Comment: Russia’s Premier Putin denies renewable energy any chance in Russia

Publish date: October 3, 2010

Written by: Andrey Ozharovsky

Translated by: Maria Kaminskaya

ST. PETERSBURG – Russia’s Prime Minister Vladimir Putin again insists that nuclear energy is the only alternative to fossil fuels – and calls renewable energy “trifling business.”

It is possible that Putin is simply unaware of global energy industry tendencies – if so, he is glaringly incompetent. All told, investments into renewable energy across the Group of Twenty countries – the world’s 20 most advanced and emerging economies – reach tens of billions of dollars, while installed power-generating capacities running on renewable sources approach tens of gigawatts. In Russia, both of these values hover around zero.

Putin’s remarks on renewable energy came during the VII annual Valdai Discussion Club – a global forum for, mostly, foreign experts on Russia, invited for a sustained dialogue about the country’s political, economic, social, and cultural development – which took place this year in Sochi last month.

The following are excerpts from Putin’s speech as taken from verbatim records available on the premier’s website:

“…You must also know that global energy experts predict a steady growth in consumption. However, the structure of consumption will remain practically unchanged. There may be a very insignificant change despite all the efforts to develop alternative fuels. You can’t convert large power plants to wind generators, although the idea is certainly tempting. You won’t be able to do that for several decades because it’s impossible. Impossible!

“… the German government has decided against closing nuclear power plants. Why? Because there is no alternative, that’s why, because nuclear power generation is the only available alternative to oil and gas today. These projects exist. They are viable alternatives. All other ideas are just for fun now…”

Something to trifle with, indeed. The Valdai Discussion Club participants are mostly foreign journalists, observers, and experts in political science. They know very well that in many countries, wind power installations produce up to five to 10 percent of the total energy generated, while the share of nuclear energy is diminishing globally. This is probably why Putin was being so emotional: It’s one thing to preach to one’s own choir – like the ever-subservient regional governors. But showing one’s prejudices – or indeed, incompetence – to an international audience, that is a different thing altogether. 

To be sure, this is not the first time the Russian premier has shown a clear bias toward nuclear power. Last April, on the eve of an anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, Putin paid a visit to Kalinin Nuclear Power Plant, where he pledged support to the nuclear energy industry and pressed for more nuclear reactors.

As the share of nuclear energy in total power generation was only 16 percent in Russia, compared to over “25 percent to 30 percent in many European countries,” Putin said, “in this respect, we even need to start catching up with developed industrial countries.”

But why has Premier Putin been taking all this so close to heart? At the Valdai meeting, it sounded like, a couple of minutes more into the discussion and he would be ready to have renewable energy proponents “wiped out in the outhouse” – as he once famously said about Chechen rebels. The thing is, either the premier has no access to information about the true potential of renewable energy, or he does have all the right facts, but is rather willing to present the reality in such light as if to demonstrate that clean energy sources were no real alternative to either hydrocarbons or the nuclear energy – just some trifling business, to engage in “for fun.”

Renewables are on a steady growth path globally…

So what about facts? By 2009, the world’s installed capacities for power generation from renewable energy sources reached 250 gigawatts, or about 6 percent of all power generated across the globe.
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According to the International Energy Agency, over $162 billion was invested into renewable energy in 2009 alone, despite the lingering global financial crisis. Bloomberg has projected global investments into green energy capacities will grown to $200 billion by end 2010.

At the same time, the share of nuclear energy in total power generation has been steadily decreasing at a yearly rate of about 2 percent

… but see almost no development in Russia

Facts also say renewable energy is a powerful, highly competitive, and fast-growing sector of economy – a multibillion-dollar industry that would unlikely be so today if it were just “for fun,” as Putin put it. It is further proof of the premier’s incompetence that Russia has almost no projects in development that would envision the promotion of clean energy sources of any kind.

In Murmansk Region, in Russia’s far northern Kola Peninsula – a territory that experts say offers most propitious conditions for the development of wind energy – two wind park projects, with hundreds of megawatts of as-yet untapped potential, have been spinning their wheels owing to a lack of due financial and political support on the part of local authorities. One of these projects, developed by Windlife Energy and Windlife Arctic Power, has already been approved and, should the necessary government support materialise, would see a number of wind farms built along the road connecting the regional centre of Murmansk with the Serebryanskaya Hydropower Plants I and II.

According to the Kola Scientific Centre of the Russian Academy of Sciences, the available wind potential of the Kola Peninsula is around 350 billion kilowatt-hours per year. This is twenty times as much as the entire electricity demand of Murmansk Region, which is currently around 17 billion kilowatt-hours.
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According to Windlife Energy, Murmansk Region could potentially host four sites with a combined wind power capacity of over 1.2 gigawatts, all ready to supply electric power into the grid. Installing another 13 gigawatts is technically possible without connecting these capacities with the grid. Today, the installed capacity of all power plants supplying electricity into the Kola Energy System is 3.7 gigawatts, including 1.17 gigawatts of electricity coming from the Kola Nuclear Power Plant. Wind energy could easily cover between 20 and 25 percent of Murmansk Region’s energy needs.

Sadly, these projects have not been given the attention they deserve. Nor are other major clean energy projects being implemented, such as the construction of a tidal power plant in Mezen Bay in Arkhangelsk Region. The installed capacity of this tidal power plant could reach 15 gigawatts, while its potential yearly energy output could be 50 billion kilowatt-hours – enough energy to both meet the needs of consumers in Arkhangelsk, Murmansk, and Vologda regions and export excess energy to Moscow and St. Petersburg. Even allowing for ten percent of energy losses expected from power transmission over long distances, this project offers much better commercial prospects than the idea of floating nuclear power plants – something the Russian nuclear authority Rosatom has been very keen on – or building additional reactors at the Kola Nuclear Power Plant.

Russia is to grow its share of renewables in total energy generation to 4.5 percent by 2020, but in light of almost zero growth in the recent years – and Putin’s disparaging remarks – the future of these plans remains uncertain.

Russia perpetually behind the clean energy race

In March 2010, PEW Trust published a report entitled “Who’s Winning the Clean Energy Race? Growth, Competition, and Opportunity in the World’s Largest Economies.” View the report in the PDF file downloadable to the right:
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Top ten nations in installed renewable energy capacities include the US, with its 53.4 gigawatts; China, with 52.5 gigawatts; Germany, 36.2 gigawatts; Spain, 22.4 gigawatts; and India, 16,5 gigawatts. The top five to have shown the most five-year growth in installed renewable energy capacities: South Korea, with 249 percent; China, 79 percent; Australia, 40 percent; France, 31 percent; and India, 31 percent.

Five nations lead globally in investments into clear energy sources: China, with its $34.6 billion; the US, $18.6 billion; Great Britain, $11.2 billion; Spain, $10.4 billion; and Brazil, $7.4 billion.

So where’s Russia? Russia is not just lagging behind its major political and industrial counterparts – it is effectively an outsider, where renewables are concerned. We hold an uncontested twentieth place among the Great Twenty nations – both in installed capacities and green energy investments. This means that not only are we far behind our wealthy, prosperous European neighbours, and not only can’t we measure up to such dynamically developing economies as Brazil, China, and India, but in terms of clean energy, we can’t even hold a candle to such countries as Turkey, Mexico, South Africa, Indonesia, or Argentina… Talk about underachievement!

If Russia needed to start catching up with other industrialised nations, that would certainly be the arena it could apply itself in. Given the huge potential that renewable energy sources offer Russia – first and foremost, wind and tidal energy – it’s a shame we hardly use them at all. A stark example of neglectful management, economic short-sightedness, and an irresponsible approach to the use of natural resources.

The cause? Among other things, the sheer incompetence of the powers that be, demonstrated once again by Putin in his statements in early September. With such disregard for promising new technologies, modernisation of Russia’s energy economy – something the Russian leadership has adopted as a linchpin of its latest political course – is simply out of the question.