How can Abkhazia’s electric energy crisis be solved and its only hydroelectric energy station be saved?
Abkhazia has been experiencing energy blackouts from 11:00 to 14:00 since 20 February. The need to cut the power arose because of the low water level of the reservoir of the Ingur hydroelectric power station.
The Ingur(i) hydroelectric station is unique, given it is located directly in the zone of the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict and is the only joint Georgian-Abkhaz project. The concrete wall of the station, with a height of 270 metres, is located on territory controlled by Tbilisi, and five generators are located on territory controlled by Abkhazia. The parties jointly manage the hydroelectric station and share the electricity it produces.
According to an informal agreement between Tbilisi and Sukhum(i), 40 per cent of the electricity generated by the station is consumed by Abkhazia, and 60 per cent by Georgia. Abkhazia is almost completely dependent on this electricity.
“We don’t have gas canisters because it’s not safe, but we may have to install them anyway.”
How much is Russia prepared to help?
The last time such a situation arose was in 2016, when there was a cold winter with a small amount of precipitation.
The blackouts, however, lasted less than two weeks, thanks to the fact that the Abkhaz government made an agreement with Russia to make up for the lost amount of electricity.
Chernomorenergo, the company responsible for distributing energy in Abkhazia, says negotiations are currently underway with Russia.
“We do not know under what conditions and in what volume Russia will agree to help us, nor what amount of debt this may result in,” says the general director of Chernomorenergo, Aslan Basaria. “Our politicians are looking into it.”
On 24 February, the electricity came back on as per schedule: at two o’clock in the afternoon. But soon, a transformer malfunctioned, and the centre of Sukhum(i) was left without electricity for more than a day.
Observers said the transformer breaking was inevitable, because there was no electric feed for three hours, the equipment cooled down, and when the feed was resumed, the cold wires and other technical components could not withstand the sharp increase in voltage.
To prevent this from happening, electricians strongly recommend that the public turn off all electrical equipment from the network.
Sangulia does just that. Therefore, during outages, he doesn’t leave the cafe, and makes sure that all of his expensive equipment is unplugged from the electrical grid.
“But worst of all, is that there is no electricity during our peak hours. Why can’t they turn it off at night?” Sangulia asks.
The problem? Irrational consumption of electricity
“To save the maximum amount of water in the reservoir, you need to save electricity during the most energy-intensive time,” says Levan Meboniya, chairman of the board of directors of the Ingur hydroelectric power plant.
However, shutting off the electricity does not solve the problem – it is only a temporary, emergency measure.
The main problem is not the lack of precipitation or the flow of melted water. The problem is the irrational consumption of electricity.
“Abkhazia consumes 7.8 million kilowatts per day. With a minimum tariff of 40 kopecks [a small fraction of one cent], the population does not bother to save [electricity],” says Levan Mebonia.
“Maybe its convenient to turn on all the heaters in the house and open the windows for fresh air. But it is not very rational. The people have such a mentality: you can’t force them to be more sparing in their use of electricity. We need the republic’s leadership to raise the price of electricity several times over.”
Mebonia says there is no other option other than forcing the population to be more conscious of its electricity use.
“Now that the government is actively discussing this issue, perhaps something will be done – It must be resolved. In Tbilisi, the price of electricity is 20 tetri [about 7 cents], but in Abkhazia – 1.6 tetri, this is just impossible,” says the head of the Ingur(i) hydroelectric station.
Abkhaz Facebook users are actively discussing the power cuts.
Many write assuredly that Abkhazia has been deliberately left without electricity in order to justify an increase in tariffs.
Others suggest that the authorities have specifically created this situation in order to gain public support for a project to initiate oil exploration and production.
Some are calling for the country’s energy industry to be privatized.
The head of the Energosbyt company, Inal Lazba, says these assumptions are mere speculation. He, too, says that the problem of electricity in Abkhazia can be solved by citizens’ rational use of electricity.
“You just have to pay [more] for electricity, and turn it off when it’s not needed. There’s no need to talk about raising the price of power, but if it falls into private hands, this will be inevitable,” says Inal Lazba.
The only source of energy in Abkhazia today is the Ingur(i) hydroelectric station, and many homes are also heated by electricity.
The Sukhum(i) hydroelectric station itself, repaired at the end of last year, cannot work without a feed from the Ingur(i) hydroelectric station, it does not have an autonomous mode.
According to the technical director of the Sukhum(i) hydroelectric station, Rezo Zantaria, the station benefits the power system of Abkhazia, but does not resolve the issue. Its capacity is slightly less than 20 megawatts and this is enough only for adding to the grid during peak hours of energy consumption.
More research needed, or just an effective energy development strategy?
The energy issue has gone so far that a special parliamentary commission has been established in Abkhazia which is investigating the activities of Chernomorenergo.
Deputy Dmitry Dbar, a member of the commission, doubts that blackouts and power transmission from Russia are really needed.
But his colleague Batal Aiba is sure that what is needed is not an investigation, but the concept of energy development in Abkhazia.
While the MPs, the energy sector and authorities are trying to find a way out of the energy crisis, private companies are launching activities to produce alternative sources of electricity.
Russian company Sinotorg recently presented a project for the manufacture of small wind and solar power plants. It is planning to build a new enterprise in the city of Ochamchira in a location of a former oil processing plant.
Sinotorg’s aim is not just to solve the electricity issue in Abkhazia – the company only says it is interested in the favorable territorial location of the republic.
The price for the construction of small stations, as well as how much the electricity they produce will cost, has not yet been discussed. But one can hardly expect that the price will be lower or even the same at which the residents of Abkhazia receive electricity from the Ingur(i) hydroelectric station today.
How to save the hydroelectric station
Ingur hydroelectric power station head Levan Mebonia, who strongly supports the idea of raising the cost of electricity, says the optimal price would be 0.7 cents per kilowatt hour.
“It would be a good income. it is unlikely that residents of Abkhazia will use as much electricity at this price as they do now. Even if they just start saving light, for the Ingur(i) hydroelectric station it will be a big relief, and the load will be reduced significantly,” Mebonia says.
Today, the Ingur(i) hydroelectric station is financed via Georgia, which has taken a loan from the European Development Bank for the full renovation of the station. In 2020/21, the last stage of its restoration is to be implemented. This is a repair of the diversion tunnel and cleaning silt from the bottom of the reservoir.
“And for Georgia, which has many small hydropower plants, the Ingur(i) hydroelectric station is a key point in the power system. Georgia cannot do without this station,” Mebonia says.
“The station provides 1,300 megawatts of power. There is no object of such scale in the whole of Transcaucasia. We have to save the station.”
Meanwhile, the operation of the Ingur(i) hydroelectric station is also a safety issue. In the event of an accident at the dam, Abkhazia, Georgia, Turkey and Russia could suffer.
But it is difficult for a simple inhabitant to imagine a connection between a light bulb in his apartment and millions of tonnes of water.
“Every month I pay 8 thousand rubles [106 euros] for electricity,” says Sangulia, the cafe manager. “Why should I be concerned about their [the station’s] problems?”