Uzbekistan, the doubly landlocked Central Asian nation which is a major exporter to China, Russia, and other neighbors, is doing well this year. It is reporting growth over last year. Nonetheless, it is hampered by poor infrastructure; and it is doing something about that.
It also is in a race against time to save itself from the environmental indifference of the past — abuse which has left its air, its water, and its soil in pitiable condition. It is doing something about that, too.
Job No. 1 for Uzbekistan is environmental restoration and protection. It is starting that job by switching the electric system from fossil fuel to nuclear, solar and wind.
In a bold initiative, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev is out to transform the electric system from a creaky, fossil-fueled relic of Soviet-era engineering to one heading for a green future, emphasizing solar. The initiative – formally titled “The Strategy for the Transition to a Green Economy for 2019-2030” – anticipates a sharp reduction in the country’s reliance on gas-fired power generation from the current 83 percent to 50 percent, and sets goals for new nuclear, solar and wind power production of 15 percent, 8 percent, and 7 percent, respectively.
According to Mirziyoyev, this strategy will eliminate hundreds of thousands of tons of greenhouse gas emissions.
Uzbekistan has an extraordinary solar resource with over 320 days of sunshine a year and temperatures which rise to over 100 degrees Fahrenheit in summer, but which fall to below freezing in winter, though still with clear skies. It is a very dry country with rainfall of just 16.7 inches a year; clouds are few and very far between.
Wind Resource Abundant
Its wind resource is abundant in the mountainous regions and in some more level areas, there is sufficient wind for wind farms.
Uzbekistan aims to have 7 gigawatts of solar and 5 GW of wind installed by 2030: an ambitious, exciting reinvention of an electric system in a poor country. The country’s 2026 goal is to increase the total capacity of solar and wind to 8,000 megawatts.
“What they are doing to save the environment and remake the electric system is breakneck and inspiring,” a consultant, who recently toured Uzbekistan, told me. “
In August, the foreign ministers of five Central Asian countries met in Washington with John Kerry, President Biden’s special envoy on climate change, to discuss issues of shared concern, including the climate crisis. At the C5+1 meeting, Uzbekistan committed to reaching a renewable energy target of 25 percent by 2030.
Uzbekistan has been hobbled by its dilapidated energy infrastructure. It wastes much of its oil and gas running the electric system, which takes nearly twice as much fuel to deliver a kilowatt hour as it should. Worse, perhaps, is the extensive district heating system; line losses throughout it are heavier than they should be by normal standards of transmission efficiency.
No more. Mirziyoyev has placed electricity front and center in his plan to lift Uzbekistan out of poverty to plenty.
In August, he was on hand for the country’s first step into the sun-shiny future: the launch of the 100 MW Nur Navoi solar plant. The government expects the plant will power about 31,000 households and prevent 176,370 tons of carbon dioxide emissions from entering the atmosphere annually.
“In the next five years, we plan to increase our economy’s growth rate, and bring GDP to at least $100 billion,” Mirziyoyev said at the Nur Navoi launch. It stands at a meager $57 billion at present. He hopes for rapid industrialization through foreign investment.
The Nur Navoi plant is being built in conjunction with Masdar, a global vendor of alternative energy systems. The Abu Dhabi-based company is providing the engineering expertise and financing and will own and operate the plant for the first 25 years. The 1.6 cent-1.8 cent/kWh cost is among the least expensive in the world.
Build, Own, Operate
Build, own and operate is the pattern that the Uzbek government would like to employ going forward for many infrastructural projects. For electricity, it is guaranteeing power purchase agreements for the length of the initial contract.
At the plant launch in August, Energy Minister Alisher Sultanov said his country is working with the international finance community to open up the power sector to private investment. The goal, he said, is 25 percent renewables by the end of the decade.
While Nur Navoi is the first Masdar project to begin operations, Uzbekistan is collaborating with the company on various other solar and wind projects – a total of 19 renewables projects, worth $6.5 billion, including:
· Two photovoltaic projects for 440 MW combined capacity, located in the Samarkand and Jizzakh regions, and expected to start in the first quarter of 2023
· A 457 MW photovoltaic solar power plant in the Sherabad district of Surkhandarya province
· A 500 MW wind farm in the Zarafshan district of the Navoi region
Two other countries’ energy companies are entering the promising Uzbek renewables market. In May, Saudi Arabia’s ACWA Power signed an agreement with Uzbekistan to develop, build and operate a 1,500 MW wind farm in Karakalpakstan. Once it comes online, it will become the largest wind farm in Central Asia, and one of the largest in the world.
France’s Total Eren plans to build a 100 MW solar farm in Uzbekistan with financing of about $102 million from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the European Investment Bank, and Proparco.
Ambitiously next year, Uzbekistan plans to build five solar power plants – in the Khorezm, Bukhara, Kaskadarya, Namangan, and Fergana regions — with a total capacity of 900 MW. In the 2022-24 timeframe, it plans to build 10 solar and wind power plants with a total capacity of 3,000 MW, financed with $3 billion in foreign direct investment.
Last month, Mirziyoyev ordered the creation of a special renewable energy training center in Navoi, and the upgrading of universities’ curricula to prepare engineers and workers to operate the new power plants.
Other countries — Vietnam and Ireland come to mind — have gone from poverty to plenty in short order. Uzbekistan has an additional challenge: its deteriorated environment. However, with the sun shining and the wind blowing, it may have a good start.