High Hopes for Alternative Energy as Country Bets on Solar

ASTANA – Kazakhstan is the 9th largest country in the world and is rich in oil, gas, coal, amongst other minerals. Even though the economy revolves mostly around oil and gas, Kazakhstan still bets big on alternative energy sources. EXPO 2017, which is to be held in Astana will have a “Future Energy” theme. By the time oil and gas deposits near exhaustion, Kazakhstan will have its own “plan B”– alternative energies, such as production of its very own solar cells or photovoltaic (PV) modules.

In December 2012, President Nursultan Nazarbayev launched a solar plant for the production of photovoltaic modules in Astana.

“When we talk about industrialization, we, first of al,l talk about innovations, about implementing something new, something that we haven’t done in Kazakhstan before,” the president told the plant’s employees. “You are the employees of the very first solar module production plant in Kazakhstan. The green economy is our future. We have chosen this as the theme of EXPO 2017 and are preparing for it. These panels will be used on rooftops and in other locations. I saw similar facilities in South Korea and in the United States. Of course, this will not replace oil, gas, etc. in the near future, but we must strive for it.”

But what are the main privileges and benefits of such solar cells for the population? How important is it to have such a line of production established in Kazakhstan? And why is the development of such products key for the future of the country?

Dias Tastanbekov, Nazarbayev University Polymer Chemistry researcher did answer some of these questions in an exclusive interview with The Astana Times.

“Due to the limitations of oil and gas fields and other natural resources, paying attention to renewable sources of energy is a sign of farsightedness. If not today, then tomorrow we will need an alternative way to produce energy. Simply saying, in order to have it tomorrow, we should think about it today,” Tastanbekov commented.

“We do have an emerging solar production line [today in Kazakhstan]. Raw materials, minerals rich with silica – materials used as a solar converter – from Ushtobe are processed into pure silica in Oskemen. The final step of making ready-to-use solar panels is realized in Astana by Astana Solar, a subsidiary of KazAtomProm,” Tastanbekov added.

But what exactly are solar cells? And how effective can they be today? Tastanbekov continued to explain the importance of the devices that convert energy of light coming from the sun directly to electricity.

“These should not be confused with solar thermal concentrators which work as heat collectors. The most developed technology uses inorganic compounds as convertors (materials that convert light to electricity). Their efficiency is fairly high – up to 40%. But the main drawbacks are price, as production is expensive, and the complexity of the needed technology which demands advanced equipment,” the researcher explained.

Although solar cells are far more eco-friendly than electricity produced from conventional fossil fuel sources and produce much less toxic waste than coal, oil and nuclear plants, it is widely known that environmental issues are a part of such products. This emerging technology’s main pollutants are gases and toxic chemicals emitted during manufacturing – and that alone is enough for Nazarbayev University researchers to keep their guard up against competitors in today’s eco-sensitive world.

“Alternative materials for solar cells are organic compounds, not necessarily derived from plants or animals, but synthetic and based on carbon, e.g. plastic. Such material is less expensive as a consequence, the final product – solar cells – are cheaper, and production technology allows for the use of relatively simple equipment. The main drawback is low efficiency. I think such a drawback could be overcome with aid of improved technology,” Tastanbekov explained.

“Kazakhstan’s solar cells will not have significant differences. Certainly, as was mentioned before, organic materials for solar cells allow the use of more environmentally friendly processes,” the researcher said. “However, in terms of economic feasibility, inorganic based (e.g. silica, gallium nitride etc.) solar cells are superior. But improvement of organic materials is a global goal, and all countries which have potential and understanding of the importance of this issue are participating in that process. Therefore, our aim is to be on the forefront of such research and development.”

“Materials used for organic solar cells can be relatively easy synthesised using commercially available chemicals,” Tastanbekov added.

In a step to improve research, the Nazarbayev University allocated a special area for testing and further development of wind and solar energy potential, Tastanbekov said.

“The practical utility of the test area is owing to gathering information in real time about wind and solar potential of that area, which can be extrapolated to surrounding area. It should be known about integration of electricity from renewable sources to central system through the so-called grid,” Tastanbekov said.

The micro grid is a system where accumulated electricity from renewable sources is used when necessary. The “smart” grid is a system in which electricity from renewable sources is consumed immediately. Both systems are undergoing tests in the test area.

Another purpose of the test area is to develop a system for energy storage. Two types of energy storage are being tested now: convenient accumulators and mechanical wind-driven water pumps (water is elevated and then used in convenient micro hydroelectric power stations).

“Another interesting study is about so-called “passive houses” – autonomous houses with their own independent sources of electricity. The system is not connected to any grid,” he said.

The test area is mobile so it may occupy any space, but estimates vary between 150-180 sq. meters. It will be located at the Nazarbayev University around the 9th block, the area currently under construction.

With the promising development of such cells, one hopes that in near future, every home would be equipped with such modules, but today, this is still a pipe dream for most of the world.

To provide enough energy for an average sized household such a townhouse with a family of four for instance, the owner would have to equip about 25 modules, a converter and about a dozen batteries to be completely independent from any other source of electricity which would coast nearly US$ 25,000, whereas an average electricity bill for the same family of four in a townhouse in Kazakhstan averages $40 per month. The manufacturer’s guarantee of such modules is 25 years, and this sounds like an investment for the long run, although with the above mentioned circumstances such an investment would give yield only after 50 years which doubles its durability, thus making this type of investment very unattractive, at least for now.

However, this opportunity is seen as something that cannot be missed by investors coming from the private sector and foreign entrepreneurs. Among them is Taylan Karamanli, a Turkish businessman in Kazakhstan who is making arrangements with Kazakh authorities and his German partners to facilitate contracts to start building actual solar power plants. Upon signing contracts, the head office in Astana and sales locations in Almaty, Shymkent and Taraz will be set up and pilot projects will be carried out to demonstrate how solar power works in those areas for the public and authorities. The first planned power plant will most likely begin producing energy in summer 2014.

Solar cells can operate in heavy snow, showers and other difficult weather conditions, provided they are installed properly and are set to a specific angle so precipitation does not cover them for long periods of time.

With further solar development, tax reductions as an encouragement to use eco-friendly products, costs will decrease. It will not be a surprise to see households go solar in the future, and see that Kazakhstan bet right with a production line already set up.

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