next three or four years, there will be no additional sources? First and foremost, DABS should try to minimise what are called AT&C (Aggregate Technical & Commercial) losses that, for the whole system, currently vary between 30 to 40 per cent. These losses are caused by technical and commercial irregularities. (4) If DABS is able to reduce these by 10 per cent, it can save almost 450,000 MW hours of energy in one year, with which it could supply electricity to an additional 150,000 households or relieve the existing ones of the load shedding.

Second, DABS should focus on so-called Demand Side Management (DSM) (5) to increase public awareness about how to reduce excessive energy consumption, especially in peak hours. Campaigns would, for example, call upon customers to turn off unnecessary lights or heaters or turn off air conditioners when nobody is in the room. Another approach (see for example here and here) is to apply two electricity tariffs: a lower tariff for consumers who might be temporarily disconnected in peak hours and a higher tariff for uninterrupted supply. The Power Sector Master Plan (PSMP) also discusses another system that is based on a so-called high tariff (HT), which is charged during periods with high electricity demand, and a low tariff (LT) for off-peak periods.

Third, DABS and the government could encourage electricity consumers to use energy efficient appliances. Replacing incandescent bulbs with energy saving bulbs, introducing lower taxes on imported energy efficient products or switching from electrical water heaters to solar water heating are some recommendations included in the 2013 Power Sector Master Plan. If these energy efficiency measures were applied on an individual consumer basis, energy consumption could be reduced by 20 to 50 per cent, it is calculated in the master plan.

However, these steps can only mitigate the risk of power blackouts and load shedding by a small percentage and cannot offer a substantial solution. The only solution is to increase either indigenous generation or reliable imported supply with sufficient transmission capacity, and this will take at least three years from today, if the government closely focuses on project implementation and secure funding for the unfunded components of the projects mentioned above.

* Moshin Amin is energy specialist at the Afghan government’s Inter-ministerial Commissision for Energy. He studied power system engineering at Kabul Polytechnical University. Follow him on Twitter: @MohsinAmin_


(1) On security problems around the Hajigak project, see an AAN dispatch here and on the Ainak project, this article by two AAN authors in the October 2014 issue of Le Monde diplomatique (in German), here.

(2) Synchronisation means that the power systems are connected with each other and the flow of power in the different transmission systems is not causing instability within the combined grids.

(3) Back-to-back stations: For connecting systems that are operating asynchronously, HVDC back-to-back stations are necessary. The expression ‘back-to-back’ indicates that the rectifier and inverter are placed in the same station. HVDC back-to-back stations can be built using two technologies: line commutated converters (LCC or classic technology) or self-commutated converters (VSC technology). For Afghanistan, which currently has only small sources of short-circuit power, only the HVDC back-to-back systems using VSC technology are feasible with a reasonable technical outlay (source: Power Sector Master Plan 2013).

(4) AT&C losses are the difference between the energy supplied and the amount of energy billed to consumers for a particular period (source here).Technical losses are caused, among other more technical points, by ill-maintained or outdated equipment, and inadequate investment in infrastructure improvement. Commercial losses can be by theft and pilferage, badly working meters or the failure to read them properly (which then results in under-billing and inadequate revenue collection), software errors, disputes, etc. (source here).

(5) Demand Side Management (DSM) refers to the reduction of peak loads by shifting consumption from peak to off-peak periods. In general, this can be achieved by shifting appliances (like classical electrical heaters, irons, vacuum cleaners) that do not have to be operated at a certain point of time to off-peak periods. This can be done either manually or automatically. Under the manual approach, consumers operate their appliances intentionally during off-peak periods; the automatic or smart grid approach requires a signal from the grid that restricts operation of selected appliances. In either case, incentives are essential (source: Power Sector Master Plan 2013).

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Thematic Category: Economy & Development