Baku Days: Out With the Oil, In With the Sun!

Oil is the present but what is the future?

Yesterday, I went along to the 18th Caspian Oil and Gas Exhibition at the Baku Expo Centre. I went there not as you might think to keep up-to-date with the latest technological developments in the refining and petrochemical world but because it was also the venue for Azerbaijan’s first Caspian Power and Alternative Energy Exhibition.

Caspian oil and gas reserves are substantial. According to figures published to promote the 2011 Oil and Gas Show, there are proved oil reserves of between seven and thirteen billion barrels and proved reserves of gas of two trillion cubic meters These are though; a finite resource that one-day will start to run out. That may not be soon but what then? The answer of course is the use of “renewable” and “alternative” energy resources. This includes such things as solar, wind, hydro and bio-mass [wood-chip, corn-waste, animal-waste etc] to produce power.

Thanks to its large oil and gas reserves, Azerbaijan has not been at the forefront of alternative-energy development but that is set to change with the opening of the country’s first “alternative” hybrid power-plant at Merizar in the Gobustan region, South of Baku at the end of 2011. The new power plant will consist of huge banks of solar panels, a wind farm and a bio-fuel facility using animal waste to create energy.

Emin Nuriyev

Talking to Emin Nuriyev, an advisor to the State Agency on Alternative Power Resources, I was struck by his enthusiasm for the initiative. On secondment from the Department of Strategic Investment, he told me that the agency had been established by Presidential decree. The development of renewable energy resources was important, as the country needs to adjust its energy policy in line with E.U. requirements.

Back in 2007, EU leaders reached agreement in principle that 20 percent of the bloc’s energy should be produced from renewable fuels by 2020, as part of its drive to cut emissions of carbon dioxide. Clearly, if Azerbaijan wishes to become a full member of the EU, this is one area that needs to be addressed. Whatever the motivation, it is heartening to note that Azerbaijan is looking to alternatives for oil and gas for its future energy needs.

The aim of the pilot project is to provide up to 105 megabytes of electricity to the Gobustan region. According to agency head Akif Badalov, “there is a plan for a closed circuit to supply power generated at the energy park to Gobustan. Thus, we will be able to meet the city’s demand for electricity in full from alternative energy sources”. In addition, there will be a visitor centre for schools, colleges and the local community to learn more about alternative energy resources. The plant is expected to be one of the most up-to-date in the world, making use of the latest German technology.

I have visited several alternative energy centres around the world and found that they are often associated with environmental education facilities. I asked Emin if that would be the case at Merizar. Unfortunately, nothing of that nature is planned at the moment…

In a related development, a project was launched back in April with funding from the European Union and the Norwegian government to conduct research into the feasibility of developing small, hydroelectric stations to provide energy in hard-to-reach, mountain settlements. That will be a boon for the many small mountain villages that still do not have mains electricity or gas.

One of the main reasons that solar power hasn’t taken off in many countries with hot summers and plenty of bright sunlight is the cost of solar panels and their installation. An average size domestic solar electricity system in the UK that produces up-to 2.7kWp might set you back around £12,000 although you can buy smaller systems for £4,000 to £5,000 per kWp, installed. That sort of cost is well beyond the budget of most Azeri families. The Azerbaijan government hopes to address the problem of pricey panels, with a plan to build a new factory to produce them at Sumgayit.

The factory will produce both mono crystalline [reliable technology that has been in use for over twenty years] and polycrystalline [cheaper, using more modern technology] PVC panels.

Emin told me that the cost of panels would be cheaper than those produced in Germany or Japan. At first, the panels produced will be exclusively for the Azerbaijan government but in the fullness of time, they will be available for sale to the wider community.

Gustav Nobel

As part of the main programme of events at the oil and Gas show Gustav Nobel [a family long associated with the Caspian oil industry], spoke about renewable and sustainable energy resources and the Nobel Sustainability Trust. “One of the main reasons for my visit to Baku is my wish to visit the special agency of renewable energy in Azerbaijan. We are aiming to give awards to those who come up with the best ideas within the field of renewable and sustainable resources”.

According the trust’s website, the four founders of the Nobel Charitable Trust have great concern over rapid depletion of worldwide oil and gas sources. They feel that over-consumption of oil and gas has been accompanied by increases in average global temperature and the pollution of land, water and air. As a result, the trust is offering scholarships to stimulate and inspire young researchers and inventors. They hope that this will push forward the development and the use of alternative and sustainable energy-resources.

It is said that from small acorns, large oaks grow [provide or course they are planted in good soil, are watered regularly, protected from grazing sheep and cattle and get enough sunlight]. The First Caspian Power and Alternative Energy Exhibition was actually one stall, staffed by two enthusiastic government officers. Unlike the Azerbaijani oil reserves, the potential for developing this sector truly is “limitless” but it will require sustained support over time and the investment of substantial resources, especially in the area of education.

My hope for the future is that Azerbaijan develops more balance within its energy supply chain and that next year’s Alternative Energy show will draw in more exhibitors and more importantly, more local interest.

For more information about the Azerbaijan State Agency on Alternative Power Resources check out: http://www.caspianpower.az/2011/?p=participants_advantage&l=en

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About stevehollier

Steve Hollier is the editor of AZ Magazine, an English language lifestyle magazine based in Baku, Azerbaijan. He began his career working for a firm of stockbrokers in the City of London then went on to attend the University of Essex where he was awarded an MA in Sociology in 1984. After a career in arts and cultural development work, he became a freelance arts consultant, writer and photographer.
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