Afghanistan’s Surprising Strength in Renewables
With the Taliban takeover, there’s no question that Afghanistan is in dire straits. Aid agencies are trying to get desperately needed food and essentials to starving people but the political situation doesn’t allow for much to get in. Tragically, many Afghans have already died.
This situation was unthinkable just over a year ago to many of the Western nations supporting the slow and steady rebuilding of a country after decades of war. Now, there seems to be little hope. Many have abandoned hope entirely.
And yet I find myself unable to give up on this country. Maybe I am in denial. Maybe because I’ve learned so much about Afghanistan after working for 15 years on a different project, I know now that Afghans have always refused to conform to outsiders’ ideas of what their country should and could be. They are full of contradictions we Westerners can’t seem to grasp: some of the fiercest fighters on the planet, and yet, so compassionate to complete strangers who are guests of a household, the hosts will go without food themselves; surviving and thriving in a country with extreme climate conditions – wind, sun, heat, cold, rain, drought, and floods just to name a few; a literacy rate among the lowest in the world and yet, the birthplace of the poet Rumi and much else of the great literature and philosophies of the world.
When I began the Counting the Kilowatts project in 2019, curiosity propelling me to discover what the true renewable energy numbers were globally, I was happy to start with Afghanistan and eager to discover its hidden wealth of renewable energy. But with the Taliban now in power, I find myself often drifting into despair at the news coming out of the country.
But. There’s another story here. And, unbelievably, it’s a positive and hopeful one. It’s when I start looking at actual renewable numbers and what’s really going on in the remotest areas of this difficult and beautiful country.
Large Hydropower = 33,700 KW
Naghlu Dam, Jalalabad, Afghanistan (September 2003, U.S 10th Aviation Brigade)
It starts with the big stuff.
In the last century with help from the former Soviet Union and other countries, Afghans constructed several large dams. Most renewable electricity in Afghanistan comes from these. (The total electricity used in Afghanistan is about 1270 MW with 600 MW coming from domestic hydropower, solar and fossil fuel-powered plants plus 670 imported from neighboring countries.) Adding all this large hydropower up, it’s about 337 MW with another 119 MW due to come online eventually. (See data in right-hand column for a breakdown of where the dams are. Those in italic are not yet producing power but their potential is listed.) It may not seem like much at first but it does help to decrease Afghanistan’s reliance on fossil fuel-powered energy sources and electricity coming from outside the country. This source of renewable energy is well-documented and is what most organizations, if they cite anything at all for the amount of renewable energy being generated in Afghanistan, are referring to.
- 8 MW Shorabak
- 4.8 MW Pul-i-Khumri 1
- 9 MW Pul-i-Khumri 2
- 27 MW Bakhshabad
- 1.5 MW Dahan Dara
- 2.4 MW Grishk
- 52.5 MW Kajaki
- 2 MW Pashdan
- 42 MW Salma
- 66 MW Mahipar
- 100 MW Naghlu
- 1.2 MW Shah wa Arus
- 22.8 MW Surobi
- 22 MW Arghandab/Dahla
- 45 MW Kama
- 21 MW Manogi
- 11.55 MW Darunta
- 9 MW Kamal Khan
- 2.4 MW Charikar
- 2.75 MW Jabal Seraj
- 3.6 MW Chak
- Existing Power Plants Details – AEIC
- List of dams and reservoirs in Afghanistan – Wikipedia
- Ministry To Invest $450 Million In Kandahar Dam Project | TOLOnews (Kandahar, Arghandab/Dahla)
Small Hydropower = 5,177.6 KW
Since 2001, thousands of small (under 1 MW) hydropower dams were installed in remote areas where it’s hard to reach people with transmission lines. Many villages now have enough electricity for lighting, televisions, charging devices including cell phones, and powering washing machines, electric butter churns, water heaters and much more.
Finding out how much these micro-hydro power dams are producing is difficult if not impossible. They are by nature remote and off-grid. After scouring the internet for anything I could find I only identified about 5 MW (19 installations) I could document.
But several articles I stumbled across point to much more. Up to 5,000 “mini-grids” providing anywhere from 10 KW up to 10 MW each (meaning the total is between 50 MW and 50,000 MW an absurd range) have been installed by other governments partnering with the Afghans according to an article from 2018 mentioning USAID. A UN Development Project article (2017) refers to 240 micro-hydropower plants installed by other countries working with the Afghans. Even if these tiny dams are only producing a small amount (say the minimum mentioned in the previous article of 10 KW) , it adds up (between 2.4 MW and 2400 MW). One estimate from World Bank (2016) is 100 MW in “sub-projects”, again not all from hydro. So the actual amount from micro-hydro could be anywhere from 2.4 MW to 50,000 MW. Even taking the most conservative estimate, that’s still significant.
How much of this is working? Damage from natural causes is frequent and ongoing conflict and sabotage also threaten these small installations. It’s been pointed out, however, that small hydro-power installations tend to be less of a target as local villages have a sense of ownership over them. So villagers will protect these sources of power more rigorously than they might a large hydropower dam.
Note on data: With the Taliban in power, many government and aid organizations which helped the Afghans put these in place have removed online information on locations and for this reason, I am not making my data public. If you would like to see it, please contact me directly.
Large Solar = 3,800 KW
Bamyan Solar Plant – Afghanistan Inter-Ministerial Commission for Energy
Solar is an obvious source of power for the Afghan people and there are several large solar farms up and running with much more in the pipeline. About 38 MW is being produced by these installations with at least 76 MW planned. With the Taliban’s recent outreach to China for help with infrastructure and that country’s huge solar panel industry, we may see many more solar plants coming online in the next few years.
- 1.03 MW Bamyan
- 1.7 MW Herat
- 40 MW Herat
- 20 MW Naghlu (Surobi District)
- 10 MW Kandahar
- 12.4 MW
- 12.4 Kandahar
- Existing Power Plants Details – AEIC 2020 (All)
- NZ Exits Afghanistan, Leaves Legacy of Major Solar Power Project | TOLOnews – (May 2021) (Bamyan)
- Solar Energy – ICEAfghanistan (Bamyan, Kandahar)
- Bamiyan, Afghanistan – 100% Renewable Energy Atlas (Bamyan)
- First-ever solar-wind power plant goes functional in Herat | Pajhwok Afghan News (Herat)
- Afghanistan kicks off tender for another 40 MW solar project – pv magazine International (Herat)
- ADB to provide $44.76m for construction of solar power plant | Pajhwok Afghan News) (Kabul)
- Solar Power Plants To Be Inaugurated In Kabul, Kandahar | TOLOnews (Kabul, Kandahar)
- 10 MW Kandahar Solar Power Plant | U.S. Agency for International Development Kandahar)
- Afghani solar project of 10 MW enters construction (Kandahar)
- Solar Power Systems · Zularistan Ltd · Energy for Afghanistan (Kandahar)
- 100 Climate Actions from Cities in Asia and the Pacific (June 2021) (Kandahar)
- ADB gives loan for construction of 15-MW solar farm in Afghanistan (Kandahar)
Small Solar = 1,000 KW
And this is where it really gets interesting.
In recent news reports, massive numbers of solar-powered small water pump installations (67,000 by one count) in the arid areas of southern Afghanistan (mainly Helmand and Kandahar provinces) have been discovered to be draining a large underground aquifer to irrigate small farms growing opium poppies as well as some other crops.Many people have been alarmed at this development, both at the large quantities of opium produced as well as the draining of the aquifer which could affect the whole area. Once it is drained, it is thought, the farmers scraping out their existence in this arid region will have no choice but to leave, creating yet again a potential refugee catastrophe.
These farms are completely off the grid and do not seem to be under Taliban control. Many of the families came from more northern provinces and settled in this area to be out of the fray of the war zone. They are also off the map for aid agencies.
But, although much of their crop is opium, this system is allowing them to live and provide for their families in a country where much of the population is on the brink of starvation. Many of these farmers also grow other crops – wheat, vegetables, and maize. They even have a mill to grind flour powered by solar!
The panels are coming from several sources including many from China plus there is a thriving second hand solar panel market with some of these even coming from the U.S.
Wherever the origin, Afghans have very quickly implemented this cheap, reliable source of energy displacing what would otherwise be a massive amount of fossil fuel-powered water pumps. (Some of the pumps are still powered partly by fossil fuels which can run at night but the poor quality of the fuel causes the pumps to break down frequently.)
Although this situation seems dire, I wonder if there isn’t a silver lining. The Afghans have been zealous in taking on this new source of power. They aren’t doing this to save the planet from climate change but simply because this is a cheap, portable power source which they can control giving them an unprecedented degree of autonomy.
What if this uptake of solar power could spur the installation of much larger solar arrays, maybe even powering the whole country?
Besides the southern farmers, small solar panel installations are all across the country in every area imaginable. (In a news piece in the Economist on the Taliban resurgence, an Afghan fighter posed in front of a mud-caked building with a small solar panel mounted on the side.)
Afghans are deploying them in schools, teachers’ homes, for street lighting, in homes to power TV’s and computers, charge phones, laptops, and radios, and to light their homes.
Solar panels can be used for nearly every power need in small business as well. Solar fruit drying machines are being used (Afghanistan used to be a huge dried fruit-producing country.) Some entrepreneurial women in Kabul are powering their snack carts with solar panels. And a chicken hatchery in Balkh is even using the panels to increase their poultry production.
Women in Nangarhar province are increasing their yarn production with solar powered wool spinning machines.
Clinics and hospitals are using solar panels in areas where having back-up energy is critically important not only for lighting and hot water but also for ensuring their refrigeration systems stay cold keeping vital medical supplies such as vaccines correctly chilled. There are also examples of solar hot water, solar cookers and solar-powered lanterns. Basically, any small power need in Afghanistan which isn’t being met by an erratic and mostly non-existent grid is being filled with solar panels.
How many solar panels are in Afghanistan at this moment? That’s the big question. It’s impossible to know. Hundreds of thousands at least. (Farms, schools, clinics, street lighting, government facilities, household and small businesses.) The Afghans certainly aren’t waiting around for an efficient and reliable grid to magically appear.
Even more difficult than estimating the amount of small hydropower in the country, coming up with a reasonable idea of how much small solar energy is being generated in Afghanistan is probably impossible. (One strategy might be to use artificial intelligence to examine satellite photos which is how the Helmand/Kandahar small solar powered water pumps were identified butut this doesn’t rule out whether or not the panels are actually working.) Adding it up, it could be as high as several thousand megawatts which is ridiculously huge.
Lastly, Afghanistan hasn’t been as quick to take up wind power but it’s there. In fact, it’s been there for a very long time: Afghans may have been using wind power to pump water and grind grains starting around 700 A.D. (These Panemone windmills were invented in eastern Iran near the Afghan border.)
Just a few modern turbine installations stand now though across the country and producing just about 1 mw but at least 25 mw had been planned before the Taliban takeover. One issue with wind power is the same as any large centralized power producer and that is the need for infrastructure. Whereas small solar and micro-hydro can be implemented without government-backed infrastructure, wind power is almost always dependent on it.
- .9 MW Herat City
- .01 MW Sang-e-Nawishta
- Paktia (or Paktika)
- X KW
- . 1 MW
- 25 MW Herat Wind Farm | Fact Sheet | Afghanistan | U.S. Agency for International Development
- A mighty wind | Global Environment Facility
- First-ever solar-wind power plant goes functional in Herat | Pajhwok Afghan News
- The Power of Nature: How Renewable Energy is Changing Lives in Afghanistan | UNDP in Afghanistan
Besides these main sources of power, international organizations partnering with Afghans have been creative in tapping into a few other small sources including biogas and biomass. There’s also a lot of untapped potential in geothermal.
Adding everything up, the total amount of power is, incredibly enough, not far off of the 7,000 MW which is what the UN and other organizations have determined that Afghanistan needs to provide enough power for both current residents and potential returnees from refugee camps outside the country (especially Pakistan).
- lots of potential but no one doing anything
- 44 biogas plants The Power of Nature: How Renewable Energy is Changing Lives in Afghanistan | UNDP in Afghanistan
- Afghanistan Sustainable Energy for Rural Development (ASERD)
- Renewable energy in Afghanistan – Wikipedia
- Q+A: ER Engineering – USC Viterbi | Magazine
I don’t know what the future holds for Afghanistan. But I do not believe that it is hopeless. I am probably being too optimistic here and the truth always lies somewhere between. What I do know is that it is completely and totally up to the Afghans themselves. And although many here in America are convinced all is lost, I’ve found that it’s not wise to write the Afghan people off. They may yet surprise the world as they have done so many times before.
Notes on Data
Afghanistan is enormously rich in potential renewable resources. From hydropower to wind to solar to geothermal, the country has over 300 Gigawatts (GW) of renewable potential – far more than enough to power the entire nation and then some (UNDP (This article is hidden from public view at the moment), IRENA and TOLOnews).
When you read about how much renewable energy is produced globally, you probably think that the people who compile these figures are including all the countries on the planet. They do not. Most international energy organizations including the International Energy Agency (IEA) don’t count Afghanistan’s energy . The IEA only has reliable data from about 100 countries (there are 193 member states in the UN) and this does not include Afghanistan.
Another large organization collecting global renewable energy data is BP (British Petroleum). Unfortunately, they don’t have any specific data on Afghanistan. In their Statistical Review of World Energy 2020, they may have included the large hydro and solar plants in the “Other Asia Pacific” data but it’s not clear. (Looking at the methodology notes at the end of the report, Afghanistan is grouped under Asia Pacific with a number of other countries whose data is also not broken out in the main report.)
The best major source of data on Afghanistan’s renewable energy accomplishments is the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) a quasi-governmental organization that is much more rigorous in its data management. IRENA gives Afghanistan credit for 364 MW renewable energy generated in 2020 mostly going to urban areas. However, again, only the large hydropower dams and solar installations are counted.
A United Nations Sustainable Development Goals tracking website actually estimates that 98% of the Afghan population has electricity. This is clearly incorrect (even more so now) although the urban areas do have electricity available. However, again, this is not counted as part of global renewable energy output. The World Bank credits Afghanistan with 86.5% of electricity from renewables (higher than the U.S.!) but the data is from 2015 and probably only includes hydropower.
So most renewable energy data you see and hear about doesn’t include an awful lot of countries especially small poor ones like Afghanistan.
What does this all mean?
Simply put, Afghanistan’s contributions to global renewable energy are not being fully accounted for. Thousands of people, especially in rural areas, are using renewable electricity and turning away from fossil fuels in a big way. They are not doing this to combat climate change but rather because renewable energy meets their needs far better than other sources of energy. Solar panels in particular are small, easily portable, don’t break as easily as oil-powered engines (not as many moving parts), and are simple to use. They provide a micro-source of power that can be purchased and owned completely by the user, eliminating the need to be connected to an erratic, and government-owned and controlled grid.
The political and economic chaos that has engulfed Afghanistan over the last four decades has actually driven the people to become some of the most electrically independent and self-sufficient in the world.