Perhaps it’s just officials watching the melting snows of spring and envisioning lights coming on in homes and factories across their countries, but hydropower seems to be a hot topic lately.
Of course, it’s always been a big issue in mountainous Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, where the immense potential of hydropower has barely been tapped and the great need of the two cash-strapped governments for additional energy makes hydropower especially attractive.
But the really big talk about hydropower in recent days is coming from (drum roll please) … Uzbekistan.
That’s right, the country that for years has continually raised objections — and occasionally made some threats — over the construction of large hydropower plants (HPP) in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan has announced it will spend some $4.3 billion on developing hydropower over roughly the next decade.
Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyaev announced at the start of May that Uzbekistan would place a new emphasis on developing renewable energy resources.
At the start of June, Mirziyaev put his signature on the program to develop hydropower energy in Uzbekistan.
The program aims at constructing 18 new HPPs and modernizing 14 existing HPPs by 2021 at a cost of some $2.65 billion.*
Reports in Uzbek media did not provide many details about the size of the HPPs (mini, small, medium, or large) or their location, though there was least one hint from a trip Mirziyaev made to the southern Syrdarya Province in May when he said a new 15 MW small HPP would be built there.
Reports on the long-term hydroenergy program also mentioned there were other hydropower projects to be realized by 2030 that would cost an additional $1.7 billion.
According to Uzbekistan’s program, once all these hydropower projects are completed, hydropower will account for 15.8 percent of the country’s energy balance. (It currently accounts for 12.7 percent.)
Before we move on, that’s $2.65 billion and $1.7 billion, or $4.35 billion in total, for Uzbekistan’s hydroenergy development program.
Remember that number: $4.35 billion. It will be important further down.
Tajikistan is speeding ahead with construction of the Roghun HPP, a massive structure that when finished will generate some 3,600 MW and should make the country not only totally energy independent but allow it to export electricity.
There is need for haste.
Former Uzbek President Islam Karimov, whose death was announced on September 2, was a fierce opponent of construction of the Roghun HPP and the Kambar-Ata-1 HPP in Kyrgyzstan.
Mirziyaev’s government has not elucidated its policy toward these large HPPs and, in the absence of a clear Uzbek position on Roghun, Tajikistan moved ahead. Already on October 29, it had blocked part of the Vakhsh River so construction of the Roghun HPP could begin in earnest.
On May 25, Bahodur Akramzoda, deputy chairman of the Majlisi Namoyandagon’s committee for economics and the budget, said it is possible that three of the planned six units of the Roghun project could be launched before the end of 2018.
The Italian company Salini Impregilo signed a deal with Tajikistan to finish the Roghun HPP in July 2016. (Construction was started in 1976 when Tajikistan was a Soviet republic but had progressed little by the time the U.S.S.R. disintegrated in 1991 when all work effectively stopped.)
Mirziyaev has not commented directly on Roghun, but as RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service, known locally as Azattyq, noted in a recent report, then-Uzbek Prime Minister Mirziyaev responded back in July 2016 to a Tajik deal with Salini Impregilo by sending a note to the Tajiks expressing dissatisfaction with the plan and saying Tajikistan could solve its energy problems without the Roghun HPP.
On June 1, media outlets quoted Boriy Alihanov, the deputy speaker of Uzbekistan’s Oliy Majlis, the lower house of parliament, as saying Uzbekistan was for rational and fair use of transborder water sources.
“This also concerns Roghun,” Alihanov said, which really doesn’t clarify Uzbekistan’s position on the HPP.
And for the record, work has been under way for weeks on repairing and modernizing Tajikistan’s Nurek HPP that currently provides some 70 percent of the country’s electricity.
The World Bank provided a loan of $225.7 million for the project with other money coming from the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and Eurasian Development Bank.
Kyrgyzstan seems to have given up on the Kambar-Ata-1 HPP for now. The HPP would provide an additional 1,900 MW of electricity but without any foreign investors at present, the estimated $3 billion cost is prohibitively high for Kyrgyzstan.
Instead, Kyrgyzstan is devoting its attention firstly to overhauling the Toktogul HPP, which provides about 40 percent of the country’s electricity.
On May 13, Prime Minister Sooronbay Jeenbekov attended the launch of a project for the reconstruction and modernization of the Toktogul HPP. When completed, it will add 240 MW to the HPP’s electricity output and will cost some $120 million.
The work at Toktogul is badly needed as three of the four turbines at the HPP went out of commission in December 2015, temporarily causing electricity shortages to parts of the country.
In mid-May, the government also announced a tender for construction of 14 small HPPs. The HPPs would have capacities of between 3 to 20 MW and would be located, mainly, in remote and mountainous areas of the country.
Duishenbek Zilaliev, the chairman of the State Committee for Industry, Energy, and Resource Management, pointed out in a recent interview that such HPPs are especially valuable to mountain communities that could find themselves temporarily cut off from the rest of Kyrgyzstan by avalanches and landslides.
There are doubts after the problems with the Kambar-Ata-1 HPP that Kyrgyzstan would be able to attract investors.
But the small HPPs are relatively inexpensive, and on June 15 at least one news source said there were already six companies interested in the projects, though only one was a foreign company.
Kazakhstan has not announced any plans for new HPPs recently, but Astana is hosting an event called EXPO-2017 that is focused on renewable, or green power sources, including hydropower.
Now back to the $4.35 billion Uzbekistan is spending on its hydroenergy program.
As mentioned, construction of Kambar-Ata-1 is estimated to cost some $3 billion and Roghun is estimated to cost some $3.9 billion.
The money Uzbekistan is spending on domestic HPPs is more than enough to build either Kambar-Ata- or Roghun, but Tashkent has not mentioned any plans to take part in the neighbors’ HPPs, though both countries have invited Uzbekistan to do so several times.
* Financing of this $2.65 billion is interesting in that it reflects the current general interest in foreign/international investment in Central Asia. Uzbek financial institutions are responsible for coming up with most of the money, but $572.8 million will come as loans and credits from the China Eximbank, $181.1 million from the Islamic Development Bank, $77.3 million from the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and $98.4 million from the Asian Development Bank.