Since the death of Turkmenistan’s “president for life” Saparmurat “Turkmenbashi” Niyazov on December 21, 2006, energy companies from both East and West have been falling over themselves to get a piece of the action by signing agreements with his successor, Gurbanguly Berdimukhamedov, to develop Turkmenistan’s vast, but largely untapped, natural gas riches.
The prize is substantial, as Turkmenistan is estimated to possess the world’s fifth-largest natural gas reserves and substantial oil resources. In April the executive director of Turkmenistan’s Presidential Administration State Agency for Management and Utilization of Hydrocarbon Resources Bayrammurad Muradov had reason for optimism, informing reporters that Turkmenistan’s government estimated its onshore hydrocarbon reserves to be 21 billion tons of oil and an astounding 25 trillion cubic meters of natural gas. Even better, Turkmen Caspian offshore reserves were estimated to be 12 billion tons of oil and 5 trillion cubic meters of gas (Informatsionno-analiticheskoe agenstvo “Trend,” April 23). Muradov noted that, given the country’s reserves, Ashgabat is expecting more than $2.5 billion in foreign investment by the end of the year.
Despite the fact that the country’s future prosperity is apparently assured by such bounty, the country is taking tentative steps toward exploring the potential of alternative energy sources. In a development that may have a more substantive impact on the lives of Turkmen dwelling in isolated communities than Westerners shilling for exploration rights, specialists of the Giun (“sun” in Turkmen, “Solntse” in Russian) Scientific and Production Association under direction of Berdimukhamedov’s Higher Council for Science and Technology have constructed a prototype wind turbine capable of generating five kilowatts (Internet-gazeta, www.turkmenistan.ru, August 14).
The windmill was tested at Birkova near Ashgabat and its performance certified by Giun researchers and officials from Turkmenistan’s Department of Energy and Industry. The windmill is destined for the isolated island of Gyzylsu (“Red Water” in Turkmen), two hours by boat and 11 miles southeast of Turkmenistan’s largest Caspian port, Turkmenbashi (Gosudarstennoe informatsionnoe agentstvo Turkmenistana [TDH], August 13). When installed, the windmill will provide power for the island’s school, kindergarten, and a day nursery for 100 children. The windmill will also provide electric power to a solar seawater desalination system in the village, its pumps, reservoir-distillate accumulator, and ultraviolet water disinfection unit, which was designed specially for the facility
The Caspian contains nearly 50 islands, mostly small, of which 23 are in Turkmen territorial waters. The largest are Chechen, Tyuleny, Morskoi, Kulaly, Zhiloi, and Ogurchin. Gyzylsu Island measures 6.8 miles long and only 1.2 miles wide at its broadest point. The isolation and subsequent lack of electricity of Gyzylsu’s Islanders had been of concern for years, and in 2005 local authorities drew up two different electrification projects for the island’s main village. The scale was modest, as the two projects totaled an estimated $150,000 to $450,000 (Plan of actions of the community of Gyzylsu village, Turkmenbashi etrap, Ashgabat–Gyzylsu, 2005). Gyzylsu village’s inhabitants previously produced electricity from a diesel generator, which only ran four hours a day because of fuel restrictions, forcing many families to utilize their own low capacity gasoline and diesel generators after the proposed projects foundered due to a lack of financial support. Ironically, for a country blessed with such energy resources, Gyzylsu village has no natural gas lines but instead receives bottled gas delivered by sea from Turkmenbashi once a week.
While the Gyzylsu project is miniscule compared with massive Western wind power projects already up and running, it nevertheless represents a government initiative to develop the country’s alternative energy options, begun last year, when Berdimukhamedov directed the Higher Council for Science and Technology to devise a strategy to develop the country’s alternative energy options, including solar, geothermal, and wind power projects. Turkmen scientists involved in the project propose to create NGOs in residential townships and on livestock farms to develop integrated power plants, which will include solar photovoltaic stations, solar collectors, and agricultural dryers, as well as installing recycling plants (Turkmenistan: Zolotoi Vek, January 7).
A key element of the plan was the establishment of the Giun Scientific and Production Association, founded in 2007, one of the few institutions in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) focusing directly on renewable energy research (Turkmenistan: Zolotoi Vek, August 13). Besides wind power, Giun’s research projects include solar drying apparatus for farms, integrated wind and solar power complexes both for generating electricity and pumping water, the development of solar “photaic” bioreactors for breeding microscopic algae, and solar furnaces for high-temperature studies.
As Giun researchers note, Turkmenistan’s climatic conditions provide an ideal setting for both solar and wind power research, as approximately 86% of the country is covered by desert. Even though Turkmenistan is self-sufficient in electrical power generation, producing about 14 billion kwh annually, a number of localities such as the Caspian islands preclude stringing centralized electric power lines but where power shortages could be addressed by local renewable energy facilities. Even though such facilities will probably be of limited interest to Western investors, they will undoubtedly be most gratefully received by the local recipients, given their potential for improving the quality of life.
While Niyazov sometimes pursued quixotic policies, the current administration’s commitment to renewable energy resources, while modest at present, seems sincere. To that end, the Higher Council for Science and Technology recently held its first Internet forum on renewable energy under a cooperation agreement with leading scientists in Germany, a nation recognized as a leader in the practical application of renewable energy. But perhaps in the end Berdimukhamedov in his interest in renewable energy is merely following the precepts of his illustrious predecessor Turkmenbashi, who wrote in his epochal Ruhname, “To move on the ocean of life, one has to open his sails at the appropriate time and take advantage of the wind.”