Wind Power in Afghanistan

 Among all the other news that has come out of the so-called Afghan War Diary published on Wikileaks, the media could be forgiven for not noticing two mentions of a New Zealand company bringing electricity to the troubled country.

The entries, like most in the file, are terse and it’s not even clear why, in the context of a war, such projects deserve mention alongside attacks and bombings:

25/01/2007: "Wind Power contractor and expert arrive in Panjshir: CPT Chris Nuckols (Minnesota National Guard) currently serving as an ANA trainer, but a wind energy engineer in his civilian job, again arrived in Panjshir. With him was Tony Woods, a wind farm contractor from New Zealand."

27/01/2007: "Wind testing station mentioned on 25/01/2007 (an anemometer mast, from the sound of it) completed. The New Zealand company, Empower Consultants Limited, finished the work this morning."

Tony Woods has moved on from Empower, but when contacted by Sunday Star-Times last week he was still in Afghanistan and soon on his way to the US.

"I got started in renewable energy during a holiday in North Pakistan in the mid-90s," he explained. "It was clear that there was potential to help isolated communities with improving their efficiency and utilisation of small hydro-electric systems."

Project funding from NZAID’s Asian Development Assistance fund allowed Woods to work on community projects there and elsewhere in Asia. From there it was a very short step into Afghanistan in 1999.

Those early projects have grown into a regional sustainable energy business with significant potential, Woods said.

"We firmly believe that by putting electricity into remote communities, we are directly improving the ability for those communities to improve themselves. This opinion is shared by the populations we work with, as our projects enable activities like cold storage, irrigation, agricultural processing – activities that directly impact on incomes," he said.

"Once a population is earning its own income, then it is able to make its own decisions about what its development priorities are, and these have a much higher chance of success if the community has spent its own money."

Woods said it was notable that in many developing countries there were copious consulting reports, but less focus on getting project work done.

"We decided we would focus on getting projects delivered instead, as this is what mattered most to the communities on the ground."
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His company, Sustainable Energy Services Afghanistan (SESA), is registered in Afghanistan and it is neither an NGO nor a not-for-profit.

"We don’t have any option but to make projects work, on time, and on budget, or we will fail as a business," he said.

"We also feel that we can make a difference by leading by example in areas such as staff training and employment of women."

The company’s technical staff is 30% female, and all staff have the chance to travel overseas to train on activities that are important to the growth of the company.

"We recently sent two engineers to work with Alpine Energy in Timaru, for example, and they learned a lot of transmission and distribution skills that are being used on one of our current projects – the largest off-grid solar power project in Afghanistan, if not central Asia."

Listening to those communities is vital, he said, while understanding local culture equips you to move forward.

"Being aware and informed of cultural practice is a good thing, but most cultures do not expect you to be well versed and give a fair bit of leeway for the uneducated, so long as you are not arrogant about it," he said.

Relationships are important too, especially in local communities.

"When working in remote communities in Afghanistan, they are everything. Without the relationship and the trust that goes with it, you are just an intruder, so we put effort into ensuring that a relationship is established first.

"The village elders need to trust that we will deliver, and we need to trust them that our team have their support in the field."

The difficulties of working in Afghanistan and other remote places are obvious, Woods said. Bad roads, poor security, frustrating bureaucracy and the lack of skilled staff can be testing, but once they are accepted as normal, they can be dealt with.

There is danger, but that, too, can be managed "most of the time".

"It really is surprisingly normal here, and is very different from the way it was in Iraq.

"But yes, for both the Afghan and international armed forces, it is a different story, as New Zealand was tragically reminded of this week."

The company’s work is sometimes funded by the Provincial Reconstruction Teams, sometimes by USAID or other international donors. However private sector investment is gaining momentum.

By Rob O’Neill, Sunday Star Times,