- - Friday, January 27, 2012

BISHKEK, KyrgyzstanKyrgyzstan’s Soviet-era electrical system has been pushed beyond its limits in recent weeks, as temperatures in this Central Asian nation have hit record lows of minus-13 degrees Fahrenheit.

Officials have blamed the administration of former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who was overthrown in April 2010, for failing to update the infrastructure.

The energy crisis is having more than a chilling effect on citizens. Bishkek residents took to the streets on New Year’s Eve to protest repeated power failures.

“It feels like a holiday when we have electricity at home,” says Japar, a 37-year-old mechanic who declined to give his last name. “Blackouts are happening very often this winter, and it has become normal.

“It is good that we heat our house with coal, but what about those with electrical heating systems? These people can die in such cold weather.”

Meanwhile, the head of northern Kyrgyzstan’s biggest energy distributor, SeverElectro, has resigned.

At a news conference Tuesday in Bishkek, Avtandil Kalmanbetov, deputy minister of energy and industry, said electricity consumption has increased by nearly 50 over the past 10 to 15 years, and at least half of the 22 substations that supply electricity to the capital are overloaded.

“The electricity distribution networks cannot cope,” Mr. Kalmanbetov said, adding that Bishkek has about 40 power failures a day because of increased consumption.

SeverElectro announced Wednesday that it is scheduling temporary power cuts to some of the capital’s neighborhoods for a few hours each day to protect substations from overload.

Karypbek Alymkulov, board chairman for Electricity Stations, which controls the Toktogol hydropower plant in southern Kyrgyzstan, says that rapid urban expansion, particularly in Bishkek, has been a major factor for increased energy consumption.

He added that increased demand has pushed up the price of coal. This has forced many consumers who had relied on coal heat to switch to electrical heating systems, further straining substations and power transmission lines.

Last year, 8,500 tons of coal imported from Kazakhstan for Bishkek’s thermoelectric plant was found to be radioactive. Mr. Alymkulov said the scandal also might have pushed people to move away from coal heating.

Still, many argue that the real reasons for Kyrgyzstan’s energy crisis have less to do with worn-out infrastructure and rising coal prices than the nation’s dependence on neighboring countries.

“It is all due to [the] unified electricity supply system of Central Asia that was created during the Soviet era in a shape of a ring,” says Rasul Umbetaliev, an independent fuel and energy systems analyst in Bishkek.

Kyrgyzstan is most dependent on the energy ring: It has no transmission lines to supply power from Central Asia’s largest hydroelectric plant at Toktogul in the south of the country to northern areas. The north is cut off by the Pamir and Tyan Shan mountain ranges, which bisect the country from east to west.

“Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan eventually left the energy ring,” Mr. Umbetaliev says. “Three other countries - Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan - are still using this system.

“In order to get electricity from Toktogul to northern regions, Kyrgyzstan has to use electricity lines in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan that are part of the energy ring.”

With cold winter challenging its energy system, Kazakhstan has twice announced its decision to leave the energy ring, accusing Uzbekistan of illegally siphoning off electrical power.

The Kyrgyz government withdrew its threats last week after a trilateral meeting of energy-ring countries in the Kazakh capital of Astana.

Still, the Kyrgyz Ministry of Energy and Industry reported Thursday that Kazakhstan’s government is again threatening to leave the ring, and that negotiations are ongoing.

Analysts say that Kyrgyzstan cannot count on the continuing participation of its oil- and gas-rich neighbors in the energy ring. But if Kazakhstan and Uzibekistan leave the ring, northern Kyrgyzstan would be doomed to total energy collapse.

“Unlike Kyrgyzstan, which has been shattered by two revolutions and a big interethnic conflict since its independence, [Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan] have gone far in building their own power plants and electricity lines and they can leave the ring any time,” Mr. Umbetaliev says. “That would leave half of Kyrgyzstan in a blackout situation.”

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