"Power Trip" An award winning documentary about an American company's struggle to manage post-Soviet Georgia's privatized electricity utility
At a recent Wilson Center event, the Center's Kennan Institute and Environmental Change and Security Project, together with the Environmental Film Festival, showed Paul Devlin's documentary Power Trip, which describes an American company's struggle to manage post-Soviet Georgia's privatized electricity utility. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Georgia began experiencing major shortages of electricity that left residents of the capital city of Tbilisi with only a few hours of power per day in the winter. In 1999, Georgia's government sold Tbilisi's electric utility company Telasi to AES, a multinational company based in Virginia. Power Trip follows several employees of AES-Telasi as they attempt to build a profitable business and ensure that power is consistently available to customers.
The film explores the complex political, economic, social, and technical problems that affect the distribution of electricity in Georgia. During the 1990s, Georgia experienced political turmoil, civil war, and economic collapse. The country was unable to produce enough electric power to fulfill demand, and both commercial and residential customers did not pay their power bills. AES executives told Devlin that when they took over Telasi, up to 90 percent of customers were not paying. Residential users ran illegal wiring to steal electricity from hospitals, factories, and other buildings with power, creating safety hazards and straining the capacity of the power grid. Factories and government institutions relied on the Ministry of Energy to ensure that they received electricity whether or not they paid for it.
Power Trip demonstrates how AES-Telasi attempted to force customers to pay for electricity. The company began a large-scale project to install new meters throughout the city and began cutting off the power supply to customers with unpaid bills—-including the Tbilisi airport and a military base—-but faced many obstacles. Many people could not or would not pay monthly electric bills and responded by taking to the streets in protest, vandalizing the meters, and coming up with increasingly sophisticated methods for stealing power. The state frequently intervened to prevent non-paying industrial and government customers from being cut off, even diverting electricity from paying residential customers to power non-paying factories. Devlin notes in his film that AES was losing as much as $120,000 per day in Georgia.
As it describes the chaos of Tbilisi's energy sector, Power Trip also paints a vivid picture of life in post-Soviet Georgia. Devlin highlights the invasions, ethnic conflicts, and political unrest that have occurred in Georgia throughout its history, as well as the economic collapse and political corruption that characterized the country in the 1990s. He also shows the Georgian people and their culture by using a soundtrack of Georgian music and showing scenes from home life, church services, and folk festivals. Devlin explained that his goal in making Power Trip was to demonstrate the complex nature of Georgia's transition from Communism without attempting to take sides in the conflicts between AES-Telasi and the citizens of Tbilisi. He noted that he both respects the Western and Georgian executives who attempted to bring order and market principles into a dysfunctional utility company, and sympathizes with the plight of the Georgians who are being asked to spend half their salaries on the electricity they had always taken for granted.