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Renewables in Russia – not much interest

By Dave Elliott

Russia’s renewable energy potential is vast. A 2003 IEA report said that, overall, renewables with economic potential corresponded to about 30% of the country’s then total primary energy supply, while the technically viable potential was estimated to be more than 5 times greater than its energy needs. Only about 20% of the hydro resource has been tapped so far, and the target for new renewables is very  low.

This may prove to be short sighted. The wind resource has been put at 350 GW just in Siberia/Northern Russia – about the same as the total wind generation capacity so far installed world-wide. In theory that could generate 1100 TWh p.a., more than Russia’s current electricity production. Not all of that resource could be accessed easily, at least not for some while, but there are also many other renewable options. A 2007 estimate by Black and Veatch put the total renewable resource that could be used by 2020 at 194 GW, with 119 GW of hydro, along with 60 GW of wind and 15 GW of biomass. There is also a surprisingly good solar resource in the south, and very large tidal resources in the north, maybe 100 GW if all of the larger sites were developed, as well as some good local geothermal resources.

So how far has Russia got? Hydro currently supplies 16% of its electricity, from around 50 GW installed, but the so-called new renewables have hardly been developed, with only around 200 MW of solar and wind installed so far. Moreover, Russia only aims to get 4.5% of its electricity from non-hydro renewables in 2020, maybe 6 GW.

Why so little? There are obvious problems with using some of the resources: as with hydro, much of the wind and tidal resource is in remote areas and there would be a need for long distance HVDC supergrids to transmit power back to the industrial areas, or synfuel/gas production for storage and long distance transport/piping west. But that’s not impossible for an advanced country like Russia. It already does it with natural gas. Certainly the winters are very cold and long, but solar energy can play a valuable role even in the north, when available, and is very available in the south, and also elsewhere, in the hot summers. And biomass is very widely available – Russia has many very large heavily wooded, agriculturally-focused regions.

For the moment though, apart from some hydro expansion, none of these options are seriously on the agenda. In 2010 Vladimir Putin said ‘You couldn’t transfer large electric power stations to wind energy, however much you wanted to. In the next few decades, it will be impossible.’ Nuclear was, he said, the only ‘real and powerful alternative’ to oil and gas, calling other approaches to meeting future energy demand ‘claptrap’.

Some nevertheless see small-scale renewables as being relevant in remote regions. Oleg Popel, a renewable energy expert at the Russian Academy of Sciences, has pointed to the ‘2/3 of Russia’s territory (20 million people), that is not part of the centralized systems and where diesel energy already now is too expensive’, as being suited to decentral technologies, adding, ‘in terms of autonomous energy our country could set an ambitious goal to become the leader’ .

Renewable Energy World (REW) ran an interesting article quoting Cody Thompson, a programme analyst at IFC’s Advisory Services for Europe and Central Asia: ‘There has been some success in the regions on the retail market, specifically solar plants in Yakutia and wind stations on Kamchatka. We view isolated regions such as these as having great potential for the development of renewable energy, as they often rely on expensive and heavily subsidized diesel generation. As such, renewable technologies can compete economically even without additional support from the government, when compared to the true cost of diesel generation, including fuel costs and subsidies.’

However REW also quoted Ivan Dmitrij Graciov, chair of the Russian Duma (Parliament) Energy Committee, who seemed less than enthusiastic about solar: ‘Sakha, like Kamchatka and Sakhalin, our remote and isolated regions, sure, don’t have many energy alternatives due to the adverse climate conditions. But developing solar capacity there cannot be seen as a single solution, especially in the light of the mind-blowing cost at $3 per kWh’ [this seems very high: he may have meant $3/kW, and even that is high].He went on: ‘In general, I don’t like to see when the hype about green energy compromises conventional energy sources’. For Sakha, Graciov explained, building a floating nuclear power plant in Tiksi could be ‘perhaps the best solution’ long-term. Economically, nuclear was ‘much smarter and substantiated than developing the expensive non-hydro renewable sources’.

Interestingly though, the REW article noted that Crimea already has around 400 MW of PV and wind capacity installed – twice what the whole of Russia has! So you might think the annexation of this sunny region into Russia could change the picture slightly. Grachiov was dismissive: ‘The Crimean solar generation cost, now at a whopping 0.34 euro cents, is largely fed with the budget money. This is pretty insane taking into account that Ukraine has been on the brink of bankruptcy for quite some time. For many, it is first a vivid example of super-expensive solar energy, not of the benefits it gives’. It’s certainly not clear what will happen there – Crimea’s four PV plants, with a total capacity of 227 MW, benefited from the Ukrainian feed-in tariff, but it seems they can no longer run under that lucrative scheme and it’s not clear if Russia will support them at the same level. It’s the same for the 7 wind projects. It seems they all had to shut down after annexation.

Overall, Russia does not seem keen on green energy: Grachiov said ‘The 200 MW we are receiving now from non-hydro generation may seem to some like our backwardness’, but he asserted it was expensive and ‘the advanced Germany spends $40 billion in green subsidies annually. I don’t think this is a right thing to follow’. So renewables may remain on the margins, and even the low 2020 target may be missed. According to the Energy Forecasting Agency, quoted in the IFC’s 2011 Waking the Green Giant report, only about 0.3 – 0.4 GW of new renewables may be installed by 2020: the 4.5% target might not be met until 2030, with maybe only 6.1 GW in place.

Things have improved since that study, with in July last year nearly 500 MW of PV being given support for the period 2015-18 via an auction process, and support for more being on offer: .

However, for the future, rather than renewables, Russia is mainly looking to nuclear. It currently has nearly 22 GW of nuclear capacity, and is pressing ahead with a major nuclear expansion programme, hoping to nearly double output by 2020. Longer term it is aiming for nuclear to supply 45-50% of its electricity by 2050, and maybe 70-80% by 2100. And it hopes to export the technology world-wide, presumably to replace its crucial export income as its oil and gas reserves dwindle, although some Russians believe the abiogenic theory – that oil and gas are not fossil-derived, and that there are huge primordial hydrocarbon resources (very) deep down:

Leaving that aside, renewables do give it an alternative, increasingly cheap and unlimited, option: given its huge resources, Russia could become a major exporter of green power. Indeed there have been EU-oriented proposals for just that, or at least Russian offsetting of EU targets. An Energy Policy paper argued that ‘EU–Russian cooperation in the renewable energy field would present a win-win situation: (EU) Member States could achieve their targets on the basis of Russia’s renewable energy potential, while Russia could begin to develop a national renewable energy industry without risking potential price increases for domestic consumers-a concern of great political sensitivity in Russia.

Some of this might simply involve importing biomass from Russia, but there is also the option of electricity exports to the EU via new supergrid links. Although there are huge political and economic issues involved (just as there are with its huge gas exports now), this new development option could allow Russia to become a major regional player in the new sustainable energy world. See ‘RUSTEC: Greening Europe’s energy supply by developing Russia’s renewable energy potential’, Energy Policy 51(2012) 618-629.

Will policies change? In 2009, Academician Oleg Popel noted that ‘people in our country have got used to the idea that our resources of gas and oil are virtually inexhaustible, therefore both ordinary people and the government are quite relaxed about the future. Some federal and regional authorities simply don’t know enough about alternative energy and its advantages. At the same time prices and tariffs for centralized power supply services are still much lower compared to those in the rest of the world, which undermines the economic competitive advantage of renewables. And last, but not least, is insufficient financing of research, pilot planning and, most importantly, demonstration projects in Russia’s regions.’

However things may be changing. Climate Change may not be the big driver it is elsewhere, and it has quite large fossil fuel reserves, but Russia  can’t rely on exporting fossil fuel for ever. At the St Petersburg Summit in Sept. 2013, Putin apparently backed the pro-renewables policy adopted by the G20 group of industrial countries and said ‘it is essential to encourage the green growth and support the world community’s efforts to prevent climate change’. We will have to wait and see what that means in practice!

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