Central Asia's electricity system falls apart

By bne IntelliNews November 25, 2009

Clare Nuttall in Almaty -

Four of the five Central Asian countries have muddled along with an often unsatisfactory, yet workable, shared electricity system that was devised after the break-up of the Soviet Union. This year, however, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have finally been provoked into announcing their withdrawal from the shared grid.

Kazakh Minister of Energy and Mineral Resources Duisenbai Turganov told journalists on November 3 that the country would be withdrawing from the Central Asian Interconnected Power System (IPS). The decision followed recommendations from Kegoc, which operates Kazakhstan's domestic electricity grid.

Kegoc reported a significant deviation in net power flow between Kazakhstan's electricity system and the Central Asian IPS since the beginning of October, due to the unbalanced operation of the Tajik electric power system. Total unauthorised net power flow of over 100m kilowatts hours (kWh) was recorded between October 1 and October 28.

Uzbekistan had already notified fellow members of the common grid of its intention to quit in early October. Two days after Turganov's announcement, a senior official from Uzbekistan's state energy company, Uzbekenergo, outlined Uzbekistan's problems with the system and explained its intention to withdraw from the grid. In an article published in Uzbekistan's Pravda Vostok, Esso Sadullayev, head of Uzbekenergo's dispatch centre, criticised members of the common system, who "attempt to meet only their own selfish interests, while not taking into account the negative effects they cause to others." The current situation, "is a real threat to the stability and safe operation of Uzbekistan's power system," Sadullayev wrote.


The unified system was adopted as a way of managing the interlinked energy systems that the five newly independent Central Asian republics inherited from the Soviet system. Turkmenistan was the first to withdraw from the unified system, resigning in 2003.

In the Soviet era, Central Asia's upstream countries - Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan - supplied surplus electricity from their hydropower plants to the three downstream countries in summer, in exchange for deliveries of gas and thermally-generated electricity in winter. Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, the lack of long-term agreements between the Central Asian countries on water-sharing and deliveries of electricity and gas has caused frequent disputes between the five republics.

Uzbekistan has taken an increasingly tough stance on the issue, periodically cutting off gas supplies to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan over unpaid bills. Tashkent has also opposed the construction of additional hydropower plants in the upstream countries over fears this will reduce water available for irrigation.

Uzbekistan is now planning a major expansion of its domestic electricity infrastructure. It plans to raise $3.5bn between 2009 and 2014 to finance the sector's development and increase capacity by around 2,700 megawatts, Uzbekenergo CEO Batyr Teshabayev told Interfax. Investments in new transmission lines and transformer capacity are also planned.

Kazakhstan has already made considerable improvements in its domestic electricity generation and transmission capacity, thereby reducing its dependence on energy imports. The country's main problem has been that most of its generating resources are concentrated around the coalfields in the north of the country, while the populous southern regions have needed to import from Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. A new power line that opened in September goes a long way towards solving the problem, by doubling the volume of electricity delivered to central and southern Kazakhstan. The line was built in two projects, with funding from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), the Kazakhstan Development Bank and the World Bank. "The improvement in the power supply should be noticeable this year. Before the link was built, the Almaty region was on the brink of experiencing a major power shortage, which could have been disastrous during the bitterly cold winter season," said EBRD operation leader Aida Sitdikova when the line was opened.

As of October 25, only two regions of Kazakhstan - South Kazakhstan oblast and Zhambyl oblast - are still operating in parallel with the Central Asian system. Kazakhstan has also promised to continue providing electricity to its neighbour Kyrgyzstan throughout the 2009-10 winter, under an agreement reached during Kazakh Prime Minister Karim Massimov's recent visit to Bishkek. Kazakhstan will also supply coal and fuel oil to Kyrgyzstan.

However, Tajikistan is already in trouble. Most of the country was plunged into darkness November 9 after an accident on the Norak-Regar transmission line. "For several days, Tajikistan's power system has been operating autonomously, out of the Central Asian power grid, and therefore the accident caused an electricity blackout practically across the whole country," Nozirjon Yodgori, a spokesman for state power company Barki Tojik, told journalists.

Overall, Tajikistan faces a power deficit of around 2.6bn kWh this winter, Asia-Plus quotes Barki Tojik as saying. While the country has considerable hydropower resources, it relies on imports of electricity and gas in winter. Imports of electricity from Turkmenistan were due to start November 1, but an agreement on transmission of the electricity via Uzbekistan's grid still has not been reached.

Since the record cold of the 2007-08 winter, Tajikistan has made considerable efforts to improve the situation. It has invested into new hydropower generation capacity, and is also working with several international financial institutions to increase efficiency. "Barki Tojik has improved its management of resources since the cold winter of 2007-08, and has taken steps to ensure it can supply electricity in winter and spring," Chiara Bronchi, head of the World Bank in Tajikistan, tells bne.

Barki Tojik has said that Dushanbe will be spared electricity rationing this year allowing the capital's businesses to operate as normal. However, rationing, limiting rural areas to just seven hours of electricity a day, came into effect November 10.

Unless the current situation can be resolved, both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are set to develop their domestic systems independently. For now at least, Kyrgyzstan is assured of support from Kazakhstan thanks to the two countries' friendly relations. Tajikistan, though, has been left in the cold.

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