The electricity shortage in Iraq continues to plague the country.  Power blackouts have become a telling symbol of the difficulties Iraq's government and the United States are having in improving life for ordinary Iraqis.  But power plants being built in the Kurdish region could end the local electrical shortage and send power to the rest of the county.  VOA's Brian Padden reports from Irbil in the heart of the Kurdish region of Iraq.  

Irbil currently provides residents, free of charge, only about eight hours of electric power a day.

And when the power goes out, it is the job of Mohammad Qatar and other private generator operators to turn the lights back on.

Qatar runs a diesel generator that provides electricity for about 300 homes.  An average household pays $60 a months for this service.  Qatar says he expects to be in business for a long time to come. 

He says if the government starts supporting the city full time, he will change jobs, but he does not see it happening anytime soon. 

Qatar has reason to feel confident. In all of Iraq electricity output has been actually slightly lower this summer than last year. 

Until recently, the energy needs of the Kurdish region have been ignored.  Officials say during his reign, Saddam Hussein tried to control the region by making it dependent on Baghdad for power. 

Hoshyar Siwaily, the minister of electricity for the region, says the new Iraqi government has been unable to meet its needs.

"Unfortunately, for the past few years or the last three years, our budget, this ministry's budget was part of the federal ministry of electricity's budget," he said.  "They did not construct and build one single important project in the region."

The Kurdish regional government is now acting independently to increase electrical energy output through foreign assistance and private investment projects. 

The U.S. government has financed the building of four electrical substations that can transmit significantly more power to both the Kurdish region and the Iraqi national grid.  Each substation cost between $4 million to $5 million. 

 A company called Mass Jordon is building a $390 million power plant outside the city of Irbil.  This facility is expected to start producing electricity later this year.  Three other privately-owned power plants in the Kurdish region are also in various stages of a construction. 

The Kurdish regional government will initially pay for the electricity produced with oil revenue, but says over time residents will have to start paying for this electricity.  Minister Siwaily says eventually the region also expects to send power to the rest of Iraq. 

"That's our aim," he said.  "In fact to give electricity to the other parts of Iraq."

Minister Siwaily expects that by 2009 the region will produce enough energy to keep the lights on 24 hours a day.