Energy Crises and Civil Unrest

The mountainous Central Asian country of Kyrgyzstan has been in the news recently, with an interim government in the capitol of Bishkek claiming to have taken control after a week of sometimes violent clashes between security forces and protestors. Most of the coverage in the US is focused on the uncertain fate of the Manas airfield and the 1300 troops currently stranded therein. The politics are, as always, complex, but the precipitating factor for the current unrest in this country of 5.5 million people is clearly a crisis in the energy sector.

Kyrgyzstan consumes 9,000 GWh of electricity per year, about 90% of which is generally provided by their considerable hydroelectric resources. While transmission, distribution, and metering infrastructure is outdated and unreliable, and by some estimates less than half of consumed electricity is paid for at all, Kyrgyzstan is an electricity exporter to its neighbors. On April 23rd of 2008 the government of Kyrgyzstan announced a new set of tariff policy initiatives that included the expansion of metering capabilities and higher retail energy prices. According to the schedule, on January 1st of 2010 the cost of electricity increased from USD $0.0159 to $0.0342 and was set to increase again on June 1 of this year to $0.043.

In the past year unusually low water levels on the Naryn river and unexpected breakdowns at the Toktogul plant (responsible for 40% of Kyrgyzstan’s electricity output) have forced the state chartered utility to ration electricity through rolling blackouts. It seems that the recent rate hikes are the straw that broke the camel’s back. An ABC News story quoted a young woman in an early protest outside the presidential palace last month:

Aida Abdykadyrova, 17, said she traveled to the demonstration with her family from their village to protest a fourfold increase in their electricity bills.

“After paying the bills, we had to go hungry and we cannot afford to buy anything for the children,” Abdykadyrova said.

In a country where 40% of citizens live in poverty a nearly 300% increase in utility prices over a 6 month period is obviously going to cause a backlash, but there’s a larger lesson to this story. The world economy has grown at an incredible pace in recent decades, and the newly urban populations of the world expect access to inexpensive and reliable energy. Virtually every viable solution to the challenges of climate change entail methods of generating and consuming energy that are relatively less reliable (e.g.; non-dispatchable renewable resources) and more expensive than the fossil fueled status quo. Even if the world decided to ignore climate change and carbon emissions, we can expect that growing demand in a resource-constrained world will bid up energy prices.

Appeals to eco-conscience and well-reasoned policy and economic explanations fall flat as justifications for higher utility bills when a family is struggling to make ends meet, whether that family lives in the mountains of Central Asia or the suburbs of Austin.

We’re seeing the consequences unfold in the small nation of Kyrgyzstan. The question for the rest of the world is clear: are we ready to do without cheap energy?

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