The tail end of the energy transition

If you had to guess the country with the lowest energy tariffs in the world, what would you go for? My wife went for Saudi Arabia, which is a good guess. Historically, the answer has been Turkmenistan, where the electricity sector has been run by the national energy company, and they have used low prices for political purposes for a long time.

Turkmenistan has gas, and is in the top ten countries with the largest reserves, so it can afford that cheap electricity – for now. And with a small population benefiting from a large gas supply, there’s very little incentive to develop an alternative.

When I looked up how much renewable energy the country produced, I found a report stating that “based on the available data, Turkmenistan has no established renewable energy segment.” In a list of countries ordered by percentage of renewable energy, it comes dead last – the only place with 0.0%.

Turkmenistan then, is at the very tail end of the energy transition. If it were a race to net zero, it would still be on the starting line.

Looking ahead, that’s not going to be sustainable. The gas reserves won’t last forever, and the carbon emissions from burning it is already taking its toll on the country. 80% of Turkmenistan’s land is covered by the Karakum desert. It’s been getting drier, undermining what remained of agriculture and and herding in the region. So the energy transition has to come to Turkmenistan eventually.

And it may be on its way. From that low base of no renewable energy at all, solar power is now being used to provide water in the Karakum, reviving oases and making it possible for herders to return. But there’s a lot more it could do. Deserts have sunshine and vast amounts of land. Instead of exporting natural gas, what if there were solar parks in the desert instead, with international grid connections for exporting clean power to its neighbours?

As an added bonus, the sands of Karakum have a high silicon content, which means they can be used for making solar glass. This has not gone unnoticed, and in 2019 a company announced that it was going to start making panels locally. Plans for the first large scale solar project were filed in January 2020. Others are investigating the possibilities for wind power, capturing the strong breezes off the Caspian Sea.

It will be a while before solar and wind make serious inroads into Turkmenistan. I don’t know what it would take to persuade the nation to leave its gas in the ground. But what I do find interesting, and broadly hopeful, is that even here, with abundant gas and cheap energy, the economics of renewable energy still make sense.

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