By Dave Elliott
Renewable energy could supply Russia and Central Asian countries with all the electricity they need by 2030, and cut costs significantly, according to a new study from Lappeenranta University of Technology (LUT) in Finland. It says that renewable energy is the cheapest option for the region and could make Russia very energy competitive in the future. A 100% renewable energy system for Russia and Central Asia would, it claims, be roughly 50% lower in cost than a system based on the latest European nuclear technology or carbon capture and storage.
The modeled energy system is based on wind, hydro, solar, biomass and some geothermal energy. Wind amounts to about 60% of production whilst solar, biomass and hydro are distributed evenly, around 20% each. The total installed capacity of renewable energy envisaged is about 550 GW. It would all be supported with pumped hydro storage, batteries, and power-to-gas conversion of renewable electricity into gases such as hydrogen and synthetic natural gas. The new system would also be integrated by HVDC supergrid links, with the whole integrated system lowering the cost of electricity by 20% for Russia and Central Asia, including giant neighbouring countries such as Kazakhstan, which, like Russia, has a vast wind resource. For example, an earlier study, by supergrid pioneer Gregor Czisch, had put the wind resource in Siberia and Northern Russia at 350GW, and at 210GW in Kazakhstan. Though a more recent study put the latter even higher, at a massive 760GW, and also saw solar (PV and CSP) as having a large potential, along with smaller biomass and hydro possibilities.
Although the renewable capacities in the other smaller Central Asian countries are not as large, some are pushing ahead quite rapidly to develop them. For example, Azerbaijan aims to get 20% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020, including wind turbines on platforms in the Caspian Sea.
If some of this huge potential could be used it would represent a big change from the present. The total energy generation capacity in the region is now 388GW (mostly in Russia), of which wind and solar only accounts for 1.5 GW, with Russia planning just a very small increase in renewables, to 4.5% by 2020. Professor Christian Breyer, co-author of the new study, clearly sees a very different future as being possible. He said the study ‘demonstrates that the region can become one of the most energy-competitive regions in the world’. So Russia might potentially become a green superpower! So might Kazakhstan: http://energytransition.de/2016/01/energy-boost-for-russia-and-neighbours/
This possibility opens up some interesting geopolitical implications. The scale of the resource in the region is so great that there might be a significant potential for export, especially after 2030. Russia and Kazakhstan at present rely heavily on export of oil and gas, but that won’t last for ever and, quite apart from its environmental benefits, this new resource might be seen as a logical replacement. There have already been proposals for tapping some of it to meet the EU’s needs, via supergrid links and biomass imports.
Equally, to the east, China will need more energy as it continues to expand. It has been building a pipeline to Russia to get fossil gas – it has little of its own. It’s indigenous renewable resources are large, including maybe 2-3TW of wind on and offshore, and some of this is being developed – it now has 145GW of wind capacity in place and plans for much more. But imports, using supergrids, from further afield could also help and might have balancing advantages, given the smoothing possible from a wider geographical spread.
So Russia, and some its is neighbours, might be in an interesting position, able to push prices up as the energy-hungry West and East compete for supplies of green energy. Much as now with fossil fuel! How likely is any of this to happen? The resource is certainly there, and Russia has the industrial and technological capacity to develop it. It has also committed itself to reducing emissions. However, despite that, for the moment Russia is almost totally focused on coal, oil and gas, and like Kazakhstan, on exporting oil and gas. In terms of new options, Russia is focusing mainly on nuclear, with plans for massive expansion and export of nuclear technology around the world. Kazakhstan, meanwhile, is one of the world’s largest exporters of uranium. Not much room then, given this perspective, for renewables, apart maybe from some expansion of the already large hydro capacity in Russia. Just more nuclear in Russia, and anywhere else that will have it.
However, it’s unclear whether nuclear is really going to expand globally, even in Asia, while renewables look certain to grow. For example, renewables, including hydro, currently supply around ten times more electricity in China than nuclear, with wind generation having already overtaken the nuclear output. The situation in India is different. It is expanding renewables fast, but it is also trying to expand nuclear rapidly, using mainly imported technology. Markets may also be opening up for nuclear in the Middle East and Africa, perversely perhaps given their huge solar resources. However, overall, globally the nuclear contribution has been pretty static at 11% of electricity over the last few years (compared to 23% from renewables), with old plant closures often outpacing new plant starts (e.g. in the US), and the prospects for the future in most parts of the world do not look brilliant. For a critical global review see: http://www.theecologist.org/News/news_analysis/2987010/nuclear_renaissance_failing_industry_is_running_flat_out_to_stand_still.html
It will be interesting to see which options win out, and what role Russia will play. It seems to want to offer itself as the purveyor of nuclear technology to the world, based on increasing nuclear reliance within Russia. Though, as the Finnish study above indicates, that may not be the only, or even the best, long-term option. Although sadly, to put it mildly, a switch to 100% renewables by 2030 in Russia is not very likely, even given a change in political regime. However, the report’s startling conclusions, and the prospect of cheaper renewable options than the technologies that are currently being pursued, may change perceptions, so that a shift in that direction might be possible.