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Kazakhstan Uses Renewable Energy to Expand Regional Leadership

When Uzbekistan president Islam Karimov said last year that the escalations over two proposed dams in central Asia — Kambarata-1 in Kyrgyzstan and the Rogun Dam in Tajikistan — could “lead not just to a serious confrontation, but even water wars,” there was imminent controversy in Central Asia.

Hydropower Disagreements

The use of hydropower is ferociously debated by Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the upstream states, and Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, the downstream nations. 

“The upstream countries possess a potential of building very powerful hydro plants, up to several thousand megawatts (MW), which may put the downstream countries in jeopardy…We do not want to allow that, therefore Kazakhstan is against their building,” said Marat Kambarov, a Kazakh renewable energy expert and director general of EcoWatt AKA, a renewable energy developing company.  

The rhetoric has been toned down over time, mostly with the efforts of Kazakhstan, an acclaimed leader of Central Asia and a close ally of Russia. But having assumed the role of peacemaker and securing Russia’s support, Kazakhstan has ramped up its own hydropower efforts. 

“The potential of the rivers allows planning a total capacity of 7,000 MW in the short-term, mostly generated by small- (1-10 MW) and medium-size (10-50 MW) hydro plants; some have already been built and others are on the way,” noted Kambarov.

The 300-MW Moinakskaya hydro-electric power station, commissioned in May 2012, is the biggest so far, but may be outdone soon by new projects, he insisted.

Some experts say Kazakhstan tried to outsmart its upstream neighbors by previously focusing on building small- and medium-scale hydro plants. 

“Built higher upstream, they will be safer in case of an accident,” said Viktor Minichiuk, a Russian energy expert. 

With other renewable energy sources accounting for a mere 0.5 percent of the country’s energy needs (a whopping 99 percent comes from hydro generation), Kazakhstan is a leader in developing alternative energy in Central Asia, but far from being a major “green” player internationally.

“But this about to change as the country is poised to hike its renewable energy capacity to 1 percent by 2017 and then build the capacity exponentially,” said Gumarbek Daukeyev, a renewable energy expert and rector at Kazakhstan’s Alma-Ata University of Energy and Communications. 

Creating a Global Presence

Kazakshtan is set to host the upcoming EXPO-2017: Future Energy, an internationally famous event, in 2017. Since it will be Kazakhstan’s first world fair as well as the first in Central Asia, Kazakhstan will do whatever it takes to draw global headlines praising the country for the impeccable organization of the event, according to Daukeyev.

“And not only that - be exemplified as a country that has made a huge leap over a record-short time in harnessing solar, wind, hydro and hydro power,” he said. “Especially the latter as its growth is important both economically and, taking into account the intricacy of the countries’ water needs-shaped relations, politically.”

Having secured Russia’s strong support within the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and,  along with Belarus, in the three-partite Customs Union (CU), and cozying up with the upstream nations of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, Kazakhstan is set to emerge not only as a main player in Central Asia but also beyond. 

The international event and renewable energy boost will perfectly serve its goal. But the tension with the upstream neighbors is still there. 

“It is manageable at this point. The upstream countries’ economies are too dependent on Kazakhstan to harm in the quarrel over the use of river waters. Besides, the upstream countries have been under a very strong influence of Russia since the Soviet era. They just cannot irk too much its very close ally, Kazakhstan,” said Daukeyev. 

Benefiting from the CIS and especially CU memberships, Kazakhstan has been acknowledged for its relatively open business environment by The World Bank Doing Business Survey, in which it ranked 49th in 2013.

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Developing Other Renewable Sources 

Not to vex the upstream neighbors with the exceptionally strengthening hydro capacity downstream while speaking out against the Kambarata-1 dam in Kyrgyzstan and the Rogun Dam in Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, quite smartly, has lately been reshaping its alternative energy expansion.

“Sure, hydro expansion remains very important, but we need to especially bolster wind power development,” said Daukeyev of the Energy and Communications University. “First in the Alma-Ata region’s so-called Dzungarskij “gates” the Chilitskij region bordering China, where the wind is the strongest. By 2017, three or four 40-60 MW wind farms will be built there,” the provost said. “Unfortunately, we were lagging behind in developing wind energy until now.” 

“Wind energy, without any doubt, is on top of the list now. Due to the intensity of winds, we are able to obtain twice more wind generation per 1 square kilometer than most wind-rich European countries. Some Kazakh regions boast even fourfold or sevenfold larger wind intensity than Europe,” agreed Kambarov of EcoWatt AKA. 

In harnessing wind power Sweden-made installations have the best reputation in Kazakhstan, but their transportation costs are too big.

“The Chinese RES products we use most are worse in quality, but twice or sometimes thrice cheaper and within a hand-reach, therefore we prefer the neighbor,” said Daukeyev. 

Photovoltaic capacities, he says, will be rapidly developed in the town of Kapchigai where a 2-MW solar plant will be launched by the end of year. It is planned to expand the plant’s capacity up to 20 MW in the future. 

Policy Support 

To boost renewables, Kazakh Senate (Parliament) last May amended RES law passed in 2009, bringing more clarity to the tariff policy, agreeing to compensate 50 percent of expenses of 5kW-and-less capacity installation purchases for individual RES developers with no access to the state grid. The law now also sets out a number of incentives for local RES installation producers.

“Kazakhstan is undoubtedly a regional leader in developing green energy though the fossil fuels energy costs are currently five or seven-fold smaller than those of renewables. Therefore there are some doubts in the political circles whether Kazakhstan should pursue alternative energy. But the country must do that to be on par with the major world powers,” Daukeyev emphasized. 

To the concern of some parliamentarians that Kazakhstan goes after green energy too early, Nurlan Kaparov, minister of the Ministry of Environment Protection, responds that pursuing RES is also “essential” in meeting the Kyoto Protocol commitments.

Kazakhstan has pledged to cut down on carbo emissions by 15 percent by 2020, and by 20 percent by 2050.

“If we do not bolster the RES development, we will not achieve the goals,” the minister said recently.

“The prices for coal and oil will certainly grow. Meanwhile, the RES cost price has been on the constant decline, and is expected to go down up to 10 percent yearly up to 2020. We estimate that the solar price will be less than coal’s already starting 2020,” said Kaparov.

For Kazakhstan, this is just a pennant on the way of harnessing the power of nature and muscling its way through it into the club of major global powers.

Read more renewable energy news here.

Lead image: Kazakhstan flag hands via Shutterstock

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