One of the major infrastructure issues that the U.S. has struggled with in rebuilding Iraq is the power supply. From my hotel, you can hear the near constant hum of large generators, which assure that I have power throughout the day and night. But when I go just down the block to the internet café, hardly a visit goes by where the power does not drop out at some point. This system of blackouts is the norm for Iraqis.
To understand why, you must first know that Iraqis do not pay for power—not under Saddam’s regime, and not now. While there was a move to shift to a pay for service, when the first collectors were killed, the idea was discarded. In a system where there is not incentive not to use, it is not surprising that while the U.S. has made huge strides in improving electricity production, Iraqis have kept pace by increasing consumption in a classic example of the tragedy of the commons. Thus, without the California option of, to quote Dennis Miller, charging “mini-bar prices” for electricity, the only option is rationing electricity, with regulated blackout periods. This is how electricity was managed under the old regime and that is how it is managed now.
However there are also unregulated blackouts. The U.S. has been installing miles of new cables to renovate the electrical system. But the bandits who roam the desert have been pulling it down for the copper. This causes random outages in power, and leads some Iraqis to the conclusion that the electrical system is performing worse now than under Saddam. Aside from generally improving crime control, there does not seem an easy solution, because it would be virtually impossible to effectively monitor the miles of cable running across the deserts. This explains why keeping the lights on is a bigger challenge than merely assuring sufficient power generation.