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NEWS | April 15, 2008

Iraq's largest power plant awaits improvements

By None , MNC-I

FOB ISKAN — There’s a reason the lights never go out at FOB Iskan, and it’s not because of Coalition forces.

The brightly-lit Iskandariyah Thermal Power Plant located there has been chugging along since long before troops arrived. The plant is the dominant visual feature of FOB Iskan, with four enormous smokestacks rising above an imposing labyrinth of iron girders, spindly ladders and steaming pipes.

The electricity is churned into existence at Iskan, which runs on Iraq’s plentiful supplies of raw crude oil.

“There are three ways raw crude can get here: by tanker truck, by train and through an old pipeline,” said Capt. David Stewart, FOB Iskan’s mayor and resident expert on the power plant. “At the moment, it all comes in on trucks, but the trains may be running again soon.”

Built in the 1980s by South Korea’s Hyundai Corp., the plant employed Iraqi, German, Russian and Korean workers throughout its service.

The plant’s initial productivity was short-lived, however – during Desert Storm in 1991, the plant was knocked out of commission by Coalition warplanes. 

Rebuilt in 2001, it is now one of the largest employers of skilled laborers in the region, with about 1,200 full-time employees and 400 temporary workers.

A worker at the plant earns about three times what a typical shop owner in nearby Musayyib could make, and some of the technicians have opened up their own businesses in town, Stewart said.

Inside the plant, the three functioning steam-powered turbines generate between 400 and 600 megawatts of electricity, about the same amount that powers the Savannah, Ga., metropolitan area. A fourth generator is undergoing repairs after a 2007 fire disabled it.

The sound of the generators is comparable to the cabin noise in a CH-47 Chinook helicopter – every frequency maxed out.Shuddering pipes circulate high-pressure steam overhead and underfoot. Workers warn that steam sometimes leaks out so hot it is invisible and under such enormous pressure it can dismember a person.

Each turbine has its own control room, all in the process of being upgraded. The renovated control rooms feature large, high-definition readouts from the plant’s myriad sensors, while the older rooms resemble something from a 1960s science fiction movie. Colorful blinking buttons and analog gauges chatter and buzz, as blue-suited technicians bustle about taking notes.

“In a plant like this, there’s not all that much that can actually be controlled from the control room,” Stewart said. “It’ll let you know if something’s wrong, but to fix it you’ve got to get in there with a wrench.”

A big wrench. If one of the plant’s turbines is shut down for repairs, workers must continue to turn the giant driveshaft by hand – or the costly part will warp under its own weight.

Located on the green, lazy Euphrates River, the plant uses the water to cool its turbines. The warmed water is returned to the river, attracting carp and catfish to the outflow pipes.

Stewart estimates that the plant is working at about 40 percent of its theoretical capacity.

“There are no major deficiencies with the plant, but so many small ones that it just saps the power output,” Stewart said. “The demand for electricity in Iraq is so great right now that they really can’t shut the plant down for extensive maintenance.” 

To help solve this problem, a new, albeit smaller, power plant is under construction next door. The new plant will use a high-efficiency gasoline turbine design, similar to a jet engine.

Gasoline for the plant will be refined on-site, from the thermal plant’s raw crude oil tanks. The new plant will be able to substitute for one of Iskan Thermal’s three generators when it is shut down for repairs.