Uzbekistan’s energy sector is sputtering, and blackouts are becoming more common in the Central Asian nation. To help keep popular discontent in check, Islam Karimov, the country’s strongman president, has come up with an ambitious renewable energy program.
Citing Uzbekistan's "significant experience" in developing renewable energy, Karimov in March instructed the country’s research institutions to speed up pilot projects aimed at tapping solar, wind and other renewable resources. For instance, he ordered the establishment of an institute for solar power at the Uzbek Academy of Sciences with the help of "international financial institutions." He also called for the creation of a factory to produce photovoltaic panels.
The factory -- to be operated jointly by the state-run Uzbekenergo power company and a Chinese solar giant, the troubled Suntech Power Holdings – hopes to produce the equivalent of 50 MW of panels by this October, and 100 MW by 2015. Also this autumn, under Karimov’s orders, Uzbekenergo plans to hold a tender to build a $240-million, 100-MW solar power station in the Samarkand Region.
Experts generally laud Karimov’s intentions, but many are skeptical that his plans will be fully implemented. To begin with, the sector will require massive government support, both organizational and financial, as few outside investors are keen to take a chance in notoriously corrupt  Uzbekistan. But it’s not immediately clear where the needed government resources will come from. Moreover, any new producers will need to coordinate power generation patterns with traditional electricity producers that likely look warily on alternatives. Authorities are remaining mum on important details.
Yusup Kamalov, the head of the Renewable Energy Sources Group at the Karakalpak Department of the Uzbek Academy of Sciences, said authorities are “wasting time talking” about developing renewable energy sources and cites bureaucratic inertia for Uzbekistan’s slow start in the sector.
"The government should be honest with itself. It should admit that traditional energy sectors are subsidized. Resources channeled into these subsidies should gradually be directed to the development of renewable energy sources," Kamalov told EurasiaNet.org in an email interview. The president’s March decree mandates a law on renewable energy sources should be drafted during the first half of 2013, but such a bill has not yet been submitted to parliament for debate.
"What’s good about renewable energy [is that] it does not need a lot of money to start," Kamalov added.
Uzbekistan enjoys a climate that is optimal for solar energy. According to estimates by the state-run Center for Economic Research, the country is blessed with 2,410 to 3,090 hours of sunshine annually, depending on the region. By comparison, Germany, the world leader in solar energy, enjoys slightly over 1,700 hours of sunshine on average per year.
Last September, PV [photovoltaic] magazine, an industry newsletter, quoted Muzaffar Mukhiddinov, the head of development at Uzbekenergo, as saying that the company plans to build a number of photovoltaic power plants with a combined generating capacity of 2 GW over the next several years. Uzbekistan’s current installed power generation capacity totals 12.4 GW.
International financial institutions have expressed some interest in supporting Uzbekistan’s renewable energy push. In 2011, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) approved a grant worth roughly $2 million to help get the local solar industry off the ground. How the ADB might get involved in financing Karimov’s broader plan remains unclear. Repeated calls and faxes to Uzbekenergo for comment over the past few weeks did not elicit a response. Repeated attempts to speak with an ADB representative in Tashkent also failed.
Although it remains uncertain who will pay for Uzbekistan’s solar dreams, a Tashkent-based engineer working on renewable energy, who asked to remain anonymous, said Uzbekistan has a responsibility to invest in renewables if it wants to remain competitive in the 21st century. "Despite the high costs of power generation from renewable energy sources … the feasibility of such projects should not be linked to their present economic profitability alone," he told EurasiaNet.org. "Uzbekistan should aim not to lag behind global trends because this may later result in greater economic losses."
Uzbekistan’s traditional energy supplies are already in doubt. Though the country sits on vast hydrocarbon reserves, production of oil and gas condensate in 2012 fell to 3.2 million metric tons. That marks a year-on-year decrease of 11.6 percent compared to 2011 figures. Natural gas production fell modestly by 0.2 percent year-on-year to 62.9 billion cubic meters (bcm). At the same time production has been falling, Tashkent has been increasing its gas exports: media reports suggest exports rose by a quarter to 15 bcm last year, and supplies to Russia and China alone are expected to stand at about 17.5 bcm this year, an increase of 17 percent.
That might help explain why Uzbeks face regular shortages of gas, power and heating  during the winter, and are increasingly turning to coal and even wood or dung.
Renewables may offer Tashkent an opportunity to export more its valuable hydrocarbons by freeing up natural gas currently used to produce electricity for domestic consumption.
In opaque Uzbekistan, it is not surprising that efforts to develop renewable energy resources have sparked a public spat among members of the political elite, who, behind-the-scenes, may be jockeying for position to grab anticipated profits. In March, for example, the president's eldest daughter, Gulnara Karimova, complained on her blog that Deputy Prime Minister Rustam Azimov’s work on the Samarkand solar plant was “far from transparent.” Karimova also blasted the way the government was holding tenders for the clean-energy infrastructure projects to be funded by the Asian Development Bank and the state-run Uzbek Fund for Reconstruction and Development. (Karimova is currently embroiled in corruption and money-laundering investigations in Sweden and Switzerland; some local analysts see her attacks as an attempt to deflect criticism of her own questionable behavior.)
Uzbekistan’s alternative energy plans are nothing if not ambitious. But for Kamalov at the Academy of Sciences they’re still not enough: "The world has moved far ahead while we trail behind by at least 30 years," he said.