After years of making big promises to invest in solar, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are now competing to open the largest solar fields in Central Asia and China gunning for a big role in these fast-growing solar markets.

Kazakhstan has experimented with solar since 2012, when then-President Nursultan Nazarbayev inaugurated a small plant to produce photovoltaic cells in Astana.

Eurasianet says that according to a UN estimate, Kazakhstan has over 85 percent of Central Asia’s total solar potential. Yet Nazarbayev’s ambition has been slow to meet reality: Four years later, Kazakhstan had only a modest 157 MW of installed solar capacity, about enough to power a small city.

State capitalism in China then offered Kazakhstan a nudge.  By 2017, as China’s domestic solar capacity was outstripping demand, Beijing reportedly reined in its liberal aid for producers and instructed them to seek business abroad.

China offered Kazakhstan a taste of its technologies, gifting a 1 MW solar plant to the Alatau Innovation Park near Almaty.  In June 2018, Ningbo-based Risen Energy began work on a $39 million 40 MW solar photovoltaic plant in Karaganda.

The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) reportedly loaned US$22 million toward the plant in Karaganda.  A few months later, the EBRD loaned another US$42.5 million toward a US$75 million 63 MW solar photovoltaic power plant that Risen is building in Chulakkurgan, north of Shymkent.

China, which now produces 70 percent of the world’s solar panels, is well represented in Kazakhstan’s new renewable projects, according to Eurasianet.  

Back in 2015, Astana was predicting installed solar capacity by the end of 2020 to reach 714 MW. A government report last month said solar capacity had reached 467 MW.

Renewables are still small fry in Kazakhstan.  Today, solar reportedly accounts for 56 percent of the country’s total renewable capacity.  Renewables overall, however, contribute just 3 percent of all power produced in Kazakhstan, the vast majority of which is still made by burning coal.

Uzbekenergo (Uzbekistan’s state-run energy monopoly) briefly dallied with solar energy, before pushing away suitors and only recently announcing another go, according to Eurasianet.

In November 2013, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) approved a $100 million loan toward a 100 MW solar farm in Samarkand.

But then the Uzbek government reportedly got nervous.  It had trouble securing a contractor – owing both to a lack of Uzbek expertise in solar and lack of firms willing to work in what was then an isolated state with stringent capital controls.

In December 2016, when Uzbekenergo finally sealed a deal with Shandong-based China Shuifa Singyes Energy Holdings, ADB even negotiated for the company to operate and maintain the solar plant for three years after commissioning.

But in August 2017, the new government in Tashkent called off the project, explaining to the ADB that Uzbekistan did not have the technical capacity to run the plant. The government also argued that 100 MW was too ambitious for a first foray into solar.  

More recently, Tashkent reportedly changed its mind again; in August, it submitted a proposal for a solar project of the same size in the same city, but this time to the EBRD.  China Shuifa Singyes is out. Uzbekenergo is now working with France’s Total Eren.  Industry insiders believe Total is now lobbying the EBRD to finance the project.