Electricity is the foundation upon which modern civilization rests. However, not all of mankind has access to this invaluable resource - the International Energy Agency estimates that 20 percent of the world's population still remains unconnected to the grid.
In oil and natural gas rich post-Soviet Central Asia, governments are increasingly interested in a prolific yet underutilized resource - solar power. The last decade has seen rising global interest in renewable energy, with many nations seeking to exploit their natural resources to produce power. International Energy Agency data note that the solar power industry has been expanding for the last six years with unprecedented annual growth rates of 60 percent amid the average growth rate in the production of electric power around the world at 3.4 percent.
During the summer, according to a study by the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the kilowatt hour generating potential of a single square meter in Central Asia approaches 8 kilowatts.
One of the post-Soviet Central Asian nations with the greatest solar power potential is Uzbekistan. The country's solar energy resources are immense, as the sun shines an average of 8-10 hours per day, resulting in an average duration of sunshine of 2,700-2,800 hours per annum. According to data developed by the U.S. government's Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Uzbekistan's gross potential of solar energy, if fully utilized, is the equivalent of 50.973 billion tons of petroleum fuel annually.
Besides a climate suited to solar power, Uzbekistan brings advantages to the table, including a longstanding interest in generating power from sunlight, an advanced industrial base and a highly literate, hard-working population.
Government policy is also directed towards alternative energy, as on March 1, 2013 Uzbek President Islam Karimov issued a decree calling for energy self-reliance. To encourage investment, the government has also extended tax breaks for foreign direct investment (FDI) in the country's renewable power sector.
A secondary asset that Uzbekistan has is that it was the center of solar research in the USSR. In 1965 the Uzbek Academy of Sciences began publishing the "Geliotekhnika" ("Applied Solar Energy") quarterly journal, the former Soviet Union's sole scientific publication devoted to solar power. Topics covered ranged from solar radiation, photovoltaics and solar materials to direct conversion of solar energy into electrical power. This translates into 50 years of primary research to tap into. Geliotekhnika is still published today in Russian and now English. It places a strong emphasis on applications such as solar devices for home and industrial uses, solar heating and cooling systems, solar power systems and units, and agricultural uses of solar energy.
Uzbekistan's solar power potential is now attracting the interest of foreign investors. In early 2013 Suntech Power (STP), one of China's largest solar firms, invested roughly $10 million in a joint venture with Uzbekistan's Uzbekenergo state energy company to construct a solar panel manufacturing facility. As a corollary to rising Chinese investment in Central Asia, STP had been affected by rising trade barriers, subsidy cutbacks in key markets and a chronic global oversupply of solar panels. STP's move was unique as it involved building manufacturing capacity in an emerging solar market, giving the firm a head-start in a largely under-tapped market while providing the company an opportunity to diversify its revenue stream. Misunderstanding the global market however forced STP into bankruptcy in Feb. 2014.
Uzbekenergo intends to build a total of around 2 gigawatts (GW) of solar power plants over the next few years with a portion of the financing for the projects coming from the Asian Development Bank (ADB); a pilot project for the construction of a 100 megawatt solar photoelectric station is now underway in the Samarkand region.
Other foreign investors such as Russia's Lukoil have also shown interest in Uzbekistan's solar sector. The ADB has already shown its commitment to Uzbekistan's solar initiatives. In Feb. 2012 the Uzbek government and ADB signed a memorandum on cooperation in implementing solar energy projects, according to which in 2012-2015 the ADB allocated $200 million in loans to Uzbekistan for the implementation of these projects. One immediate outcome of the loans was the establishment in Feb. 2012 of Uzbekistan's International Solar Energy Institute (ISEI), to conduct applied research intended to foster innovation, promote technology transfer and promote efficient and economic solar technology use.
Utilizing such expertise has its shortcomings, however. While Uzbekistan has considerable scientific and technical potential and Uzbek researchers have produced many engineering and technological developments in the design and use of solar energy, Uzbek Academy of Sciences Presidium employee Nurmuhammad Iulchev observed, "However, we must recognize the fact that many experts are of a very advanced age, and talented young people prefer to conduct research abroad."
The country's introduction of solar power will benefit some previously overlooked citizens. In Uzbekistan there are almost 1,500 remote and hard-to-reach rural communities that are not connected to the national electricity grid. Micro solar projects to provide electricity for lighting, heating, pumping water and solar cooking are now beginning to percolate into the countryside. In Sept. 2014 Uzbekenergo announced that a facility for producing solar collectors has opened in the Jizzakh Special Industrial Zone (SIZ). The $3.34 million Quyosh Issiqlik Energiyasi (Solar Thermal Power), was jointly commissioned by Uzbekistan and China and will produce manufacture 50,000 solar water heaters annually.
Growing international interest in Central Asian renewable energy is evident in the rising number of international forums devoted to the subject. On Nov. 6, 2014 the European Commission organized a one day conference in Brussels to promote sustainable-energy-policy developments in Central Asia, which focused on the private business opportunities for renewable energy production in Central Asia, including wind, solar and hydroelectric power.
In the region, the upcoming "Development of the solar energy industry in the South Caucasus, Eastern Europe and Central Asia" CISOLAR-2015 will be held in Baku on April 16-17 covering solar energy industry development, legislative framework, regulatory policy, investment attraction and regional technical peculiarities of solar energy project development.
Another regional event will be held in Tashkent May 12 -14. The 10th Uzbekistan International Specialized Exhibition "Energy, Energy saving, Electrotechnical & Power equipment, Information and measuring equipment, Cables, Lighting, and Modern technologies in electric energy" - Power Uzbekistan 2015. The exhibition's website states, "Power Uzbekistan 2015 is an important exhibition for Central Asia's power industry, and a key energy event in Uzbekistan. It brings together senior representatives from the entire spectrum of the power and energy industry, including energy, energy saving, power electronics, heat-power equipment and alternative energy." Among the Exhibition sections is "Alternative Energy: Wind & Solar Energy Technologies."
While funding remains an issue, given Uzbekistan's expertise and technological talent, solar power's future in Uzbekistan seems bright. As Karimov told participants in the Sixth Meeting of Asia Solar Energy Forum in Nov. 2013, "As the Asian and World Bank assessments indicate, the gross potential of solar power in Uzbekistan exceeds 51 billion tons of oil equivalent. These resources, experts suggest, allow for the production of electric power 40 times as much as the annual consumption of power in our country this year." Given Tashkent's interest in solar power, alternative energy's future in Uzbekistan seems assured.