Interesting piece published in the NY Times about missed opportunities in U.S. efforts to improve Afghan infrastructure. This is not a strictly DOD energy story, but it should inform thinking about future operations and our own infrastructure challenges at home. The article, written by Patricia McArdle, reports on a number of efforts to bring energy security and other infrastructure projects to the Afghan people that went awry because we failed to understand the territory. In her 12 months as a political advisor with the Department of State, Ms. McArdle had a front row seat to observe the outcomes of many well intended plans. Standard operating procedures tell you what to do in a given set of circumstances. If that “given set of circumstances” do not exist, there is no SOP. We must reward innovation and not always compliance.
Despite a 2004 Department of Energy study of Afghanistan energy sources that “ revealed abundant renewable energy resources that could be used to build small-scale wind- and solar-powered systems to generate electricity and solar thermal devices for cooking and heating water”, the U.S. brought in diesel generators and created a critical vulnerability.
International building codes dictated that the U.S. build concrete and cinderblock buildings for local projects, resulting in buildings that were hot in summer and cold in winter. The Afghan locals build with “cob — a mixture of mud, sand, clay and chopped straw molded to form durable, elegant, super-insulated, earthquake-resistant structures. With their thick walls, small windows and natural ventilation, traditional Afghan homes may not comply with international building codes, but they are cooler in summer and warmer in winter than cinder-block buildings”. I first noticed this when, then Colonel T.C. Moore, USMC, head of the Marine Corps Energy Assessment Team (or as we liked to call him, the MEAT Head) pointed it out while we were visiting COB Payne in Southern Afghanistan. “You know, there’s a reason they build them that way” T.C. mused, “What don’t we get?”.
Even when DOD tried a renewable project in support of our Afghan partners, they looked through their own filters, not the locals. An example can be found in Dina Maron’s article about an Army Corps of Engineers' plan running into trouble with a wind project in Afghanistan. A plan to build a 1 MW wind turbine for the Afghan equivalent of my Rock Bound Highland Home (West Point) went poorly. Problem was that the guy who drew the blueprints hadn’t walked the road. The 300 ton crane necessary for this behemoth couldn’t navigate the terrain. A U.S. solution (huge, centralized power) is not necessarily the answer in less developed regions. Typically, in Afghan wind project one sees small, distributed generation and it is for a reason. A hundred 10KWs would have been more manageable in this terrain.