Kyrgyzstan to arm with solar in fight against blackouts

By JOHN C.K. DALY, UPI International Correspondent  |  Jan. 22, 2009 at 6:10 PM
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WASHINGTON, Jan. 22 (UPI) -- The Central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan was not blessed by Allah with significant hydrocarbon resources, and its economy has been battered by its reliance on hydroelectric power and the constantly rising cost of energy imports. Now the mostly Muslim country tucked between China and three other former Soviet "stans" is hoping to broaden its options by developing the nation's solar potential along with other renewable energy sources.

When Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev on Jan. 16 signed a law for developing the country's renewable energy sources, he left unsaid the current dire state of the Kyrgyz power sector, which has left the nation shivering through a relentless daily series of blackouts extending across the country.

According to Bakiyev, while the country has been interested in alternative energy sources for the past 15 years, the legislative infrastructure to encourage renewable energy development did not exist, and the lack of legislation discouraged investors from pursuing possibilities in an unregulated and consequently unpredictable part of the economy.

Two other factors dampening initiatives noted by Bakiyev include the disparity between tariff rates charged for electricity generated by renewable sources of energy and the more "traditional" sources, such as hydropower. As the renewable rates were much higher, the producers suffered from the resultant lack of competition.

The last factor described by Bakiyev is technical pitfalls involved in developing alternative energy sources, in which integrating such technology into the national power grid produced difficulties.

Reforming legislation to encourage energy alternatives is one thing. Finding expertise, technology and funding is another. If Kyrgyz officials are sincere in developing their country's solar potential, then they must look to two of their regional "superpower" neighbors -- Uzbekistan and China. In the case of the former, Kyrgyz officials might have to engage in a bit of diplomatic bridge-building if they wish to tap Tashkent's solar expertise, as for the last couple of years Uzbek-Kyrgyz relations have been souring because of squabbles over one of the region's most precious resources, water.

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan together control the sources of Central Asia's two most important rivers, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya, sluicing them through a series of hydroelectric cascades to generate electricity. As the two rivers contain nearly 90 percent of Central Asia's available water reserves, their distribution is of some concern to the nations along their shore, particularly Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, where the streams are diverted for agriculture.

During the Soviet era, the downstream nations provided energy to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan during the autumn and winter months in return for regular water discharges during the planting and growing seasons, but the regional accords have slowly unraveled since communism collapsed in December 1991. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have attempted to get their downstream neighbors to agree to pay for their water usage, which in turn led them to counter by slowly raising energy import prices toward global levels.

The rising cost of energy imports has led to power cutbacks in both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan as they both attempt to limit their energy import costs while releasing increasing volumes of water to generate their indigenous powers, flooding their downstream neighbors and further straining relations.

Solar advocates acknowledge that they even face an uphill struggle with Kyrgyz consumers. On Jan. 13 German news broadcaster Deutsche Welle quoted Oleg Zaitsev, technical manager of the national Eco-Social Harmony alternative energy project as saying, "Kyrgyz have little faith in the efficacy of alternative energy sources, preferring traditional methods of heating."

Developing its solar potential also will require some diplomatic fence-mending with Uzbekistan, which was the Soviet Union's center for solar research. Since 1965 the Uzbek Academy of Sciences has published the quarterly journal Geliotekhnika ("Applied Solar Energy"), the former Soviet Union's sole scientific publication exclusively devoted to solar power, in the process developing the foremost cadre of solar scientists in the former Soviet space. Geliotekhnika's issues range from solar radiation, photovoltaics and solar materials to the direct conversion of solar energy into electrical power. A more nuanced stance on water issues by Kyrgyzstan could well unlock renewable energy cooperation with Uzbekistan, while a diffusion of solar energy facilities in Kyrgyzstan would lessen the country's reliance on its hydroelectric stations, in turn reducing the need for erratic water discharges.

If Uzbekistan can provide the regional expertise, then Kyrgyzstan's giant eastern neighbor could provide the technology, as three years ago China became the world's third-largest producer of solar panels, behind Germany and Japan. Many analysts believe China, with its massive and increasingly advanced industrial base and some of the world's lowest labor costs, will quickly develop a commanding lead in the field, especially as Chinese solar-cell makers already export 90 percent of their output to Germany, Japan and the United States. The only cloud in this sunny picture is the fact that China's surging solar panel production has caused a massive price increase for polysilicon, the chief material in photovoltaic solar panels, to $200 to $300 per kilogram. Many specialists believe, however, that in the next few years prices could plummet up to 40 percent as purified polysilicon production rises.

If Bakiyev's administration is committed to developing the country's energy infrastructure to include renewables, then he can build on the legacy of his predecessor, Askar Akayev, Kyrgyzstan's first post-Soviet president, who introduced Central Asia's most liberal investment climate. At the time of the implosion of the Soviet Union, Akayev was the only president not from the Communist Party, and his administration moved quickly to entice foreign money by liberalizing the country's laws before slowly becoming enmeshed in corruption and being forced from power by 2005's Tulip Revolution.

Commenting from exile in Moscow, where he is now a professor at Moscow State University, Akayev could not let the opportunity slip to criticize his successor, telling a journalist from Kyrgyzstan's Tazar news agency on Jan. 13, "We have an outdated fuel and energy complex, which operates mostly with obsolescent equipment." Slyly promoting the interests of his Russian hosts, Akayev commented on the country's solar power potential, "Russian companies have shown a studied interest in the revival of the Tash-Kumyrskii semiconductor plant, which would allow the establishment of joint Kyrgyz-Russian production of silicon photovoltaic solar energy converters that are now widely used throughout the world."

While Bakiyev's interest in renewable energy is laudable, he and his administration must also free themselves from the legacy of Soviet gigantism, of favoring massive projects, and instead focus on smaller, less expensive systems. Bakiyev's administration already has expressed interest in smaller hydroelectric projects, and solar projects initially should be focused on small-scale developments such as heating and pumping plants for isolated farms rather than massive, expensive establishments.

The new law is a start, and if Bakiyev's officials adopt British economist E.F. Schumacher's principles from his influential tome, "Small Is Beautiful," a critique of Western economics published during the 1973 energy crisis, then Kyrgyz citizens in time may well face a brighter (and warmer) future.

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