Renewable Energy Rises in Russia: The Early Steps

By Woodrow W. Clark II and Dimitri Elkin(*)

As renewable energy becomes more widespread, its "green" transformational impact can be seen in some of the most remote corners of the world. Here are two recent examples from Russia, a country not typically associated with the green energy industrial revolution. The EU countries, Asian nations and now China are all embarked on this green revolution. While the USA just started, Russia is moving ahead with its own green renewable energy industrial transformation.

Consider Oktyabrsky which is a small fishing village in the Far East on Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula, with a population of 1,685 that is next to one of the richest fishing areas in Russia, the Sea of Okhotsk that teems with salmon and crab. Oktyabrsky is also one of the most remote areas of Russia. The weather is harsh and unpredictable with frequent storms that batter the windswept shores and wet snow falls even in June. With global climate change, the weather is becoming even more severe. For local residents, reliable supply of electricity is key in their struggle to survive. For decades, Oktyabrsky's sole source of electric power consisted of several noisy diesel electro-generators that require prodigious amounts of fuel. Supply ships come only during the short summer navigation, and during long winter months, the shortage of fuel is a constant worry. Burned diesel exhaust energetically pollutes the air and water in what largely remains, for now, a pristine natural reserve. The fossil fuel is expensive, which accounts for the largest expense line item in the municipal budget.

In 2014, an unlikely sight appeared on the shores of Oktyabrsky. Several hundred feet high, Danish made wind generators were installed as part of Russia's ambitious plan to develop alternative renewable energy in the Far East of the nation. The appearance of these twenty-first century engineering marvels, against the bleak landscape of the post-Soviet desolation, was nothing short of surreal as the photo shows. But there was nothing phantom about the impact of the new industrial installation. Wind power now covers 30 % of the local Oktyabrsky electricity needs, thus reducing fuel expense and boosting reliability of green energy supply along with its less carbon and greenhouse emissions in the air and water. In an economically depressed area where the last new construction occurred decades ago, the small wind farm was a sign of life returning to one of Russia's most remote regions. The wind turbines are now the local residents' favored spot for wedding pictures and that site will hopefully soon be embroidered with new environmentally sound buildings, walk and bike paths, parks and areas for relaxation.

Here is another significant renewable energy story from another region. Lying beyond the Arctic Circle is Batagai, which is a small village in Eastern Siberia with a population of 3,800. Established during the Soviet times next to rich deposits of tin, it has the dubious honor of being one the coldest spots in the Northern Hemisphere, with recorded temperatures of minus 80 degrees Fahrenheit. This village is surrounded by marshy tundra and is reachable by car only during the winter. In the summer, roads turn into lakes, and for several months the residents live off the stored supplies of food and fuel. However, the one source of power that is plentiful during summer time is sunshine: the sun stays up in the sky 24 hours a day!!!

In June 2015, Batagai became an unlikely place where a notable advance in the field of renewable energy took place. Solar energy systems made a big step forward. The first stage is a solar farm with the target capacity of 4 MW that was opened by RAO Energy Systems of the East, a Russian energy utility company. Energy savings are immediate and considerable. Over several hundred tons of fuel are no longer needed to be hauled many miles across the frozen tundra. The solar plant also put Batagai on the map of global renewable energy achievements, especially as this is one of the largest solar power facilities located above the Arctic Circle.

These are just two small examples that illustrate an emerging trend in Russia: renewable energy installation popping up all over the country. Many of these energy producing facilities are much smaller than the massive solar farms now in US states of Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico, Japan and China, but their significance goes beyond their size. It is a sign that Russia has joined the global revolution in renewable energy power sector but for local on-site power at the local communities and cities, which are one of the key bases in the Green Industrial Revolution.

Renewable sector starts to move ahead with a powerful push from wind and sun
Despite signs of progress, Russia's solar and wind sectors are still in their infancy. By the end of 2015, Russia will have only 60 MW of solar power plants operating, a fraction of the 21 GW already installed in the US. Russia's wind power is doing somewhat better, with 1.7 GW of wind projects operating, but this is still tiny compared to Germany's 30 GW of wind power. The reasons for the slow progress are well known since Russia has plentiful supplies of hydrocarbons, including natural gas that allows the nation to keep domestic prices of energy very low.

Russia's image as an ecologically ignorant oil superpower is so well established that it may come as a surprise that during the Soviet period, Russia had many groundbreaking achievements in the renewable energy sector. For example, in the 1930s, USSR was the first nation in the world to construct utility-scale wind turbines. In the 1960s, the Soviet Union opened an ocean tidal electric plant and took the lead in building geothermal power plants. There are currently around 100 MW of geothermal power plants operating in Russia, and about 55 MW of more geothermal planned additional capacity in the near future.

Whatever progress the Soviet Union made with renewables, it was derailed by Russia's economic upheaval during the post-Soviet period (1991-2014), when electricity production fell by one third, creating plenty of spare capacity. During the presidency of Boris Yeltsin (1991-2000) when the USSR transformed into a new Russia, and then the first two terms of Vladimir Putin (2000-2008), the Russian government was preoccupied with delivering economic growth without considering its impact on the environment through the exploiting and exporting of coal, oil and now natural gas.

Today, after a decade and a half of economic growth that started in 2000, Russia's electricity production recovered but the old Soviet capacity has been used up. The social attitudes are also changing. Russia, just like other BRIC nations and developing countries around the world, is seeing a burgeoning middle class who now worries about their environment. And with the recent declines of the cost of renewable power, including solar panels, these renewable energy systems now seems a feasible solution for many energy consumers in Russia.

With its diverse geographic area that stretches from Arctic Circle to the subtropics, Russia sees an especially compelling opportunity for on-site power from renewable energy that is distributed through the country in cities and communities. Such "agile" (i.e., flexible) systems have been a key factor in the development of renewable energy in other countries. An increasing number of nations and regions around the world is adopting progressive environmental and economic policies similar to those started in 2004 in California.

While many areas of Russia will probably remain dependent on gas and coal for the foreseeable future due to central plant energy distribution, there are plenty of communities like Oktyabrsky and Batagai in Russia where renewables make economic and environmental sense.


(*) Dimitri Elkin is a Russian-American businessman and writer. He is a graduate of Moscow State University and Harvard University. His book Russia Turns the Page - Historical Sketches of the End of the Post-Soviet Period was recently published in Moscow.