U.S. Paid $335 Million for a Power Plant in Afghanistan No One Is Using

An aerial view of the Tarakhil Power Plant near Kabul, Afghanistan. SIGAR

Updated | A power plant in Afghanistan funded by the U.S. to the tune of $335 million is being "severely underutilized" and risks becoming a "catastrophic failure," according to a U.S. government watchdog.

The Tarakhil Power Plant is running far below its full capacity, the office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) said on Thursday. As recently as last year, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) said that it is a "vital component" of the electricity grid that serves Kabul.

Constructed by the Black & Veatch engineering firm, which was awarded a contract by USAID in 2007, Tarakhil is nicknamed "the white elephant of Kabul," McClatchy reports.

According to data on the plant analyzed by SIGAR, Tarakhil has produced a miniscule amount of power for Kabul: Between February 2014 and April 2015, it exported 8,846 megawatt hours of power to the Kabul grid, less than 1 percent of the plant's production capacity. Tarakhil contributed just 0.34 percent of the total power on the Kabul power grid during the same time period, according to SIGAR.

"Affordable and reliable electricity is critical to the economic growth and stability of Afghanistan. However, the construction of a $335 million diesel-fueled power plant outside of Kabul does not seem to have contributed significantly to this important goal since it was handed over to the Afghan government more than five years ago," said John F. Sopko, the inspector general for Afghanistan Reconstruction, in a letter dated August 7 to Donald Sampler, the assistant to the administrator for Afghanistan and Pakistan affairs at USAID.

"This underutilization has apparently resulted in the premature failure of equipment, which was expected to raise already high operation and maintenance costs, and could result in 'catastrophic failure,'" according to SIGAR.

The plant's reliance on diesel as a fuel has contributed to its inefficiency. Diesel is both expensive and dangerous to transport in Afghanistan, McClatchy reports. USAID reviewed of alternative fuels for the plant, but "failed to identify a more economic fuel supply" other diesel, according to Sopko's letter.

"Afghanistan's ongoing transition from diesel fuel to lower cost sources of energy demonstrates that the Afghan energy sector is becoming more affordable for businesses and individuals," Ben Edwards, USAID spokesperson, said in a statement emailed to Newsweek on Thursday.

"In Kabul, the diesel-fueled Tarakhil Power Plant is now used as a back-up power facility that supplies electricity when lower cost sources of energy like hydroelectric and imported energy from the surrounding region is unavailable," he said. The plant provided 10 percent of Kabul's electricity after an avalanche disrupted transmission lines to the city on February 23, until the lines were partially restored on March 10, according to USAID.

Tarakhil was intended to provide power to Kabul on a continuous basis, but SIGAR found the plant is being used only on an intermittent basis, which has caused damage to the plant due to "frequent starts and stops, which place greater wear and tear on the engines and electrical components," said SIGAR.

This is not the first time SIGAR has looked at the power plant. In July 2014, Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill wrote a letter to USAID demanding answers about the power plant's inefficiency.