Central Asia is Resurrecting Its Common Energy Supply System

28.07.2018 Author: Dmitry Bokarev

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The Central Asian (CA) nations of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, all have quite a number of socioeconomic issues. Still, they do possess substantial resources, whose rational use may help them start developing rapidly, especially if they combine their efforts.

The economy of any modern nation depends on its electric power industry, without which industrial and socioeconomic growth is impossible. Hence, the energy supply issue faced by the Central Asian nations, who constantly experience energy shortages, will need to resolved first. Building new power stations is an evident necessity for these countries, but this demands financial investment and time. Another way of improving the situation is to rationally distribute electricity that is already generated.

It is common knowledge that electricity use changes according to seasons. Hence, in cold winter months, substantially more power is required for heating and lighting purposes, whereas in summer electricity use falls resulting in surplus energy, which could be wasted. The best solution to this problem is to redirect this electricity to another region experiencing energy shortages. This will not only bring in profits, but also help conserve natural resources used to generate electricity.

Central Asia already has infrastructure for establishing a common energy supply system, which could help distribute surplus electricity to regions experiencing power shortages. This existing framework is the remaining part of the common electricity grid that supplied power to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan at a time when these now sovereign nations were republics in the USSR. The system, called the Central Asian Energy Ring (CAER), was founded on the principles of rationally distributing regional water resources. Water from large rivers was used to generate electricity at hydroelectric power stations and to irrigate agricultural lands. Thanks to the CAER, all five republics did not face any serious shortages in energy or in water for farming needs during the year.

After the fall of the USSR, the CAER continued to function and even develop. However, disagreements among the Central Asian nations, which were no longer a part of one state, and were forced to manage their economies independently, as well as earn a living, eventually led to a gradual destruction of the existing system. CAER was no longer financed by a single entity. Power stations and water reservoirs were now in the territories of five separate nations, this forced them to try to create a fair settlement system to pay for resources and services provided. These newly established nations failed at this task, as each country attempted to receive a maximum amount of electricity.

Difficult political relations among these Central Asian countries also played a role in the eventual failure of the CAER. For instance, since the 1990s, immediately after Tajikistan and Uzbekistan had declared their independence, these nations became embroiled in territorial disputes. Another cause of conflict became water resources. In Soviet times, Uzbekistan experienced water shortages and received its share from Tajikistan. On becoming a sovereign nation, Tajikistan began building the Rogun hydroelectric power plant on the river Vakhsh, which could potentially limit water supplies to Uzbekistan. As a result of the disputes between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, a “cold war” began that led to the closure of the Uzbekistan–Tajikistan border, disruption of direct transportation links, and introduction of travel restrictions in a form of visa requirements. In 2009, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan announced that their mutual power supplies would stop. This came as a serious blow to Tajikistan’s electric power industry, as the nation exported surplus energy in summer and suffered from power shortages in winter.  In order to generate more electricity in winter, Tajikistan directed all its available water resources to its hydroelectric power stations by increasing reserves with water from its reservoirs. This, in turn, had an adverse effect on Uzbekistan’s economy causing flooding in some of its regions. By the beginning of summer, Tajik water reserves had been drained thus causing droughts in certain farming regions of Uzbekistan.

In addition, in 2009 Kazakhstan announced its desire to disconnect from the common grid accusing Uzbekistan of stealing electricity supplies. Kyrgyzstan also ended up in a difficult position, as it depended on Uzbek and Kazakh power supplies to a substantial degree. Turkmenistan abandoned CAER as far back as 2003. Hence, the Central Asian region, which was already experiencing economic problems, now faced the threat of a massive energy crisis.

After the CAER stopped operating, all the former member states of this project began building new power stations in order to meet their own energy needs independently of their neighbors. Hence, in 2009 Uzbekistan’s transmission line Guzar-Surhan came online. It enabled the nation to complete its own “energy ring” and also manage without energy supplies from Tajikistan. In 2012, Kyrgyzstan, in its desire to stop depending on Uzbek and Kazakh electricity supplies, began building the Datka and Kemin sub-stations. The Datka-Kemin transmission line became operational in 2015. Tajikistan, in turn, strengthened its construction efforts to complete the Rogun hydroelectric power station, which is expected to come online in 2018.

Despite independently increasing their power generation capacities, many spheres of these Central Asian economies are still experiencing energy shortages. Eventually, the leaders of these sovereign Central Asian nations understood that a common energy supply system needed to be resurrected, as it will allow them to trade their surplus power supplies. In 2014, negotiations on resurrecting the CAER linking Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan began. However, it was not possible to bring the former system back without Uzbekistan’s participation. At the end of 2016 there was a real breakthrough in this situation, when Shavkat Mirziyoyev became the President of Uzbekistan and began rebuilding relations with Tajikistan. Air travel between the two nations resumed and visa requirements were cancelled. Simultaneously, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan began negotiating actively on joining their energy supply systems.

In May 2017, Energy Ministers from the Central Asian nations met in Dushanbe and discussed, among other things, the possibility of resurrecting the CAER. The idea that, on agreement of all the parties involved, the system can become operation in 2 years’ time was expressed during the meeting.

By August 2017, some progress on reconnecting Tajikistan’s and Uzbekistan’s electricity grids was made. According to Tajikistan’s Minister of Energy Usmonali Uzmonzoda, his nation has sufficient resources to supply electricity to Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. The electricity grids, required for these purposes, have not been used for a number of years, but they are still in working order.

In March 2018, the Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev visited Tajikistan, where an agreement on mutual electricity supply was signed.

In April 2018, the transmission line Regar-Gulcha came online and connected the energy grids of the two countries. After a 9-year hiatus, Tajikistan once again began supplying power to Uzbekistan, which became an important stepping stone in CAER’s resurrection.

In order not to relive through the unfortunate events of the past years, the five Central Asian nations clearly need to resolve a multitude of complex issues. They still need to eliminate any incompatibilities between their energy supply systems, agree on tariff policies, resolve the issue of whether water resources are tradeable items or common resources, etc. Nonetheless, these Central Asian nations have clearly demonstrated interest in this project, which has already yielded some results.

Dmitry Bokarev, political observer, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”