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Kazakhstan is ramping up its renewable-energy effort at right time, experts say

28.05.2013
Hal Foster Hal Foster ex-Los Angeles Times journalist, journalism professor

Kazakhstan has been talking about developing renewable energy for more than a decade.

Until recently, there’s been too much talk and too little action, alternative-energy supporters have complained.

But that’s changing, with wind and solar projects in the pipeline.

The timing of those projects is propitious, according to speakers at a sustainable-energy panel session at last week’s Astana Economic Forum.

One reason is that the cost of wind- and solar-generated energy is dropping so fast that in a few years it will be cheaper than energy generated by conventional sources.

Another reason is that electricity companies are finally able to store electricity generated by wind or solar power for use at later times.

And a third reason is that advances in technology are increasing the efficiency with which power companies can obtain energy from renewable sources.

Kazakhstan has made several high-profile moves recently to underscore its determination to increase the amount of energy it obtains from renewables.

They include:

-- The government’s announcement in February of this year that it plans 34 renewable-energy projects, including 17 in hydropower, 13 in wind and four in solar.

-- A government decision to transfer sustainable-energy programs from the Ministry of Environment to the Ministry of Industry and New Technologies. The shift, also announced in February, indicates that the government has from the let’s-talk-about-renewables stage to the business-application stage.

-- An announcement in early May that Kazakhstan will build its biggest solar-power-generating complex yet. The $93 million facility in Kyzylorda Provice will be capable of generating 65 megawatt hours of electricity a year.

Boris Ryabov. Photo courtesy of community.sk.ru

Boris Ryabov. Photo courtesy of community.sk.ru

-- A second announcement in early May that the Kazakhstan company First Wind Power Station and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development are teaming up to build the country’s first commercial wind farm. The $94 million project at Yereimentau in Akmola Province will be capable of generating 45 megawatts of electricity a year.

The timing of Kazakhstan’s ramp-up of its sustainable-energy programs is excellent, said one of the speakers at the Astana Economic Forum panel session on renewable.

For decades the problem with investing in solar, wind and other renewable-energy sources was that the cost of obtaining electricity was much higher than from conventional sources such as coal, oil and gas, Boris Ryabov pointed out.

But in recent years the United States and Europe “have invested a lot of money in research to decrease the costs of wind and solar energy,” said Ryabov, managing partner of the Moscow-based Bright venture-capital firm.

“And the decreases are huge,” he said. In fact, “by 2017, solar and wind power will be cheaper than other sources,” he maintained.

Ryabov’s showed slides projecting the costs of electricity generated by wind and solar power versus the costs of electricity generated by diesel and coal.

Power industry people use a measurement known as the Levelized Cost of Energy, or LCOE, to compare costs of generating electricity from different sources.

The LCOE is the price a power company must charge for electricity from a source to break even over the lifetime of a project.

Ryabov’s projections are that wind power will be cheaper to produce than coal – the cheapest conventional energy source -- by 2015 and that solar power will be cheaper to produce than coal by 2017.

In addition to higher costs, another factor that has held back the development of renewables has been an inability to store wind- and solar-generated energy for later use.

But the United States and other countries are meeting the challenge, Ryabov said.

“Energy storage is getting better because of the advent of chemical and other types of accumulators,” or storage devices, he said.

“Thanks to the U.S., the cost of storage will drop significantly by 2016,” he said.

Kazakhstan will benefit from this trend, Ryabov said.

The world’s ninth-largest country has long had difficulty getting electricity to communities far from its main power grid in the south and east.

An ability to store solar and wind energy for later use “will reduce the cost of energy to remote locations,” Ryabov said.

Not only are advances in technology solving the energy-storage problem, but they are also allowing power companies to increase the efficiency with which they extrct energy from renewable sources, another Astana Economic Forum speaker said.

Alex Ignatiev. Photo courtesy of aef.kz

Alex Ignatiev. Photo courtesy of aef.kz

Conventional solar cells are able to convert only 18 percent of the energy from the sun’s rays into electricity, noted Alex Ignatiev, director of the Research Institute for Alternative Energy at the University of Houston in Texas.

That’s because the cells contain one layer of material, which means they can absorb only part of the solar spectrum.

Scientists in Kazakhstan have created cells with two layers of material, increasing the amount of energy from the sun’s rays that a cell can convert to electricity from 18 percent of the total to 23 percent, Ignatiev said.

Creating cells with multiple layers can increase the amount of energy that can be extracted from the sun’s rays to 80 percent of the total, he said.

Another speaker at the Astana Economic Forum panel session spoke about the gains to Kazakhstan’s economy that could accrue from exporting its vast wind- and solar-power potential.

Serge Martin noted that Kazakhstan’s gorges and steppes have the potential to generate 354 gigawatt hours of wind power a year.

Serge Martin. Photo courtesy of canada.ashoka.org

           Serge Martin. Photo courtesy of canada.ashoka.org

 

That’s 18 times more than the country’s current generating capacity, he said.

The excess electricity “could be exported to China,” he enthused.

Although no Astana Economic Forum speaker offered an estimate of the country’s solar-energy potential, the Kazakhstan consulting company Energy Partner has put it at 2,500 gigawatt hours a year.

Martin offered three recommendations that he said would help Kazakhstan get the most out of its combined conventional-energy and alternative-energy development programs:

-- Develop the country’s tourism industry at the same time as the energy sector.

Kazakhstan’s segment of the ancient Silk Road trade route should become an energy, merchandise and tourism hub, Martin said. That road is being modernized to help Kazakhstan speed goods and people from China to Western Europe.

Martin noted that worldwide the tourism industry last year accounted for 260 million jobs and generated $1 trillion in revenue.

“The World Tourism Organization is creating new global destinations linking 24 countries along ancient routes,” he said. “In middle of one route is Kazakhstan. The Silk Road can fast-forward your tourism industry in every part of your country.”

-- Build on the legacy of Kazakhstan’s EXPO 2017 theme of “Energy of the Future.”

Kazakhstan should maintain the momentum on renewable energy that the EXPO generates, Martin said.

Maintaining that momentum could help accelerate the country’s over-all economic development, he said.

-- Establish an international financial center in Kazakhstan that specializes in energy transactions.

At the moment the world has 79 financial centers, Martin said. “One point they have in common is that all are strategically well located.”

Some of the centers are huge, offering a full range of services – such as New York and London.

Others are specialty centers.

“Kazakhstan has a golden opportunity,” Martin said. “You should specialize in energy transactions.”

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