BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan (Nov. 13, 2008) –The lush valley reveals an area of austere beauty, a place being transformed into an enviable example of ‘green’ energy production, and a model for not only a hopeful nation but perhaps the world.
Soldiers, government officials and journalists descended on Panjshir province, Afghanistan, Nov. 13, both figuratively and literally, for the grand opening of several developmental projects. One is a windfarm.
It may look unimpressive rising against a picturesque backdrop of snow-capped mountains crowned in mist, but it holds a key to the environmentally cutting-edge techniques being used in this most unlikely of places.
“The potential for the wind farm is 100 kilowatts,” said Army Maj. Nicholas Dickson, the Panjshir Provincial Reconstruction Team executive officer.
It may not seem like a lot of electricity to an American home, but the government center in Panjshir isn’t using it for high-definition TV sets and game consoles.
This power generation and distribution system provides electricity, hot water and a septic system. It’s a bargain at close to a million dollars.
The wind farm is only the beginning of the story.
Panjshir is close to 100 percent powered by renewable energy sources, Dickson said.
This wind farm, while small and seemingly isolated, contributes to a global energy revolution in wind power, an energy source that grew by 28 percent in 2007 alone.
Wind power is the largest single generator of renewable energy worldwide, and it’s growing.
Beyond the wind farm, the area relies heavily on micro-hydro electric power plants. These produce energy without the radical changes to the ecosystem that would result from a full sized dam, like the Dahla Damn in Kandahar province.
Dickson and Jeremy Richart, Panjshir field program officer for the United States Agency for International Development, describe the micro-hydros in Panjshir in terms of a waterslide. The main waterway is branched and the micro-hydro is installed, generating energy from the grade of the slope.
“The steeper the slope, the more power you get,” said Dickson. He is only one of a coalition of troops working with the Afghan government to improve local lives
The initial benefit of the increased energy output is only scratching the surface.
“They can use it for irrigation during the day, and then get power through the night,” said Richart.
These renewable energy sources are produced naturally by the sun, wind and water. They don’t contribute greenhouse gasses, don’t make people sick and don’t run out.
As this third-world democracy’s electrical infrastructure grows, Panjshir will be in the position to export its power to less gifted areas over a grid, said Richart.
It would stand to reason that the regions success would make it a target to those with a vested interest in the failure of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, but everyone from the locals who live there to the troops who work there, stress that Panjshir is relatively safe.
“These roads are probably the most dangerous thing in Panjshir,” says Master Sgt. Rich Flaherty, as he dares his passengers to look over the side of the dirt road at the ground hundreds of meters below. He is a Soldier in the Panjshir PRT, but like the wide majority of the troops here, he isn’t wearing body armor. It’s not necessary. “Because of the security. You’ve got one road in and one road out of this valley. And the ANP are all over it. They recognize the people who are from around here and not.”
This message became like a mantra. The locals protect Panjshir, and they don’t tolerate violent outside elements.
“It’s the largest neighborhood watch program,” said Dickson.
On Nov. 13, Ahmad Zia Massoud, first vice president of Afghanistan came to speak for the grand opening of the Panjshir Government Compound, the wind farm and a bridge. Locals were not surprised to see him, he is from the area. His brother is Ahmad Shah Massoud, the legendary “Lion of Panjshir,” who was a pro-western, anti-Soviet militant who became a national hero after his assassination by Al Quaida in September of 2001.
The First Vice President shared a large multi-colored tent at the ceremony with Army Brig. Gen. James McConville, deputy commanding general - support for Combined Joint Task Force-101, which partners with the government not only in providing security, but also development. He made it clear that he consideres Panjshir to be a very special place.
“[Panjshir] has security because the people have decided the enemies of Afghanistan are not allowed here,” McConville said. “Now it needs development.”