Can renewables help Central Asia overcome its fossil fuel addiction?

Fossil fuels have long powered Central Asia’s economies but have also made the region vulnerable to price fluctuations and pollution. Can abundant renewable resources provide a path to a cleaner future? 

Central Asia, rich in natural resources, has historically depended heavily on fossil fuels, particularly natural gas and coal. While this abundance of resources has driven economic growth during times of high global energy prices, it has also created a dependence that makes any transition to a clean energy future a complex and challenging undertaking.   

Indeed, there is no denying the deep-rooted reliance on fossil fuels across the five Central Asian economies (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan). The abundant reserves, allied with existing infrastructure geared towards fossil fuel extraction and use, and vested interests all contribute to inertia.  

According to the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), fossil fuels account for 95 per cent of total energy supply in the five countries. 

Fossil fuels continue to provide (at least in part) energy security, generate revenue, and fuel industry throughout the region. In some cases, fossil fuel revenues heavily subsidise domestic energy consumption, further entrenching reliance on these resources. 

Furthermore, powerful interest groups and lobbies associated with the fossil fuel industries often hold significant influence over policy decisions. This can hinder progress in developing supportive frameworks for renewable energy investment and deployment. 

Nevertheless, should the will be there, renewable sources such as solar, wind, and hydropower offer Central Asia a unique opportunity to wean itself off fossil fuels, ushering in an era of clean energy and sustainable economic development. 

Untapped potential 

Central Asia possesses an abundance of renewable energy resources that remain largely untapped. Kazakhstan’s expansive steppes offer ideal conditions for large-scale wind and solar projects, while the mountainous terrains of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan present vast hydropower potential. Uzbekistan, with its vast deserts, boasts immense solar energy resources. Harnessing these clean power sources promises a range of benefits for all five Central Asian nations. 

UNECE Executive Secretary Olga Algayerova said last year that, “Our analysis points at the large potential for renewables in the five countries of Central Asia. Net zero is within reach of the region by 2050, provided sound policy decisions are made and appropriate incentives are in place to redirect investment.” 

One of the most significant advantages of renewable energy in Central Asia is its potential to displace fossil fuel consumption. The region’s reliance on natural gas and coal for power generation poses substantial environmental and economic risks. Fossil fuels contribute heavily to air pollution, negatively impacting public health.

Pollution is particularly acute in all five national capitals (Bishkek, Tashkent, Astana, Dushanbe and Ashgabat), as well as Kazakhstan’s largest city Almaty. Methane leaks alone from Turkmenistan’s two main fossil fuel fields caused more global heating in 2022 than the entire carbon emissions of the UK, it was revealed last year.  

Renewable energy sources could also significantly enhance Central Asia’s energy security. Currently, a considerable dependence on imported fossil fuels places some of these nations—notably Uzbekistan, whose own gas reserves have not been sufficient to meet annually surging demand—in a position of vulnerability.  

Indeed, Uzbekistan’s reliance on purchasing gas from abroad (primarily Russia) has made it a net importer—a stark reversal on its position only two years ago. In dollar terms, it imported gas valued at 700 million US dollars in 2023, while it sold 530 million US dollars worth of the fuel in the same period. In 2022, exports exceeded imports by 629 million US dollars. 

This has a knock-on effect. Kyrgyzstan buys small amounts of gas from Tashkent, but even the regularity of those deliveries is far from certain. Kyrgyz Agriculture Minister Bakyt Torobayev had to inform parliament on February 1 that the southern city of Osh was suffering from a shortage of gas as a result of Uzbekistan slashing its deliveries tenfold. 

In 2020, Uzbek PM Abdulla Aripov said that the country would end all gas exports by 2025. 

Ageing infrastructure 

It is clear that only by diversifying their energy mix to include more renewables can these countries can reduce reliance on external energy suppliers. Locally-sourced renewable energy contributes to self-sufficiency and reliable power supplies, crucial for sustainable economic growth. 

And yet while the potential of renewable energy in Central Asia is immense, the journey is not without challenges. One primary obstacle is the legacy of ageing, Soviet-era power infrastructure designed for centralised fossil fuel generation. Integrating large-scale renewable energy projects often requires upgrading grids, modernising transmission systems, and introducing energy storage solutions. These efforts require significant investments and careful planning to ensure seamless integration of intermittent renewable power sources. 

Furthermore, attracting the necessary financing for large-scale renewable energy projects can be a challenge in Central Asia. Governments must prioritise creating an enabling policy environment that is attractive to investors, including transparent regulatory frameworks, streamlined permitting processes, and financial incentives such as feed-in tariffs or tax breaks. 

Despite the challenges and despite the entrenched nature of fossil fuels, Central Asia is already witnessing promising developments in the renewable energy sector. Kazakhstan has made notable strides, setting ambitious targets for renewable energy deployment and attracting major investments in wind and solar power (the country aims to increase the share of renewable energy in its energy mix to 15 per cent by 2030).  

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have long relied on hydropower, though there’s significant potential for further expansion, modernisation, and exploring additional solar and wind resources. The UNECE suggests that Kyrgyzstan uses only about 13 per cent and Tajikistan about five per cent of their hydro potential. 

However, downstream countries like Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan—all with large agriculture sectors—are unhappy about the impact of large dams on their water supply. These nations rely on the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers for irrigation and fear that upstream dams could disrupt water flow, threatening agriculture and livelihoods. 

The most prominent example of this hydro-political tension is the long-disputed Rogun Dam project in Tajikistan. Intended to be the world’s tallest dam, the Rogun Dam is touted by Tajikistan as vital for its energy security and economic development. Uzbekistan, however, has fiercely opposed the project, arguing that it will reduce water availability for crucial irrigation needs. This opposition has stalled construction of the dam for years, creating significant friction between the two nations. 

A pathway towards advanced, technologically driven economies 

Friction that a tinderbox region could do without. Cross-border and international collaboration will have to play a role in driving Central Asia’s renewable energy transformation.  

Already, development institutions such as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank are providing funding and technical expertise. Partnerships with private sector companies and research institutions are fostering the exchange of knowledge and best practices. 

The development of a robust renewable energy sector in Central Asia offers more than just environmental benefits; it creates a pathway towards advanced, technologically driven economies. Investment in renewable energy infrastructure drives innovation, attracts foreign investment, and fosters job creation throughout the value chain—from manufacturing and installation to maintenance and research.  

By positioning themselves at the forefront of the clean energy revolution, Central Asian nations can build thriving industries and enhance their competitiveness in a global economy increasingly focused on sustainability. 

Photo by Anatolii Shcherbyna on Unsplash.

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