The majority of Uzbekistan’s population are having a tough time this winter as the country’s energy supply problems go from bad to worse. Unplanned power cuts and lengthy rolling blackouts have become everyday occurrences in almost every Uzbek neighbourhood.
In larger towns the electricity is switched off for up to six hours a day. In Tashkent the power is off for 1-2 hours every day. Outlying villages sometimes have no power for weeks at a time.
Shortages of petrol, LPG and diesel mean that queues of cars often stretch for a kilometre or more at petrol stations. Many companies are having to cut their deliveries to save fuel.
As Uzbekistan’s heat-and-power plants struggle to find enough fuel-oil and coal to produce at capacity, the country’s provincial population are living in harmony with nature as in times past, gathering her gifts for fuel: dung bricks, twigs, cotton-plant stalks, scavenged pieces of brown coal. In Tashkent, residents have given up on gas and are using wood as fuel.
Citizens are tired of the ever more frequent power cuts. Despair is giving way to conflict with local authorities and power companies, whose employees now fear for their safety as the population’s anger turns to violence – electricity company employees are said to have been killed by angry customers.
As well as having to put up with the endless electricity and fuel shortages, people are faced with ludicrous fines and debts from the power companies, and are afraid of repression – people have been beaten up and are threatened with arrest and other punishment.
These failings in the energy sector prompted the Uzbek government to adopt an Anti-crisis Programme; recently dozens of managers have been arrested, and hundreds of engineers, inspectors and controllers have been sacked and/or disciplined.
The fact that electricity and fuel shortages are becoming worse every year, and the huge discrepancies between official energy production statistics and the reality experienced by Uzbek citizens, are a source of growing concern for the public and of heated debate in professional circles.
The most urgent questions that must be addressed are these: if government electricity production targets are being met, then how can Uzbekistan be suffering from such significant and apparently unforeseen energy shortages? What is happening to the energy system? How much longer with the Uzbek people have to endure this?
These questions have been keeping me awake at night, and persuaded me to seek explanations from specialists who have previously held senior posts in the state-owned energy company Uzbekenergo. I interviewed former managers who have now moved abroad to find work, and who were afraid to give their names for fear of reprisals against their relatives who still live in Uzbekistan.
Why is there a shortage of energy for heat and light?
The main reasons for the growing energy shortages, the experts seem to agree, are the sharp rise in energy losses (wastage), diminishing productivity ratios, old and obsolete production capacity and distribution networks, and professional failures among managers, engineers and technical staff.
Electricity problems also stem from Uzbekistan’s decision to pull out of the Central Asia’s Unified Energy System on 1 December 2009.
For these reasons, experts say, the productivity of electricity generating capacity in Uzbekistan has fallen by 20%.
Losses from Uzbekistan’s energy system have crept up to 45% in the last 10 years. Around 30% of the losses are happening at a commercial level, or are down to ‘theft’ from the grid.
For comparison, losses in the Unified Energy System of the USSR were no more than 7%, in the Kyrgyz republic 23%. In many developed countries losses are limited at 5%, and 2-4% in the EU, USA, Japan, South Korea and Australia, 8%, in Canada. It would be encouraging to be told these figures are wrong.
Problems with electricity supply are deliberately concealed by the government, clearly because they are so acute, but the true causes of these problems must be identified through engaged public debate involving the specialists who are able to offer rational solutions to the problem.
Any energy system has losses, and technical and commercial wastage. The degree of loss depends on the state of the industry, and the skills of both managerial and technical personnel.
Technical loss is the volume of energy wasted as part of industrial production processes. The loss is an inevitable physical process in cables and electrical equipment as electricity moves from the generator to the consumer.
The real reasons why technical losses are so extreme are that transmission equipment is in a very poor state of repair, there is insufficient operational capacity, and networks and security systems are poorly maintained.
The rate at which worn equipment is overhauled or replaced is very low. More than 80% of electrical plants have become obsolete, and have not been maintained to the required level.
Electricity capacity usage is intermittent both seasonally and daily. Usage is three times higher in winter than in summer, and in the current cold winter, with people using their own heaters because of the shortage of fuel oil, electricity demand has been four times higher than usual summer consumption.
In peak evening periods, the load on the system is three times greater than during the rest of the day. Electricity is distributed through a complex electromagnetic system, which does not only transmit active energy but uses reactive energy depending on the regime of transmission regime and the state of the network.
The regular alternation between maximum and minimum load, where transmission control is poor, and production capacity is obsolete both in terms of its physical state and its productivity, puts a very high strain on transformers and the distribution network.
Because there is inadequate conversion capacity, and the stations are poorly maintained, there is very limited reverse flow of current in the network.
The majority of transformers, substations and distribution points were built in the 1960s-1970s and were never designed to withstand these constant frequency changes.
Generating capacity, as it runs through dozens of transformation cycles, can create short circuits when there are fluctuations in electric potential, and generators shut off automatically. If the shut-downs are frequent, the various elements of the generating system can be subject to power surges.
These factors lead to breakdowns in oil-immersed transformers, cause terminals to fail, and speed up the degradation of the insulation; the quality of the oil deteriorates and seals are broken because deposits build up on them.
They also speed-up the deterioration of sealed terminals, transformers and reactors which means they have to be replaced more often. Breakdown of emergency transformers, convertors and direct current smoothing reactors may lead to long outages on one pole of the line.
Failure to take full account of the system’s operating parameters can lead to sudden failures in electricity transmission, generators and transformers and endangers the balance between the generation and consumption and the consistency of the load in the network. This triggers automatic emergency shut-down procedures even more frequently, particularly in peak hours, which are the cause of the load shedding (blackouts) and power surges.
The huge commercial losses in the power industry are also a result of widespread corruption and embezzlement at every level.
Commercial losses can otherwise be referred to as the difference between the amount of electricity supplied (metered by the supplier) and the amount consumed as indicated by users’ electricity meters (revenue).
Commercial losses can result from fluctuations in frequency, inferior meters and metering systems, energy theft, failure to detect theft, and poor working practices (that is, inadequate training of) qualified engineering and technical workers, inspectors and control engineers.
The energy sector is awash with proceeds of corruption – money that is being pocketed by officials at every level of the hierarchy. The more senior their post, the greater the kickbacks and bribes. Officials have been abusing their position as public services, resorting to intricate schemes to embezzlement and steal, and much of their profit is siphoned off in the higher echelons of the power hierarchy.
The most widespread form of electricity theft is facilitated by collusion between inspectors employed by the power companies and their bigger customers– mainly the owners of private businesses. In return for a bribe, an inspector will wind back the meter display, so that the customer’s electricity bill ends up being much smaller than it should be.
The biggest thefts, however, are carried out by those who plug into the electricity network temporarily but avoid paying for the power they use. Black market agents, in cahoots with bosses, often postpone the registration of new or re-named enterprises and can delay their signing up with an energy supplier. This effectively allows companies to make a series of one-off connections to the grid which means they can evade taxes and electricity bills.
Energy company statistics and meter-reading calculations do not include consumption of power by ‘shell companies’. Although inspectors do read the customers’ meters, the subsequent bills are somehow ‘lost’.
Sometimes, corrupt officials create fictitious stop notices, claiming that a particular business has been taken off a particular electricity network.
The number of temporary connections, the length of ‘disappearance’ or registration of shell companies, are determined by the colluding parties. The nature of the distribution networks makes it easy for meter readings to be falsified.
Sometimes, petty criminals are implicated in cases of electricity theft; either they are caught in the act or are unfortunate in having fallen out of favour with their bosses. But the investigation of major crimes, and large-scale racketeering by inspectors, is always hampered by lack of evidence.
Tashpulat Yuldashev, independent political analyst – for Uznews.net