Kazakhstan has just launched operation of the largest solar power station in Central Asia, in the central Karaganda Province, the heart of coal country.
Authorities in Kazakhstan have pledged to "go green," the theme of EXPO-2017 in Kazakhstan's capital, Astana, and the solar plant near the town of Saran that started operation on January 24 is a first step toward that goal.
The 307,664 photovoltaic panels cover an area of more than 160 hectares and have the capacity to generate some 100 megawatts (MW) of power, providing some 145 million kilowatt hours annually.
The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) provided a loan of nearly $53 million, and the Green Climate Fund extended a loan of some $22 million toward the project's estimated cost of around $130 million. Germany's Solarnet partnered with SES Saran, the latter being described as "a special purpose company incorporated in Kazakhstan and owned by the German-based group Joachim Holding."
The 100 MW of power the Saran plant will supply is not much. The EBRD noted the new solar plant would "contribute to achieving the Kazakh government goal of non-hydro renewable energy accounting for 3 percent of all power generation by 2020."
Kazakhstan has huge oil reserves and is the world's leading producer of uranium, but at least 75 percent of Kazakhstan's power needs continue to be filled by coal. It is a resource that Kazakhstan has in abundance -- some 37.5 billion tons.
But this dependence on coal is taking its toll on the environment. Last year in Temirtau, some 40 kilometers north of Saran, black snow fell on the ground, alarming locals and sparking calls for the government to take measures to find another source of generating energy.
According to the EBRD, the Saran plant will "help reduce CO2 emissions by 93,500 tons per year."
On its own, that won't bring white snow back to Temirtau soon, but it is a start.
The EBRD is helping to finance construction of another 100 MW solar power plant in Kazakhstan's southern Zhambyl Province.
The operators of the Saran plant say the solar panels can withstand snow and rain and will operate for some 40 years. Even in adverse weather conditions, the plant can still deliver some 10-15 MW.
That is not to say there are no drawbacks to the Saran plant. RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, known locally as Azattyq, reported the cost of electricity generated by the plant would be 36.41 tenges ($1=377 tenges), which is 2- to 2.5-times higher than the average rate. The Saran plant was due to start operation in November 2018 but this needed to be rescheduled several times.
Kazakhstan has vowed that by 2050, the country will generate half of its electricity needs through renewable resources.