A land trapped between two Grand Challenges?
Central Asia is in a very unfortunate place with regards to climate change. On one hand, virtually all of the countries (except Tajikistan) are among the world’s most CO2-intensive countries, when CO2 per capita emissions are measured, meaning that they are considered the world’s biggest polluters. The fact that they are great fossil fuel resources is of course a decisive factor in this statistic, but it is not the only one. The majority of households, with particular focus on rural ones, are using traditional methods and readily available solid fuels to power their homes for heating and cooking, but also for electricity generation. Initiatives such as District Heating have been commissioned about 50 years ago, which means that they are highly dysfunctional and not operative everywhere. The consequence of that is that, across Central Asia, more than 70% of rural households and more than 50% of urban ones use non-sustainable biomass of their various energy needs, such as electricity, but also heating and cooking. Stories like that of the Zardaly village and other similar ones in Southern Kyrgyzstan, where there was not even access to electricity, make the solutions to that an eminent need. Similarly, in the GBAO region of Tajikistan, energy comes from unreliable sources, outages are numerous and the extension of the grid to make it reliable, despite the brave efforts from Pamir Energy, is a very challenging task.
Another impediment that exists at the moment is the energy insecurity that virtually all states face, despite the abundance of resources that exist in the region. Kazakhstan announced that by 2024 the overall gas deficit will be 1.7bcm and that exports will cease to exist by that time, which is catastrophic for a country that relies on exports. Uzbekistan also sees its energy exports fall more than 90% during this year, whereas Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan eye low water levels in their reservoirs, like the Toktogul reservoir, that bring a spike in power outages and increase their dependence on electricity imports.
Abundance of opportunities
A smart solution that would change the whole landscape is the implementation of local renewable energy communities (RECs). LRECs are a recently introduced concept in the EU, despite the fact that many similar efforts have taken place in small communities, such as France, Chile, Italy and Spain. The main elements involve the introduction of the concept of prosumers, where a household can either consume or trade the energy it generates, under various schemes. In this way, flexibility and interconnectivity is introduced, but also bi-directionality, which makes it an ideal choice for remote areas, with a specific importance for rural ones, where there is space, but also feedstock available to generate the energy needed. Hitherto, this is considered an ideal opportunity for regions such as Southern Kyrgyzstan and the GBAO region in Tajikistan. Several solutions have been identified for these regions, such as :
- Off-grid solar and wind production
- Green hydrogen generation from these sources for storage
- Waste valorization into bio-hydrogen and biostimulants through (dark) fermentation
While the two first options have been painstakingly discussed, there is very little discussion over the solid and fluid biomass conversion into clean or synthetic fuels, such as biohydrogen. This is deemed as a method that can work complementary to the aforementioned two ways of energy generation.
A “silver bullet” solution
Dark fermentation is an innovative way of fermentation with the absence of oxygen and light, where facultative and obligate anaerobes are used to convert a substrate of biomass into biohydrogen and organic acids. As part of biomass, many forms can be used. Depending on the community, woody or algal biomass can be utilized, with freshwater aquatic plants carrying big potential. Preference is given at biomass that has a satisfying amount of sugar content and low lignocellulosic one. The source of biomass that can be utilized everywhere, nonetheless, is waste. This can also solve the waste management issue that is global and Central Asia is also affected at a large scale from it, despite its efforts to reduce it. The organic acids, in the form of slurry, can then be used to generate biostimulants.
By investing in such infrastructure, Central Asian rural regions, with particular focus on Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, can:
- Create a clean heating and cooking network, with options for clean and renewed District Heating
- Generate biostimulants and fertilizers for small-scale farmers who need it the most
- Create new businesses/business models where prosumers can trade not only electricity, but also hydrogen for different reasons and also other products such as biostimulants, platform chemicals, bioplastics etc.
- Couple with other RES units, such as wind and solar energy, for storage through hydrogen etc.
- Use the hydrogen, through a small retrofitting process, in tractors, trucks, buses and other vehicles
A plan of action for Central Asia
The 4 regions that have been identified to be ideal for deployment of this model are Osh and Batken regions in Kyrgyzstan and GBAO and Sughd in Tajikistan. The main reason is that they carry the most important aspects of LRECs and hydrogen valleys, which are an eminent need for our model. These aspects are readily available renewable energy resources, such as wind and solar, but also great agricultural and other solid waste resources, such as wastewater, which are highly valuable for biohydrogen production, especially sugar-containing biomass or woody biomass. Investment mechanisms can include peace renewable energy credits (PRECs) for these regions. LRECs can help these communities convert from surviving to thriving, which is expected to reduce conflicts significantly. The main reason is that climate change and resource scarcity has hit these regions to the point that they have resorted to hard conflict over the past years and there has been great danger of even a full-scale war. LRECs will certainly mitigate the effects of climate change in regional peace and stability.
Overall, LRECs have notoriously been championed as one of the solutions to make clean energy supply chains in remote areas, where it is either too expensive or there are too many technological and infrastructure difficulties to connect to the grid. This is the case for the mountainous regions of Central Asia, with special focus on Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. LRECs can create novel business models and bring the necessary resources to these communities and making them readily available. This is expected to have enormous environmental, financial and societal value for these communities, mitigating climate change, reducing poverty and conflict and even making them a valuable hydrogen exporting partner to other neighboring countries, such as China, India or Afghanistan. It is recommended that a plan to deploy this model commences as soon as possible.
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Dimitris Symeonidis is a geopolitical risk and energy policy analyst, with a focus on the geopolitics of the energy transition in Eurasia. He holds an MSc in Engineering & Policy Analysis from TU Delft. He works as an energy market analyst at VaasaETT, as well as a project manager at Afforest4Future, where he works on innovative nature-based solutions to reverse climate change. He is also an entrepreneur, working on startups to solve issues such as food waste.