A high voltage power line inaugurated in Kyrgyzstan has sparked talk of a bold era of energy independence, but the reality suggests more circumspection would be fitting.
The start to operations on the Datka-Kemin line was overseen by President Almazbek Atambayev, who was effusive in his praise for the achievement.
“We are witnessing a historic event. Kyrgyzstan has secured energy independence,” he said. “We had to ask our neighbors for transit. Now, nobody will turn off our power.”
The transmission route was needed to remedy a legacy of the Soviet Union, under which the Central Asian republics were linked by power grids and readily coordinated their respective needs. As a result, electricity to Kyrgyzstan’s south passed through Uzbekistan, while northern regions were supplied through lines in Kazakhstan.
Atambayev said Datka-Kemin will not only liberate his country from dependence on neighbors, but will also free it of onerous transit fees.
“For the transit of our own electricity from one region to another region of the country through the territory of a neighboring nation, we spent millions of dollars annually,” he said.
Kyrgyzstan had limited finances to undertake the transmission line project itself, so it secured a $390 million loan from the Export-Import Bank of China to build the 405-kilometer line and the Kemin electricity substation.
The work was completed by Chinese company Tebian Electric Apparatus (TBEA) over a three-year period.
The agreement had its critics, like nationalist member of parliament with Ata-Jurt party, Ahmatbek Keldibekov.
“There is no doubt that this project is indispensable. But since we are taking out credits, there should be a tender. China is giving credits at 2 percent per annum and then obliging us to use its subcontractor,” he was quoted as saying by Vecherny Bishkek newspaper. “We need to bring in other foreign companies to the tender and choose the one that offers the best price.”
Those misgivings have been largely muted, however, and at the power line inauguration, Atambayev was unbridled in his optimism.
“If need be, we will not only provide for our own power needs, but we will also export it at high prices,” he said.
In actual fact, Kyrgyzstan is struggling to keep up with even internal demand. Electricity needs increase by around 4-6 percent annually, while output has remained flat. Existing productive assets and the distribution lines that get electricity to households are in dire need of renovation.
Annual deficits of around 2.4 billion kilowatt hours, caused in part by low water levels at the Toktogul water reservoirs, have required Kyrgyzstan to turn to Kazakhstan and Tajikistan for supplies. In 2014, Atambayev closed a deal for Kazakhstan to provide 1.4 billion kilowatt hours per year. In June this year, Kyrgyzstan also agreed to buy 500 million kilowatt hours from Tajikistan over the June-September period.
Atambayev in early August pleaded with visiting Turkmen leader Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov for supplies of cheap electricity.
Hardly the portrait of an energy-independent nation.
All the while, household tariffs are on the rise — a policy that has been endorsed by international advisers critical at over-subsidization of the sector.
A few solutions to the electricity shortfalls have long been considered.
One prospect is a proposed coal-based thermal power plant that would source fuel from the Kara-Kechin mine.
But hydropower is still considered the main way forward.
In 2013, with support from Russia’s state-owned RusHydro, Kyrgyzstan began building the $727-million Upper Naryn Cascade of four hydropower dams with a capacity of 240 megawatts. The project is supposed to be finished by 2019, though the first station will come online in 2016, RusHydro has said. RusHydro will receive 75 percent of profits until the project breaks even, and then will split proceeds 50-50 with the Kyrgyz state.
The government is also looking at the potential for developing mini-hydropower plants.
Energy and Industry Minister Batyrkul Baetov said during discussions on the issue in February that government had developed a program to boost the share of small hydropower plants in the total mix to 5 percent by 2025.
"We have 242 rivers. Given the projections that by 2030 glaciers will diminish, the role of small and medium energy will grow many times,” Baetov said in remarks quoted in a UNDP press release.
The only other energy-related project making headway in Kyrgyzstan is the modernization of the Bishkek heating and power plant, which is being done with $386 million in Chinese loans and by TBEA. Works there envision uninstalling four aging turbogenerators — out of the existing total of 11 — and putting two replacements in their place.
All promising no doubt, but muted optimism might be more suitable than the triumphalism voiced by Atambayev.