Geopolitics Complicates Solutions to Turkey's Soaring Energy Demand

Clean energy sector faces development challenges as Turkey becomes a hub of energy exchange between Asia and Europe

Aug 26, 2010

On August 6, the citizens of Turkey consumed more electricity in one day than ever before, at a record rate of 0.39 kilowatts per person, in large part because extremely hot temperatures had pushed air conditioner usage to new levels.

The Turkish Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources expects installed power capacity to double by 2020 to meet growing demand. That means 100% growth in the power sector in less than 10 years.

Turkey's energy minister, Taner Yıldız, in a speech the day after the new record was set, heralded the news. "Turkey has overcome the economic crisis experienced last year," he said, and took comfort in the increasing energy consumption as a symbol of vigorous economic growth.

But in the modern world order, where political autonomy, membership in elite markets and national security are tied to controlling fossil fuel consumption and lowering greenhouse-gas emissions, does it still make sense to celebrate the growth of Turkey's appetite for energy?

Not all Turks think so.

The day after Yıldız's speech, Turkey's largest English-language newspaper printed an editorial describing the record consumption as a symbol of "underdevelopment and poor planning." Less than week later, Turkish Minister of Environment and Forestry Veysel Eroglu highlighted the need to take "precautionary measures" against climate change in his welcoming remarks to a visiting delegation from Mexico, where the next global climate change conference will occur.

Unless another recession sharply constricts demand, however, Turkey soaring energy consumption will affect energy markets throughout Europe and Central Asia, and highlight whether renewable fuels are viable in the global marketplace, or not.

Where Will the Energy Come From?

Compared to its neighbors, Turkey is exceptionally rich in renewable energy resources — and remarkably poor in traditional fossil fuels. Three-quarters of the country's primary energy supply is imported, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, including 90 percent of the petroleum and virtually all of the natural gas it uses. Russia is Turkey's top energy supplier, followed by Iran.

Turkey's energy dependence on these countries has compromised its relationship with western nations as well as its own security within a global geopolitical hotspot.

For example, Turkey has refineries, and it recently began selling refined oil to Iran, despite U.S. and European Union sanctions, partly for profit and partly to ensure that Iran continues to sell Turkey the crude oil and natural gas it vitally needs.

Complicating the situation further, Russian-Ukrainian disputes have disrupted the transfer of natural gas from Russia not only to Turkey but Europe at large. Turkey placed no curb on the amount of crude oil that Russia shipped through Turkey's Bosphorus and Dardanelles Straits, despite the fact that the waterways were becoming dangerously congested, but recently began moves to reduce the shipping traffic.

To lessen its reliance on Russia and Iran and increase its own standing as an energy hub, the Turkish government has pursued development of the Nabucco pipeline that would transport natural gas from smaller countries to its east, such as Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, through Turkey and through Eastern Europe.

Turkish officials are also pursuing domestic nuclear power production. Yıldız recently predicted that Turkey would begin using nuclear energy by 2018 or 2019, acknowledging that the decision would not be wholly popular but declaring, "We intend to continue with such project[s] because Turkey has earned the right to."

Nuclear power faces strong political and environmental resistance in Turkey, largely because Turkey's high earthquake incidence makes the country a dangerous place to build nuclear reactors; earlier this summer, Turkey's opposition party appealed the construction of a new nuclear plant in court.

Safer Alternatives

Turkey has cleaner and safer options for weaning itself from foreign fuels. Hydro-power is at the top of the list. As of 2008, hydro-power accounted for one third of Turkey's total installed electric capacity. The generating capacity of 13,828 megawatts (MW) derived from water resources represents just a quarter of Turkey's estimated hydroelectric potential, according to the country's General Directorate of State Hydraulic Works.

Water, however, is the only renewable energy resource that Turkey utilizes well. 

The country has an estimated potential of 31,500 MW of geothermal energy, according to the International Geothermal Association — enough to heat one-third of Turkey's homes — but an installed capacity of merely 1,177 MW. Solar energy from photovoltaic sources is similarly hardly developed, with an installed capacity of less than a single megawatt, but solar thermal energy production is more advanced, supplying one percent of the country's total primary energy production.

Wind energy capacity grew by 75 percent in 2009, reaching 801 MW of installed capacity, according to the Global Wind Energy Council, with plenty of room for growth given the country's estimated wind energy potential of 90,000 MW.

Wind power in Turkey suffered a setback earlier in the decade during a financial crisis. In 2000, the Government of Turkey had invited proposals for up to 390 MWe of windpower, and about 25 were undergoing evaluation. The effort was canceled as part of policy changes required by the International Monetary Fund, which was providing aid to Turkey during the financial crisis. Without the government price guarantee to offset the
relatively high expected cost of the renewable power produced, none of 17 windpower projects that had already received approvals went forward. 

Turkey adopted its first
renewable energy law
in 2005, to spur investment in its renewable resources. While the law made some progress, requiring energy retailers to buy a certain amount from renewable energy generators, it lumped all renewable resources together and pegged renewable electricity prices to average wholesale electricity prices, which made many potential renewable investments unprofitable.

Last summer, the Energy Commission of the Turkish Parliament drafted a new Renewable Energy Law that, in the words of the commission's leader, Soner Aksoy, would fix these problems and "transform Turkey into a base for investment in renewable energy." Turkish Parliament still has not passed the bill, however, and in a recent interview with a local daily, Energy Minister Yıldız said the government would not change renewable energy prices:

"Those who are waiting for a price increase so that they can sell their investments at a higher price shouldn't expect an increase," he said.

Lagging in Climate Mitigation Policy

Turkey has lagged behind developed countries in its efforts to mitigate climate change. Citing a low gross domestic product and high population growth rate — 1.24 percent compared to the Organization for Economic and Cooperative Development (OECD) country average of 0.68 percent — Turkey refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol until early last year. Even so, the country only signed on after strong pressure from the European Union, whose trading bloc Turkey is eager to join.

During the Copenhagen climate conference last winter, Turkish environmentalists, including the director of Greenpeace Turkey's climate campaign, aired their frustration over their government's inaction on climate change. The Turkish Ministry of Environment and Forestry again declined to set a GHG-emissions reduction target against a baseline year in its National Climate Change Strategy.

Still, the strategy document released last May included a variety of progressive climate policies. 

It resolves to increase wind generation capacity to 20,000 MW, and geothermal electric generation capacity to 600 MW — a 25 and 30 times increase, respectively, over current levels. The document estimates that these measures would reduce GHG emissions from electricity 7 percent below what they would otherwise have been in ten years.

With a carbon footprint of 5 tons of CO2 (equivalent) per person in 2008, Turkey emits less greenhouse gases than any other country in the OECD. But that may change, if present trends continue. Turkey's emissions have increased more than any other OECD country except Korea since 1990, according to the OECD.

Though comprehensive emissions reduction will hinge on parliament and private investors, Turkey's National Climate Change Strategy  reflects a growing understanding of the fundamental threats posed by climate change.

In the strategy, the environmental ministry calls for trees to be planted on 2.3 million hectares of land by 2012 to create carbon sinks and for drought-tolerant trees to be identified and planted in especially arid areas. The ministry intends to improve urban forestry and efficient land-use, to prevent the formation of urban heat islands, to develop early warning systems to reduce flood disasters, and to train farmers to spot increased salinity on agricultural land that will experience extreme rises in heat and evaporation.

The national strategy also announces the establishment of a climate change research institute devoted to studying the national and regional effects of climate change.

Forecasts Troubling

Climate change studies from the past few years paint a troubling future for Turkey. Sea-level rises of five to seven inches and temperature increases of two to three degrees Celsius by 2030 were forecast for Turkey in a study presented to parliament by the Turkish Electrical Power Resources Survey and Development Administration in 2007. Other studies have also warned of growing water scarcity and have demonstrated correlations between higher temperatures and the increased prevalence of diseases such as malaria and leptospirosis. 

Local popular opinion is also recognizing the risks of a warming world, with newspapers drawing the link between rising temperatures and a foreign fish invasion threatening the native Mediterranean ecosystem, or the floods ravaging Pakistan.

Turkey's geopolitical situation creates unique circumstances as it tries to meet its growing hunger for energy, but it shares similar challenges with other nations whose economies are in similar states of transition, poised to further develop fossil fuel infrastructure and dependence while attracted by the opportunity of a cleaner development model.

(Photo of Istanbul and the Bosporus courtesy of NASA; Maps courtesy of US State Dept)

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