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Kyrgyzstan Declares an Energy Emergency and Looks to China for Support

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Crossroads Asia | Environment | Central Asia

Kyrgyzstan Declares an Energy Emergency and Looks to China for Support

As Bishkek announces a three-year energy emergency, newly announced Chinese energy projects provide some hope – but when, and at what cost?

Kyrgyzstan Declares an Energy Emergency and Looks to China for Support
Credit: Depositphotos

On August 1, amid a hot summer and the looming shadow of another winter to come, a decree signed by Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov last week declaring a three-year energy emergency went into effect. 

The government deemed urgent measures necessary to “bring the Kyrgyz Republic 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 outstripping growth in energy consumption.”

In a separate development, Kyrgyz authorities on July 27 signed a memorandum of understanding and an investment agreement with a consortium of Chinese companies to construct a cascade of hydropower plants on the Naryn River. There are few details about the effort, referred to as the Kazarman project, outside of a location (Jalalabad Region), the number of hydropower plants (four), and an estimated cost ($2.4-3 billion). The Chinese companies named as part of the consortium include PowerChina Northwest Engineering Corporation, Green Gold Energy, and China Railway 20 Bureau Group Corporation (CR20G). 

For years, Kyrgyzstan has struggled to maintain adequate energy supplies, particularly during winter, when cold temperatures drive up electricity demand and hydropower production is low. During the summer, Kyrgyzstan’s hydropower facilities are generally capable of covering domestic demand. But in the not-too-distant future, however, that may not be true.

Kyrgyz Energy Minister Taalaybek Ibraev proposed the three-year energy emergency in late July. In a meeting with the Cabinet of Ministers, Ibraev said, “It is necessary to take urgent measures to overcome the crisis.” He said that the electricity shortage in Kyrgyzstan in 2023 would amount to 3 billion kWh; by 2026, he said, it could be as high as 5-6 billion kWh.

Ibraev argued that while the present deficits are covered in the September to December window by imports of electricity from Turkmenistan (via Uzbekistan) and Russia (via Kazakhstan), this is only a temporary solution. 

“Every year, the volume of consumption is growing, there is no generation of new capacities,” he said.

Ibraev said the Energy Ministry needs help with the allocation of land. He said investors are waiting, memorandums have been signed but “there is a problem with the allocation of land.” He noted problems concluding contracts with the Ministry of Agriculture and Department of Water Resources in particular.

The emergency decree instructs the Cabinet of Ministers to “grant the Ministry of Energy of the Kyrgyz Republic the right to determine and allocate land plots suitable for the use of renewable energy sources, with their subsequent transfer to the Green Energy Fund.” It also empowers the Minister of Energy to not just coordinate with counterparts in the Agriculture Ministry, the National Academy of Sciences, and other relevant officials but to “make proposals for the dismissal of the officials specified.”

In essence, it empowers the Energy Minister to clear bureaucratic hurdles in other departments. The decree also calls on the Cabinet of Ministers to “conduct an inventory of land plots suitable for the use of renewable energy sources” and after September 1 terminate the rights to certain land plots intended for the construction of energy facilities that “are not used for their intended purpose or for which work has not begun on the development of a feasibility study, design and construction of energy facilities.” More simply put, if land has been allocated for energy projects but the projects are not happening, the government aims to claw back the land.

There are many facets to Kyrgyzstan’s energy problems, one of which is the impact of climate change which ultimately results in less water melting into Kyrgyzstan’s rivers. Less water in the rivers, in turn, means less in the country’s reservoirs and less with which to generate hydropower.

The hydropower plant at Kyrgyzstan’s Toktogul reservoir generates around 40 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s electricity output. But each year there is less and less water in the reservoir. As reported by RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service in July 2020, the reservoir held approximately 13.7 billion cubic meters (bcm) of water out of a capacity of 19 bcm. A year later it had fallen to 11.3 bcm. In 2022, the level recovered some to around 12.7 bcm. But as of last month that figure had fallen back to 10.68 bcm.

Bruce Pannier recently summarized the risks should the level drop further: “If the reservoir holds less than 6-6.5 bcm, it will be too little to run the turbines and Kyrgyzstan needs the Toktogul hydropower plant to run year-round.”

In announcing the new hydropower cascade project mentioned above, the Kazarman project, Japarov triumphantly said that in the coming years, “we will not only make up for our deficit in electricity production but will confidently reach levels that will allow us to earn hundreds of millions of dollars a year by exporting electricity.”

In light of the energy emergency declared just as the Chinese deal was announced, Japarov’s words seem to be a touch optimistic. Significant projects take time and Kyrgyzstan doesn’t have the money.

The Kazarman project is not a novel idea; over the years there have been a series of proposed hydropower projects along the Naryn River. A major hurdle has always been financing and several previous efforts have proven to be false starts. It’s not clear from what has been announced and reported whether the agreements signed in late July grapple with the very real hurdle of financing, to say nothing of diminishing returns from Kyrgyzstan’s rivers. In any case, present comments suggest that a feasibility study will take most of 2024 and that even if the project breaks ground in the next year, it wouldn’t be operational before 2030.

A solar project in Issyk-Kul, agreed to during Japarov’s state visit to China in tandem with the China-Central Asia summit in May, is scheduled to begin construction next year and be completed in 2025. An executive from CR20G, which is behind the project, claimed in June to the China Daily that once completed the 1,000 megawatt photovoltaic project would provide for 17 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s electricity generation.

In light of the declared energy emergency’s provisions, we can perhaps expect a rapid clip of project announcements. But implementation is what’s important and winter is coming.