The souk, or marketplace, keeps buzzing in Sulaimani, a provincial capital in Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region, even though the national power grid has just gone off-line. Merchants like Mohamad Romie emerge from shops to fire up their generators or switch over to commercial backup power suppliers.
This switch to local power is a more-than-daily ritual across Iraq, thanks to a stubborn electricity supply gap that hinders Iraq’s development. Renewable power installations could shrink that gap—be they rooftop photovoltaics like those Mohamad and his brother Ali are installing through their company, Romie Electric, or utility-scale wind and solar plants. Rooftop power is already beginning to bridge gaps in Iraq’s grid supply, while large utility projects must still gain domestic support and international investment.
Iraq has excellent solar resources, and six years ago it declared ambitions to build hundreds of megawatts of solar power plants (plus smaller wind farms). Then the Islamic State arrived, interrupting the country’s renewable ambitions.
Suppliers such as Romie Electric are moving forward, however, by offering rooftop solar as an alternative to loud, dirty private generators or pricey district power. Solar suppliers generally package PV panels with lead-acid batteries to produce electricity for the 5 to 15 hours of each day without “government power.”
Solar Sale: A vendor selling home solar systems displays a photovoltaic panel at a market in Sulaimani, Iraq. Photo: Peter Fairley
Ali Romie estimates that their firm has installed US $200,000 worth of solar equipment over the past two years and says both demand and competition are now growing. A typical system generates about 1 kilowatt. “People like this system because it has no noise and has no effect on the environment, especially small stores that don’t need a high amount of energy to turn on their lights, TVs, and other devices,” he explains.
Longer-lasting lithium batteries have eclipsed lead batteries in many energy storage markets, but ABB Group microgrids specialist Rob Roys says lead varieties may be a better fit for Iraq, with its daily power outages. “Lead-acid batteries do better when deep cycled” or substantially discharged and recharged, explains Roys.
Solar systems cost many times more than a generator up front but actually deliver cheaper energy because they consume zero fuel, according to Ramyar Ali, assistant manager for Aras Green Energy, a four-year-old renewable-equipment firm based in Sulaimani.
According to the International Energy Agency, power from generators burning government-subsidized fuel costs Baghdad residents 17 to 25 cents per kilowatt-hour. The Abu Dhabi–based International Renewable Energy Agency, meanwhile, recently estimated that rooftop PV in Germany was already generating power for 16 to 18 cents per kilowatt-hour two years ago.
Utility-scale solar and wind plants could someday also supplement the oil- and gas-fired generation that supplied 96 percent of Iraq’s grid power in 2015. Large solar plants are particularly attractive, say experts in Iraq, since they are relatively quick to build and can supply peak usage in the summer, when air conditioners drive demand furthest beyond the national grid’s limits.
But Samad Hussain, a top environmental official in the Kurdistan Regional Government in Erbil, says international firms that finance and build renewable power plants are apprehensive about security threats in Iraq. They also worry about getting paid, he says, because many Iraqi consumers do not pay their government power bills.
Othman Hama Rahim, a renewable-energy researcher at the Kurdistan Institution for Strategic Studies and Scientific Research, cites several domestic challenges to incorporating more renewables into Iraq’s energy mix. One is dust storms, which may necessitate regular cleaning of solar panels. Another is that Iraq’s energy leaders remain focused on exploiting its fossil fuel resources. As Hama Rahim puts it: “We have oil. This is another factor retarding renewable power generation here.”
This article appears in the June 2018 print issue as “Rooftop Solar Takes Hold in Iraq.”
Contributing Editor Peter Fairley has been tracking energy technologies and their environmental implications globally for two decades, charting the engineering and policy innovations that are turning renewable energies and electric vehicles into mainstream competitors. He is especially interested in the power grid and power market redesigns required to phase out reliance on fossil fuels.