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Iraqi Kurdistan's first solar plant helps with power outages, boosts agriculture

The Kurdistan Regional Government’s efforts to increase renewable energy usage come amid persistent electricity shortages throughout Iraq, as well as rising environmental concerns.
Workers install electric wires for Iraqi refugees as they set up a new part of the Khazir refugee camp near the Kurdish checkpoint of Aski Kalak, 40 kilometers (25 miles) west of Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, Nov. 21, 2016.

Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Prime Minister Masrour Barzani unveiled a planned solar power plant in Erbil last week that stands to benefit the agriculture sector as well as chronic electricity shortages.

The project has obvious appeal for addressing the power shortages that last for around 12 hours a day, but could also benefit agriculture and water management in the autonomous region of northern Iraq. Desertification and water scarcity are also issues in the region. However, the costs of solar equipment for farms, which run in the thousands of dollars, are prohibitive for many farmers in the Kurdistan Region.

"Farmers are not ready to spend that much money," Nashwan Dhahir, the Iraq country director for the Swiss-based environmental organization cewas, told Al-Monitor.

Solar energy is growing in the Kurdistan Region, and could especially benefit farms and the nascent green and agriculture technology sectors there. 

Barzani laid the foundation stone at the solar plant on May 18, and it will be the first of its kind in Erbil. The plant will have a production capacity of 25 megawatts of electricity per hour, according to a KRG release. The project costs $100 million and construction will begin within a year, the Kurdistan 24 news outlet reported. For reference, one megawatt of solar power is enough to power a home in the United States for more than a month, according to the environmental news website EcoWatch.

There are a multitude of reasons for the electricity shortages in the Kurdistan Region and Iraq as a whole. The US military severely damaged Iraq’s national grid during the 1991 Gulf war. Looters also damaged the system following the US invasion in 2003, according to a 2007 report from The New York Times. Government mismanagement and unpaid bills are also issues. As a result, many Iraqis rely on noisy, diesel-powered generators for round-the-clock power.

In this context, it is no surprise that solar power is growing in Iraq. In April, the French energy giant TotalEnergies said it would invest $10 billion in a solar plant in southern Iraq’s Basra.

The KRG claimed in December that 20% of the regions’ electricity came from renewable energy.

Cewas works on water management in the Middle East. The organization's work includes supporting the use of renewable energy in water management. Dhahir estimated that “thousands” of people in the Kurdistan Region make use of solar panels, mostly private homes and institutions.

“Thousands of people are using solar energy in Kurdistan, mostly at the houses and institutional level. With farms, it is not that widespread due to the capital required," he said.

Dhahir said that the relevant solar systems for farms range from $2,500 to $5,000 in Iraq. The systems with batteries, which allow power to be stored and used for longer periods of time, are the more expensive ones. 

Increasing the use of solar power in the Kurdistan Region will have several benefits, especially for agriculture, according to Dhahir.

“Farms that use dripping irrigation need longer amounts of time to pump water," he said, referencing the method of drippign water into soil at slow rates. "This is not guaranteed by the national grid."

Dhahir said the solar plant in Erbil is a positive development. “It is not going to compensate for the whole system, but it’s a start,” he said.

Like other parts of the region, Iraq suffers from water scarcity and desertification. The farmers in Iraq as well as neighboring Syria that have adapted solar power have done so in part for these environmental reasons. 

The KRG’s efforts to increase the use of solar power could increase awareness in green technology and renewable energy in general, as well as agriculture technology. The region's agritech scene in particular is suffering from a lack of innovation and pessimism related to environmental issues in the country, according to the Erbil-based startup incubator Five One Labs.

“The understanding of integrating business with agriculture is hard [for startups],” Hedi Mohammed, the organization’s then startup support manager, told Al-Monitor earlier this year. “They also believe due to climate change their businesses might not be successful.”

Iraqi tech startups are nonetheless starting to take note of the environment. Green technology and agritech firms are among the Iraqi startups that are attracting investment, Hassan Jivraj reported for Al-Monitor in January. 

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