Energy-rich Azerbaijan is embracing the international green movement, with officials in Baku promising substantial investment in renewable energy sources, including wind and solar energy. Some experts suggest that by going green at home, Baku is trying to conserve hydrocarbons for export.Azerbaijan would seem at first glance an unlikely candidate to become a green leader. The economy depends on energy exports, and oil rigs dot the horizon in many parts of the country. Organized recycling centers are nonexistent, and cars emit massive doses of toxic emissions on the traffic-packed streets of Baku.
In 2008, Forbes Magazine gave Baku the dubious distinction of being the world's dirtiest city. "Fetid water, oil ponds and life-threatening levels of air pollution emitted from drilling and shipping" contributed to the ranking, the report noted.
That may start to change, if government plans for green energy are implemented.
In late September, Energy Minister Natig Aliyev announced that developing alternative energy sources will become a government priority. "We intend to use wind and solar power, as well as power of small rivers in under-populated areas of Azerbaijan because it is difficult to build high-tension transmission lines there," Trend News reported Aliyev (no relation to President Ilham Aliyev) as saying.
Several projects are already underway. On the highway leading from Baku across the Absheron peninsula to northeastern Azerbaijan, a consortium of three companies is constructing a 48-megawatt wind power plant. The project is expected to be completed by the summer of 2010.
The Caspian Sea peninsula "is a perfect spot for wind energy," said Stefan Simon, the managing director of ALPHA New Technology Services, a Berlin-based company working on the wind project. Wind speeds average 8 meters per second, well above wind turbines' minimum requirement of 4-5 meters per second. Top speeds can reach as high as 40 meters per second, according to climate data from the European Union-sponsored CASPINFO service.
Azerbaijani government officials "realize they have a lot of resources in the wind," in Simon's words. If Azerbaijan produces more alternative energy, it can "sell more gas and petrol to foreign countries and get a better profit," he added.
But experts caution that many hurdles remain before Azerbaijan can fully develop an alternative-energy industry. "Before large-scale investment is feasible you must have the proper legal regime," said Michael Nosiadek, a member of the managing board of the Baku-based German-Azerbaijani Economic Foundation (DAWF), which works to encourage Azerbaijan's interest in wind power.
Currently, the Azerbaijani legal code does not provide clear mechanisms for financing large-scale energy projects. Further, the Azerbaijani parliament must adopt "definitions on the use of land for installation so that wind energy companies can devise a strategy for logical construction and implementation," Nosiadek explained. Without such a regime, energy cannot efficiently be transferred from the wind turbines into the electrical grids.
In addition to legal questions, practical challenges remain. Many Azerbaijani energy consumers still expect to obtain energy essentially for free -- a legacy of the Soviet period. Transitioning to a pay-for-power system is vital to making wind power profitable and, therefore, attractive to potential investors. In addition, all infrastructure for the wind-energy generators must be imported, which is "difficult and expensive," said Nosiadek.
The development of alterative energy sources in Azerbaijan could help ease pollution in many areas. Even so, the green movement so far in Azerbaijan is a top-down phenomenon. There is little grassroots pressure to clean up the air. Scores of local NGOs exist -- at least on paper -- but among the general population few people are actively involved in the green movement.
"People in Azerbaijan have very limited information about [the] environment," said Islam Mustafayev, the director of the Baku-based Rzgyar Environmental Society. Mustafayev hopes to see that change. Starting this fall, his organization will undertake a public awareness campaign to promote alternative sources of energy.
Representatives of the NGO will travel to four regions in Azerbaijan to hold educational seminars and discussions about the advantages of alternative energy.
"We have all the conditions to develop wind and solar energy," Mustafayev commented. Unfortunately, he added, there has not been a strong emphasis on developing such technology. "People need to know how we damage the environment by relying so heavily on oil and gas," he explained.
International organizations and the Azerbaijani government are also pushing to make clean energy a subject of popular discourse. In mid-October, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe will host a two-day conference in cooperation with Azerbaijan's Ministry of Energy to promote green energy in Azerbaijan. Industry experts will hold sessions on renewable resources including wind, solar and hydropower.
"Education and knowledge are key," said DAWF's Nosiadek. Not only can education "develop this special sector in the right direction," he noted, it can also create new jobs and a cleaner environment.
Jessica Powley Hayden is a freelance reporter based in Baku.