Caspian Region

Central Asia Struck by Major Region-wide Blackout

The cause of the blackout is not yet clear, but fingers are being pointed at Kazakhstan.
Image: MaxZolotukhin/Shutterstock

(Eurasianet) Millions of people across Central Asia, including in much of southern Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan, were left without electricity from around lunchtime on January 25 as a result of a major technical fault.  


In Uzbekistan, the region’s most populous country, the blackout was confirmed in Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara, Kokand, and even in the far west of the country, in Nukus. Kyrgyzstan’s capital, Bishkek, as well as southern cities like Osh and Jalalabad were likewise affected. Kazakhstan’s commercial capital, Almaty, and cities in the country’s south were also without power.


Energy officials from the three nations, which are linked by a Soviet-vintage power grid, said work was underway to restore electricity supplies, but there was no immediate consensus over the cause of the disruption.


Operations at airports and metro systems in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan were suspended after power was lost. Customers of major mobile phone service providers in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan reported loss of connections. Hospitals had to fall back on generators to keep essential equipment running.


The scale of the power outage will once more focus thoughts on the durability of what remains of the Soviet-built Central Asia Power System, also known as CAPS. This grid was developed in the 1970s and was used to connect all five former Soviet Central Asian republics. Northern areas of Kazakhstan, however, were linked to the Russian power grid.


The logic behind making all the republics power-interdependent was that mountainous nations like Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan were able to produce hydro-generated electricity in excess of their own needs in some parts of the year. Power sent to more industrialized republics like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan would then be reimbursed in kind in other phases.


While the system worked smoothly when all the republics answered to Moscow, coordination quickly faltered after independence. Poor coordination later escalated into outright bickering over the proper distribution of water resources and how much use certain countries were making of electricity flowing through the grid.


Turkmenistan pulled out of the grid in 2003, and Tajikistan followed suit in 2009, abandoning the remaining three in an often-uncomfortable arrangement.


Uzbekistan’s Energy Ministry appeared to be pointing at Kazakhstan as the starting point of the region-wide blackout.


“Today at 10:57 a.m., as a result of a major accident on the unified power grid of Central Asia, there was a power outage in [the cities of] Almaty, Shymkent, Taraz, Turkestan and in adjacent regions,” the ministry said in a statement. “As a result, power outages were also seen in the energy system of Kyrgyzstan, including in Bishkek, Osh, Jalal-Abad and other cities.”


These events, Uzbek officials said, led to a domino effect causing the forced suspension of operations at its own key electricity producers.


“Because of the fact that the Tashkent thermal power plant and the Syrdarya thermal power plant are linked to the Central Asia unified electric grid, this accident led to the automatic shutdown of both those plants,” the Energy Ministry said.


Other power plants were knocked offline in Uzbekistan.


Kazakhstan’s state power company has yet to comment on that chronology. It has said, however, that the surge in demand for power in the south of country, caused by the failure of the regional power grid, in turn caused another surge on the unconnected 500 kilovolt transmission line joining south and north Kazakhstan, which was completed in 2009.


“As a result … a significant number of users in southern areas of Kazakhstan have been disconnected. The volume of rationing is around 1,500 megawatts,” the company, KEGOC, said in a statement.


Each country’s power company resorted, as the outage dragged on, to disconnecting from the grid and falling back exclusively on domestic generation.


“On the instructions of the Kyrgyz Energy Ministry, power companies have begun a phased restoration of energy supply to consumers and bypassing the unified electric grid,” Elzada Sargashkaeva, the spokesperson for the National Electrical Grid of Kyrgyzstan, said in a statement on Facebook.


Energy officials in the other countries made similar pledges. Residents of Almaty and Bishkek began reporting on the restoration of power supplies around the time those announcements were made.