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By Yuriy Humber

Untapped mineral riches are fueling Mongolia’s ambition to compete with Australia and Brazil in Asia. The nation's resource-based economy grew 21 percent last quarter alone.

This largesse obscures a potential aboveground treasure also awaiting investors.

The world’s most sparsely populated nation has the potential to generate 2.6 million megawatts of wind, solar, geothermal and hydropower, based on data collected by the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the Mongolian National Renewable Energy Center.

That's a fantastic figure. It's seven times the capacity of all the world's operable nuclear reactors combined, according to world nuclear association data. In contrast, Mongolia’s current power capacity is less than that of one large coal plant, just 878 megawatts.

That’s what Newcom Group’s acting Chief Executive Office Byambasaikhan Bayanjargal recently told investors in Hong Kong. Of that, close to 40 percent of the potential is in wind, and Bayanjargal is eager to harness it.

The problem in Mongolia is that with abundant coal resources, it may choose to turn to the quick and dirty solution, following in the footsteps of the U.S. and China, among others.

Newcom, a cross-industry investment group that owns part of Mongolia’s biggest mobile phone network, is investing in a renewable future. The group has six wind-power plant projects that are due to bring 1,000 megawatts online in the country by 2020. In the U.S., that would be enough to power about 800,000 homes. In Mongolia's economy, it would stretch much further.

Winds blow on average at least 25 feet a second in parts of the Gobi desert, which also ranks third globally in terms of solar generation potential.  Newcom and its partners expect to commission a 50-megawatt wind park next year. This plant will be Mongolia’s first independent power producer and the first private investment in the industry.

The project will annually save the burning of 160,500 metric tons of coal and thus 200,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions, and -- most importantly for a desert country -- preserve about 370 million gallons of clean water.

Some of those wind-blown electrons may be transmitted the same place as Mongolia’s coal, iron and other minerals, south, to China. That would be one way for Mongolia to diversify its resource-based economy while retaining ties with its biggest trading partner.

-0- Jan/05/2012 19:37 GMT

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