No matches? Just leave the gas stove on...

Natural gas stove flameTurkmenistan is not a country you hear about every day. That's probably why you haven't heard this crazy story about household energy use:

A few weeks ago my friend Peter was telling me of his travels through the 'stans' of Central Asia. Apart from being generally fascinating and making me want to go travelling, he mentioned this:

In Turkmenistan, natural gas if free, so some people leave their stoves running 24/7 so they don't have to buy matches.

I've heard of energy subsidies, but not a free-for-all like this! Too bad they don't seem to have electric starters on their stoves.

I thought that this must surely be coming to an end (or be an urban myth), but after a quick internet search, apparently not.

That raises another interesting point: only 1.6% of Turkmen can access the internet, so there is not much information out there. It doesn't help that internet at broadband speed costs around $7,000 per month (according to a report in February 2011).

Anyway, getting back to the story on energy, it's not just natural gas:

...the former Soviet republic, once seen as one of the world's most closed societies, has so much gas that officials proudly boast that citizens use it for heating and cooking - free of charge. Water, electricity, and gas have been free, government-provided staples since the country's 1991 independence.

- Bruce Pannier, Turkmenistan: 'Gas-Rich' Residents Shiver In The Cold, Radio Free Europe, 2008. (link)

Not surprisingly, this 'free energy' is not as good as it sounds. The same article quoted above goes on to tell the story of a rural family which has not had gas connected since 1993 (they can't afford the pipes). They have to cook on an open fire instead.

Free energy and energy efficiency?

Economist Pocket World in Figures Book CoverThis got me thinking: I wonder what 'free energy' does to a country's overall energy efficiency? Enter, handy Pocket World in Figures book (it was a birthday present, and yes, I read this book of statistics like others might read a novel).

Sure enough, there was Turkmenistan, listed as the third least energy efficient country in the world. Now, it would be a stretch to say that this is simply because of their free energy policy, as there are a range of factors at play here.

Nevertheless, it is telling that a country with roughly similar GDP per capita (Peru) turns out to be the world's second most energy efficient country. And look, there's Australia, somewhere in the middle, grinding every so slowly to a more energy efficient future.

GDP per unit of energy in Australia, Peru, Turkmenistan 

Source: International Energy Agency (IEA Statistics © OECD/IEA, http://www.iea.org/stats/index.asp), and World Bank PPP data. Via World Development Indicators.

- Ryan McCarthy

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