Why Renewable Energy in Central Asia Matters

Last winter, several Central Asian countries experienced an unprecedented energy crisis, with severe gas shortages and electricity insecurity. In an attempt to overcome these issues and improve energy efficiency, nations across the region have taken steps to reduce any further vulnerabilities and avoid another crisis.

Within this context, the role of renewable sources in Central Asia is increasingly critical. But to what extent can they truly strengthen the region’s energy system in the short-term, and increase its geopolitical influence in the long-term?

Following a series of energy shortages last month, officials in Kyrgyzstan announced plans to declare an emergency situation in the energy sector as of Aug. 1 until Dec. 31, 2026. According to the country’s authorities, the goal of the urgent measures is to “bring Kyrgyzstan out of the energy crisis associated with climate challenges, low water inflow in the Naryn River basin, and a lack of generating capacity in the face of rapidly outpacing growth in energy consumption.”

The former Soviet Republic is facing a steep challenge, as its historic dependence on energy and electricity imports from neighboring Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan is now proving unable to satisfy rapidly growing domestic demand.  As such, another global energy disruption this winter, which could lead to a reduction of exports from Central Asian producers, and another rapid increase in prices, could put untold pressure on Kyrgyzstan’s dwindling energy supply.

Another problem for Bishkek is that its major electricity suppliers – Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan – have themselves faced power shortages, gas rationing, and disruptions in residential heating just this winter, revealing the entire region’s vulnerability to energy crises. However, despite the perceived weakness of the Central Asian energy system, it seems that Tashkent and Astana are holding on to a trump-card that could dramatically change their distressing energy prospects.

Central Asia possesses a vast renewable energy potential. Uzbekistan is one prime example, as the country has taken full advantage of its resources and established itself as a regional leader in renewable energy. On average, 10-12 percent of the former Soviet republic’s total electricity is generated from renewable energy sources. More importantly, Tashkent plans to build 15 new hydroelectric power plants until 2026, which could help the country increase the energy efficiency of its economy by 20 percent.

Kazakhstan, which currently lags quite far behind Uzbekistan’s impressive progress, has also shown a strong commitment to the development of clean energy, with Astana recently setting an ambitious long-term goal of carbon neutrality by 2060. Most recently, the country has greatly underutilized its extraordinary wind power potential, with only 4.53 percent of its electricity coming from renewable sources in 2022.

The authorities in Kazakhstan now aim to transform the oil-rich nation into a renewable energy hub. This effort is further bolstered by growing support from the public, as recent polls reveal that over 90 percent of Kazakhstan’s population is in favor of the government’s move to renewable energy sources. Building on this growing appetite for clean energy, the country’s top energy officials and companies are expected to attend the ADIPEC 2023 conference in Abu Dhabi, where leading policymakers and energy executives will come together to chart the future of decarbonization.

Besides Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan has also developed an ambitious decarbonization strategy. Even though the former Soviet republic is among the most energy-intensive nations in the world, Bishkek introduced the National Development Strategy in 2018, which laid out a plan to increase the share of renewable energy in the country’s energy mix by 50 percent by 2040. But it is a long-term process. In the meantime, the landlocked Central Asian country of around seven million people will undoubtedly continue struggling to match its growing power demand with the existing supply capacities.

Another challenge for policymakers in Bishkek is that the fact that, for the fossil-fuel rich Central Asian states, Chinese and European markets have priority over their energy cooperation with countries such as Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Reports suggest that Central Asia supplies about one-third of China’s total gas imports, while the European Union aims to increase oil and gas imports from the region. Under such geopolitical circumstances, Bishkek and Dushanbe unlikely have much choice but to attempt to deepen their energy cooperation with the People’s Republic. 

The fact that Beijing shows increasing interest in the development of renewable energy potential of the region indicates that, in the long-term, China might plan to transform Central Asia into a major electricity supplier for its central and eastern provinces, which could be beneficial for hydro-rich energy sectors of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

Given that the EU is also interested in the region’s sustainable energy future, the coming months and years are expected to bring some very interesting both economic and political developments in Central Asia.

[Photo by Ministry of Energy of the Republic of Uzbekistan]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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