Blackout in Central Asia – new questions about modernising the unified energy system
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In the morning of 25th January, three countries in Central Asia linked by the unified energy system – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan – were hit by a mass power outage.

In Tashkent and Bishkek, traffic lights shut down, producing chaos on the roads. Airports closed down, the Tashkent metro stopped working. Water supplies and heating were interrupted in many regions of Uzbekistan, medical facilities closed temporarily in Kyrgyzstan and ventilators shut down. In southern Kazakhstan, mobile telephone links and the Internet were cut.

    The total blackout lasted no more than an hour and a half and by the end of the working day the power supply was almost completely restored. But the incident raised a wave of questions about why power outages can take on such a mass character and what should be done to guard against a recurrence.

    The Central Asian Power System (known as CAPS) was created in the 1970s in Soviet times. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, rich in water resources, would supply Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan in summer with water stored in the reservoirs of hydropower stations and, in exchange, would receive power during periods of winter peak demand from those three Soviet republics. When Turkmenistan (2003) and Uzbekistan (2009) left the system, the unified energy system ceased to exist, only to be resurrected in 2018 at the initiative of Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev.

    “As of today, each of the countries in the region is sticking to its own version of the blackout. In Kazakhstan, a disruption at the Syrdarya thermal power station, in the Uzbek region of the same name,  was identified as the main reason – three of six power units were put out of action,” Sergei Vorobyov, Director of the Fuels and Energy Technology Development Institute and head of its Expert Council, told Global Energy.

    “In Uzbekistan, they blamed the Kazakh electricity grid, which caused surges in the Uzbek grid connected to the region’s unified energy system. It is apparent that establishing the real cause will be difficult without an independent ad full-fledged investigation.”

    Specialists at the Eurasian Development Bank, who prepared the report ‘Investments in Central Asia’s Water and Energy Complex, told Global Energy that the accident was “sadly, one of a series recorded in recent years.

    “The overall worsening of energy safety in the region is to a great extent the result of the gradual loss of functionality of the Central Asia Power System (CAPS), which links the three countries in conditions of growing demand for power, high rates of wear and tear on the generating capacity and grid infrastructure and overloads of the energy system at peak periods in the region,” the specialists said.

    Energy in Central Asia is notable for high levels of wear and tear in the grid complex and generating capacity. The share of generating capacity that is more than 30 years old stands at 44 % to 75 %. Energy-efficient or energy-saving technologies are practically unused – leading to losses of 7 % to 20 % of electricity produced. And the energy systems of the countries operate with imbalances – some regions have surplus energy, while others import energy from neighbouring countries.

    For a variety of reasons, hydropower stations operating in the region since Soviet times are run in an irrational manner, leading to seasonal shortages and unproductive use of water and, as a result, a lack of coordination between peaks in production and consumption. According to data from RusHydro, Russia’s hydropower utility, the annual volume of unfulfilled demand for power in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan stands at about 1.5-3 terawatt hours (TWh) and 4.-4.5 TWh.

    These problems are compounded by the fact that new solutions are needed for the international regulation of water resources – necessary for dealing with disparities in needs for water for irrigation over the course of the year. 

    “Owing to insufficient energy resources of their own, countries with a reliance on hydropower – Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan – have begun to release water from reservoirs during the winter to cover rising demand for energy in this period, leading to breaches of rules in operating hydropower stations and in  calculating their water and energy requirements, a rise in accidents in the energy systems, and lower reliability of energy supply,” the Eurasian Development Bank said. (For more details on the challenges and the architecture of the water and energy complex of Central Asia, please see the EDB report).

    “In the lower reaches of reservoirs in the southern regions of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, apart from the emergence of problems with power supply at peak periods, the problems of shortages of water resources become increasingly acute, as does the level of productivity in agriculture. Given the conditions of disproportionate distribution of generating capacity in Kazakhstan (about 77 % of electricity is produced in the northern zone), southern regions come up against the problem of power shortages. Problems with a shortfall in generating capacity in Kazakhstan became apparent in December 2021 throughout the energy system. The situation deteriorated with an increase in electricity consumption linked to the transfer to Kazakhstan of ‘mining firms’ after China imposed a ban in July 2021 on their activity. In that period, energy supplies urgently provided by Russia meant that the imposition of restrictions in power supplies was avoided,” the EDB said.

    “Uzbekistan, with limited potential in hydropower, also faces the problem of peak loads. Shortages of capacity and of energy in Uzbekistan’s energy system in the autumn-winter maximum load periods, particularly in years when water is in short supply, lead to overloads on the North-South Kazakhstan line, trigger automatic splitting on the North-South Kazakhstan line as well as an unauthorised exclusion of all additional power flows between the energy systems of Kazakhstan and Russia. All these negative factors lead to serious accidents in the energy systems of Central Asia, to the loss of many years of regulatory capability of reservoirs and to an increase in critical water shortages in terms of irrigation, even in years when water is plentiful,” the EDB report said.

   And  problems with energy supplies will only worsen in view of the active increase in demand for energy in all countries of Central Asia.

    “In Kazakhstan, demand is rising because of increases in the numbers of miners. In Uzbekistan, because of accelerated economic growth, owing largely to efforts to attract foreign investors. In 2018,  growth stood at 5.4 %, in 2019, it was 5.8 % and in 2021, it was 6.2 % (In 2020, against the background of the pandemic, growth slowed to 1.6 %). In Kyrgyzstan, the specific nature of environmental conditions favour both construction of hydropower stations and autonomous renewable generation,” Vorobyov said.

    The countries concerned all raise the question of the need to build new generating capacity. 

    Kazakhstan is in discussion with Russian state nuclear power company Rosatom on the construction of a new nuclear power station. Kyrgyzstan wants to resume work on construction projects at the Verkhne-Naryn hydropower station cascade and the Kambarata-1 hydropower plant which originally were to have been bult with RusHydro. Uzbekistan has already started construction of six solar power and three wind power facilities, with a combined capacity of 2.8 gigawatts (GW).

    And EDB specialists believe it is vital to modernise and expand sites already in operation within the framework of the unified energy supply system, particularly hydropower stations in the region.

    “One of the key advantages of hydropower stations is the possibility to use them as a manoeuvred, reserve capacity as station generators can easily be turned on or off, depending on energy needs. Their frequency is easily regulated and they can cover rising peak load while at the same time lowering CO2 emissions. In accordance with EDB calculations, the optimal regime for the Central Asia Power Supply would allow for creation of reserve capacity, a balanced market, reductions in the bringing on stream of 9.4 GW of capacity and, as a result, savings of additional investment in generation of $22.3 billion,” the EDB said.

    “In conditions of a global energy transition, the agreed development of an overall water-energy complex in the region would, in the final analysis, make it more efficient to proceed with the vital modernisation of the energy system of the countries of Central Asia. This modernisation presumes using the potential of modern, available technologies in the water-energy complex, which would contribute to the sustainable development of the region,” the EDB said.

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