Uzbekistan has the fifth-highest greenhouse gas emissions intensity in the world and the highest in Europe and Central Asia due to the use of fossil fuels for energy and the energy-intensive nature of its industrial sector. This winter, the country faced a massive energy crisis. The fossil fuels are a dead end for the planet, mankind and the economy. A quick and smart transition to renewable energy is the only way to energy security, universal access for all and the green jobs that our world needs. A column by Matilda Dimovska, UNDP Resident Representative in Uzbekistan, for International Mother Earth Day on 22 April. This year it is dedicated to the need to “Invest in our Planet”.

As Uzbekistan strives to reduce the carbon footprint of its fast-growing economy and meet the adopted climate targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions per share of GDP, increasing the use of renewable energy sources and improving the energy efficiency of the use of available conventional energy have become urgent imperatives.

With its abundant potential to generate electricity from solar and wind renewable resources, the introduction of technological advances and international support in reforming energy production sectors and improving the efficiency of energy consumption in the economy and social sphere, Uzbekistan has a unique opportunity to transform its energy landscape and pave the way for sustainable future.

However, achieving this goal will require a concerted effort from all stakeholders, including policymakers, investors, and the private sector. This article explores the challenges and opportunities of improving Uzbekistan’s renewable energy and energy efficiency and proposes solutions to accelerate progress toward a greener and more prosperous future.

Uzbekistan has experienced impressive economic growth in recent decades thanks to its mining, manufacturing, and resource extraction industries. However, this growth has come with significant setbacks. According to the World Bank, the country now has the fifth-highest greenhouse gas emissions intensity in the world and the highest in Europe and Central Asia due to the use of fossil fuels for energy and the energy-intensive nature of its industrial sector.

This winter, thousands of people in Uzbekistan lived without a reliable source of electricity for about two weeks during abnormally cold weather. The shutdowns exposed the vulnerabilities of a relatively aging infrastructure and the inadequacy of current energy-saving technologies.

In some regions of the country, people shifted to burning coal to heat their houses due to a lack of energy resources such as natural gas or electricity from the grid. This has had negative consequences, particularly in air quality and the accumulation of greenhouse gas emissions.

Another area of concern is the commercial and residential building sectors. Globally the building sector (use of electricity and heat energy for lighting, heating, and hot and cold water supply) accounts for around 40 percent of the total emissions of greenhouse gases. This average also applies to Uzbekistan, where, according to the first biennial update report of Uzbekistan under UNFCCC, industry and construction account for 22 percent of total energy consumed in the country, while building in the residential sector makes up 21 percent.

As Uzbekistan’s population grows each year, energy demand increases. Ultimately, as the country’s demands for energy resources increase, the rising energy demand should come from renewable sources, ensuring both energy supply, sustainable development, and meeting the country’s obligations under the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.

Ambitious plans

The Government of Uzbekistan has been implementing large-scale reforms in the energy sector to diversify its energy resources. One of its first steps was creating an investor-friendly environment to allow international private companies to invest in solar plants to generate, transmit, and distribute electricity. According to the official figures, there have been $8 billion of Foreign Direct Investments in the past three years in the sector, with several solar power plants installed in the Navoi and Samarkand regions.

In February of this year, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev issued a decree to accelerate the use of renewable energy sources and to improve energy efficiency in Uzbekistan. The decree calls for installing solar and wind power plants with a total capacity of 4,300 megawatts by year’s end. It also includes provisions for installing rooftop solar panels in 37,000 households, each possibly selling surplus energy back to the grid. Under the decree’s terms, the Government will purchase unused energy back from the consumer, paying 1,000 soums for each unused kilowatt-hour. In this way, the “Solar House” programme aims to stimulate the installation of low-power solar panels throughout the country, thereby indirectly supporting the implementation of the president’s decree.

energy efficiency, matilda dimovska, renewables, undp

A house with solar panels in Bukhara. October 2022.

The government also calls for solar panels to be installed on at least half of the available area on the roofs of newly built multi-storey residential buildings, and for 31,000 multi-storey residential buildings to be retrofitted with improved insulation. If implemented correctly, these reforms and actions should aid Uzbekistan in achieving its goal of reducing specific greenhouse gas emissions per unit of GDP by 35 percent below 2010 levels by 2030, as outlined in its updated Nationally Determined Contributions (to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change) in 2021.

Good practices from UNDP

Since 2000, UNDP, together with national and international partners, has been working on renewable energy and energy efficiency from various angles. To support the Government’s efforts, UNDP has been providing technical assistance to strengthen policy actions and develop standards on the greening of Uzbekistan’s economic sectors, including the building sector.

A few models have been piloted, including those in health facilities and schools using sustainable locally available energy-efficient materials and technologies. Now is a good time to use the learnings from those models and scale them up.

For example, a joint programme between UNDP, the Global Environment Facility, and the Ministry of Construction and Housing and Communal Services promotes the use of available modern technologies and construction materials to ensure optimal thermal insulation of outer walls, floors, and roofs of residential structures. The “Market Transformation for Sustainable Rural Housing in Uzbekistan” project seeks to develop best practices to inform government policies and actions.

energy efficiency, matilda dimovska, renewables, undp

Thermal imaging inspection of buildings (energy audit process)

UNDP has supported the Government in strengthening energy efficiency requirements for residential buildings by reviewing a series of relevant legal codes. It resulted in improvement of the energy performance of residential buildings since 2020 in Uzbekistan.

In addition, UNDP piloted the use of solar panel systems in 1328 residential houses during 2019−2020 to demonstrate the benefits of renewable energy sources in the residential sector. This experience with introducing solar panels can be further upscaled via the “Solar House” state programme.

energy efficiency, matilda dimovska, renewables, undp

Last year, the first nearly-zero-energy house was constructed in the Yoshlik mahalla of Nurafshan city in the Tashkent region. We believe this house provides a viable path towards achieving Uzbekistan’s climate change pledges while ensuring all homes are warm in the winter, cool in the summer, and energy-efficient all year long.

energy efficiency, matilda dimovska, renewables, undp

Nearly-zero-energy house concept in the Tashkent region

UNDP currently supports the Ministry of Energy in using the SolarCity Simulator tool from the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). The tool is used to model the economic, financial, and environmental benefits of off-grid, on-grid, and/or hybrid technical solutions for the establishment of solar cities based on green financing mechanisms.

To put renewable energy sources and energy-efficient construction within reach of an average consumer, UNDP is developing concessional financial products. This is where UNDP collaborates with the Intersectoral Fund under the Ministry of Energy and a range of commercial banks. Piloting of concessional “Green Loans” to those who might not otherwise have access to traditional financing options can be done. With these loans, people in rural areas would be able to invest in sustainable green technologies, providing economic opportunities while also promoting environment-friendly practices.

energy efficiency, matilda dimovska, renewables, undp

Training process for wall cladding using basalt, 2020

Bringing expertise and best practice has always been UNDP’s primary added value in its support to Governments. For example, UNDP has conducted extensive research and experimentation with energy audits in pilot areas at the household level. The primary goal of these audits is to identify areas of energy loss and come up with recommendations on how to improve energy efficiency of the houses. In fact, the benefits of energy audits extend beyond simply saving energy, as they can also help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, lower household energy bills, and contribute to the sustainable development of the Uzbekistan in long term. The findings of these pilot energy audits of rural households will soon be ready and hopefully will provide grounded recommendations on optimizing rural housing construction in the future, taking into consideration specific local climatic conditions.

In addition, with UNDP support, the Government developed and adopted several Legal Codes no Construction specifically focusing on energy efficiency and reducing GHG emissions from construction and residential sectors. For example, a building standard for energy efficiency was introduced based on the concept of “a passive house”.

energy efficiency, matilda dimovska, renewables, undp

“Passive House” in Darmstadt, Germany

This approach reduces the building’s ecological footprint, making it comfortable and affordable at the same time. UNDP contributed to the development of a legal code on this approach, which is expected to become the standard or future construction in Uzbekistan and will hopefully gain quick popularity among the public due to its long-term profit potential. To ensure the viability of this initiative, training in sustainable insulation techniques should be provided to local specialists.

In conclusion, the shift towards renewable energy may not occur overnight, but it is truly inspiring to witness Uzbekistan’s commitment to embracing sustainable energy and implementing policies that facilitate its expansion. Its initiatives promise to safeguard the country’s natural resources and secure a stable economic future for generations to come. Many good practices and models have been piloted in the past, it is time to scale them up.

This year, International Mother Earth Day is dedicated to the need to “Invest in our planet” with a call for governments, investors, businesses and civil society to join forces to protect the planet. Fossil fuels are a dead end for our planet, for humanity, and for economies. A prompt, well-managed transition to renewables is the only pathway to energy security, universal access to all and the green jobs our world needs.

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As the people and the Government of Uzbekistan forge ahead on their journey towards sustainability, we at UNDP pledge to continue sharing knowledge and good practices, supporting decarbonization strategies for the construction industry, promoting of renewable energy, along with green financial mechanisms that advance sustainable development to ensure a cleaner, greener, and more prosperous future for all.