Russia pushes for renewables, but entrenched power lobbies and poor organization remain foes

Prirazlomnoe_neft-1. The Mikhail Ulyanov Tanker docks with the Prirazlomnaya platform to onload oil. (Photo: Gazprom)

Russian government officials are revisiting an idea that was all but junked by President Vladimir Putin in 2010: renewable energy and the notion that it could be profitable business for the country.

Deputy Energy Minister Alexei Teksler was on Saturday quoted as telling a conference in Abu-Dhabi that renewable energy in Russia “has serious economic foundations” and would be “profitable” for the Russian economy, according to the official TASS newswire.

Teksler announced a goal of increasing Russia’s reliance on renewables by 10 times by 2035 – up from less than one percent today.

He pointed especially to Russia Northern and Far Eastern regions, saying, “renewable energy is acquiring special significance” in those places, and helping to bring down costs of powering remote regions by slashing the need for fuel oil and its expensive transport.

“Already, we are seeing that these decisions have shown their economic effectiveness and advisability,” Teksler was quoted as telling his international audience. He added that, “within the next 20 years, it’s planned to boost by 10 times the production of energy from renewable sources” in Russia.

Pyalitsa1-1. Solar installations bring constant electrical to the remote Kola Peninsula village of Pyalitsa, (Photo: Courtesy of Gennady Popov)

By 2024, he said the Russian government wants to see 8 to 10 gigawatts of its power coming from renewable sources.

Andrei Zolotkov, a Bellona adviser on nuclear energy and renewables based in Murmansk, however, was tentative about greeting the promises enthusiastically.

“I would not put ‘profitability’ as the first advantage of renewable energy,” he said in an email interview. “I would put first the necessity of its use in concrete populated areas for one simple reason – the ability to refuse the use of oil products.”

New moves from Putin – sort of

For those who remember President Vladimir Putin’s remarks on renewable energy five years ago, in which he characterized alternative sources as “trifling business,” said a significant shift to renewables was “impossible,” and asserted renewable research was “just for fun,” the new embrace of renewables as actually beneficial business is a surprising about-face.

Putin’s speech in December before the Paris climate summit showed some tentative signs of this thaw, especially when he spoke of bringing “breakthrough technologies” to bear on the climate crisis.

And though many Russian environmentalists told Bellona that Putin was just playing to the crowd in Paris, they nonetheless acknowledged that his speech reflected the ravages Russia is experiencing at the hands of climate change.

putin climate change.jpg Putin addressing the Paris Climate summit on Monday. (Photo: Still from Kremlin.ru video)

The country has become the world’s fourth largest emitter since the Soviet collapse, following China, the United States and India.

Zolotkov, that renewable energy “will develop in Russia – it’s a demand of time and necessity.”

“The process has made some progress and is gradually gathering speed,” said Zolotkov. “Now that the government has started talking about it, there’s hope for definitive results in the near future.”

Some of those results came as soon as Monday, when Putin issued an order to revamp Russia’s car industry with an eye toward producing electric cars (in Russian) by 2025.

No crown jewel of Russian renewable experience

But Zolotkov acknowledged that Russia lacks any crowning achievements in the renewable field, aside from the success of a few Far Northern villages running on a combination of solar panels, windmills, and diesel generators.

“Russia still has rather significant opposition to [a renewable] direction in energy,” said Zolotkov. “The oilmen, and gas industry and the nuclear industry think the more power produced the better.”

He added that Russian energy policy also relied on a centralized structure “that produced power for industry and the general population alike” which made assessing power needs difficult.

Where renewables are working

Yury Servgeyev, a renewable energy project coordinator with Bellona’s Russian offices, however, took heart at renewable developments in the Far North and the perspectives for renewables in the Far East.

He said an email interview that villages in the Far North that are using a combination of wind, solar and diesel are saving 231 tons of fuel a year.

He added that implementing similar renewable programs in Russia’s far northeastern Sakha Republic could reduce diesel fuel needs there by 46,000 tons for a savings of $16.5 million annually.

But he agreed with Zolotkov, saying Russia’s renewable proponents lacked both the consolidated influence of the oil, gas, and nuclear lobbies, as well as the experience and equipment to build a large-scale renewable infrastructure.

For wind power, said Sergeyev, this is due largely to localization of production of windmills and their deployment. Because of this heavy drive to localize wind farm projects, only one 35 megawatt facility is slated to be built in 2016 in Russia’s Ulyanovsk Region in the Volga basin.

Sunshine for solar

Solar power, however is faring much better in the country’s southern regions, said Sergeyev.

“There is high demand for solar energy in the private and small business sector, especially in areas not covered by electricity and gas,” he said. “Large scale solar generation also actively developing – in December 2015, two new solar stations where launched – one in the Orenburg Region, with 25 megawatts of power, and the other in the Republic of Khakassia, with 5.2 megawatts.”

russian solar Russian Orenburg Region solar installation in the southern Urals (Photo: russiagogreen.ru)

But ambitions for renewable energy development in Russia remain exceedingly modest when compared to other countries, said Sergeyev. By his calculations, the plans announced by Deputy Energy Minister Teksler amount to 16 gigawatts of renewable power – when adding solar, wind, and hydroelectric – by 2024.

By that year, he said, “China will have hundreds of times more” on the renewable front.

“However, existing Russian measures to support renewable energy sources creates opportunities for their development, including local production of appropriate equipment,” Sergeyev said, on the optimistic end.

But, he warned that, “The high cost of capital and the lack of financial resources are hampering industrial development in Russia, including power engineering.”

Charles Digges

charles@bellona.no