Nations across eastern Europe, the Caucasus and central Asia are facing a period of major upheaval in their energy transitions due to the impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, given the reliance of the vast majority of countries in the region on imported oil and gas, according to a new report from an arm of the United Nations (UN) and thinktank REN21.

The UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) study, to which some 270 companies and individuals contributed data, found that the 18 countries in the area together saw 25% growth in wind and solar plant built between 2017-2021, reaching an installed base of 106GW.

But since the Russian incursion, some 90% of Ukraine’s wind and 30% of its solar power has been shut-down, having a negative knock-on on “nearly a quarter of the region’s total wind and a fifth of its solar capacity” as the nation has the largest installed renewables plant network in the region.

“The potential in the region [for renewables to replace fossils] has never been in doubt… and we have already seen leading countries Ukraine, Kazakhstan and others building large capacities of wind and solar,” said REN21 executive director Rana Adib, speaking with Recharge.

“[Before the Russian invasion], growth was driven mainly by PV, up 58%, and wind, up 25%, additions. The region’s wind power capacity grew by more than a factor of seven and solar capacity by more than a factor of ten between 2017 and 2021.

“Now [the difference is that] the energy security topic is very much at the heart of renewable energy development in this region,” she added.

In the last four years, according to the UNECE Renewable Energy Status Report 2022, Ukraine installed the most new PV and wind capacity in the region, a total of 8.3GW, followed by Kazakhstan, with 3.7GW, and the Russian Federation, with 3.5GW.

The other nations included in the report were Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kosovo, the Kyrgyz Republic, Moldova, Montenegro, North Macedonia, the Russian Federation, Serbia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan.

“The Russian invasion of Ukraine and its spill-over effect on neighbouring countries are undermining renewable power generation in the short term,” said Adib. “At the same time, it has shed new light on the benefits of a rapid energy transition and could bring a surge in renewable installations in the region.”

Despite progress in the regional energy transition, 13 of the countries surveyed remain “highly dependent” on fossil fuels from a small number of energy exporters, particularly the Russian Federation, with deployment of renewables “hindered” by large subsidies and low tariffs for fossil-based power, the report authors said.

“Renewable energy growth in the region through 2021 was driven mainly by favourable policies and by the falling costs of renewable energy technologies – but now, energy security is absolutely at the forefront. Moving away from fossil fuel has never been as vital for the region.”

The report highlighted the need to improve investment, regional co-operation and domestic supply to boost the chances of achieving the national renewable energy targets now set by 15 or the countries looked at, and the four with net zero emissions or carbon neutrality objectives.

Because “gaps remain in the adoption of policies and action plans, and implementation remains slow”, it was noted, the combined public and private investment in renewables in the region is “modest compared to global growth trends”.

“Investment in renewable energy capacities as well as local and regional supply chains needs to be significantly increased in the region. This will not [be] crucial for building-up long-term energy… but only create economic opportunities”, Adib added, pointing to the finding that “most every” country studied import key technologies such as solar panels and wind turbines.