A fatal accident at a power plant in northern Kazakhstan has added to growing concerns the national energy system is falling apart.
On March 20 a smokestack collapsed at a power plant in the city of Petropavl, with the debris falling onto a boiler room.
The body of Nataliya Chefonova, a 37-year-old employee, was discovered underneath rubble two days later.
The accident, which emergency services attributed to strong winds, left residential homes and government buildings in the surrounding region without proper heating overnight.
Like many of the power plants responsible for providing heat and electricity to cities throughout the former Soviet Union, Petropavl TETs-2 is more than half a century old.
Last December the same plant witnessed another fatal accident when an operational failure put two boilers out of action and left a male employee with burns all over his body.
The man was taken to a hospital over the border in Omsk, Russia, where doctors were unable to save him.
The sorry state of Kazakhstan’s energy infrastructure was highlighted by a regional power failure in January that affected cities across the country as well as neighboring Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, which are plugged into the same Soviet-legacy Central Asia Power System.
Although Kazakhstan did not officially acknowledge its role as initiator of the accident, its state grid operator admitted that surging demand in the energy-poor south of the country was putting strain on transmission infrastructure connecting its northern and southern grids.
Uzbekistan’s energy ministry made no bones about the fact that it believed the chain reaction which left millions in the region without electricity for hours began in Kazakhstan, where officials increasingly blame over-consumption on a boom in cryptocurrency mining.
Nur-Sultan has in recent years been touting itself as a destination for renewable energy investment.
President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said he wants renewables to contribute 15 percent of the national energy mix by 2030.
But even if that lofty goal were achieved – they currently account for less than 5 percent – most of the population will still depend on aging, coal-powered power stations for its energy needs.
Tokayev said during a government meeting last year that up to 50 percent of the equipment in such plants was overdue for replacement, while the number of operational failures at power plants rose 11 percent between 2019 and 2020.
“There is a need for a large-scale technical audit of energy sources,” Tokayev said during the May 2021 meeting. “We must clearly understand when the launch or disposal of power facilities, their repair and modernization, will take place.”
Tokayev used that meeting to criticize officials for putting off a long-planned modernization of a power station in the smog-suffering financial capital, Almaty, which will see the facility switch from coal to gas.
Complicating attempts to overhaul some of the old power stations is the fact that they are now controlled by wealthy businessmen or major industrial concerns, who purchased them from the state during the opaque privatizations that followed independence in 1991.
Petropavl TETs-2 is controlled by Central Asian Electric Power Corporation, a firm co-owned by industrial and financial magnates Aleksandr Klebanov and Sergei Kan.
Klebanov was at the plant fielding questions from journalists the day after the accident. He claimed that the smokestack that tumbled had not displayed any problems during checks, and was slated for repair next year.
These types of accidents tend to be pinned on people lower down the hierarchy.
Petropavl TETs-2’s director and the power station’s chief engineer have both been jailed as part of a criminal investigation into negligence announced by prosecutors on March 22.
Petropavl is an overwhelmingly ethnic-Russian city and the provincial capital of the northern Kazakhstan region. The husband of the late power plant employee Chefonova also works at the plant.
Sevkazenergo, the daughter company of CAEPC, said in a statement on March 22 that the company would cover the costs of her funeral, five years of her salary and school education for the couple’s only child.
Artyem Sochnev is a writer based in Stepnogorsk, Kazakhstan.