A quiet energy revolution in Russia

 By Benjamin Plackett

The Russian economy, just like many countries in the Middle East, has taken a beating thanks to the recent plummet in oil prices. Researchers have now begun to ponder a Russia not so reliant on the black gold. In particular, the scientists at Lappeenranta University of Technology in Finland have crunched the numbers and say a portfolio of wind, hydropower, solar, biomass and geothermal energy production would cost 50 percent less than a system similar to the nuclear options deployed in Europe. Their calculations exclude transport and domestic heating, which under their modelling would continue with traditional fuel… 

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The Russian economy, just like many countries in the Middle East, has taken a beating thanks to the recent plummet in oil prices. The commodity fell to below $30 a barrel at the time of writing.

Researchers have now begun to ponder a Russia not so reliant on the black gold. Somewhat surprisingly, they think there’s potential for the nation’s fuel bills to significantly decrease if the country adopts alternative energies, namely wind.

Currently, a combination of coal, petroleum and natural gas accounts for approximately 91 percent of Russia’s energy consumption, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Oil and natural gas revenues also make up more than 50 percent of Russia’s federal budget revenues.

In what has been billed as the first ever, full-scale sustainable energy feasibility analysis for Russia, scientists looked at the technological and economic potential for the country and some of its neighbors to go fully renewable.

“Russia has a huge possibility,” says Christian Breyer, one of the study’s authors and professor of solar economy at the Lappeenranta University of Technology in Finland.

Breyer created a computer model, which considers the energy costs of various types of renewable sources, probable advances in efficiency technologies, weather patterns and energy infrastructure.

“Russia has huge wind potential, which they could substitute domestic use with.” He continues, “And it would improve the economic situation twice. Firstly with the jobs to create the wind farms, and secondly to export more gas and oil.”

Russian renewable energy map

In addition to Russia, Breyer’s model includes Belarus, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The algorithm is based on a number of assumptions. These included that each country would produce its own electricity supply and that they would also construct new infrastructure to properly distribute energy sourced from renewables across the country.

One of the key issues associated with a 100 percent renewable Russia is geography. Wind power is not equally distributed across the vast country, which makes Breyer’s suggestion of a new distribution network critically important.

Currently, much of Russia’s electricity is consumed close to the power plants that produce it. “Only 20 percent of energy travels,” says Breyer, “Most of it is produced and used fairly locally.”

Additionally, Breyer’s calculations did not take domestic heating and transportation into account—his model assumes they will continue to use traditional, non-renewable fuel sources.

After crunching the numbers, his findings suggest that an all-renewable Russia is both technologically possible and financially feasible by 2030. In fact, it would end up costing 20 percent less than the status quo, and 50 percent less than an alternative based on nuclear energy and carbon capture.

“I was surprised,” admits Breyer, “But I’m fearful about making a prediction on whether this will happen. I’m just showing that it’s possible and that they should take it seriously.”

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To achieve a fully renewable system, the model recommends a portfolio where wind accounts for about 60 percent of energy production while solar, biomass and hydropower are then distributed evenly.

Perhaps the biggest flaw in Breyer’s model is that he didn’t look at the average solar intensity or wind flow over a number of years. Instead he based his calculations on the amount of energy that could have been generated from renewables in 2005.

If it turns out that 2005 was an especially good year for wind farms in Russia, it could mean his estimates are overly optimistic. “For this reason I assume an error margin of between 10 to 20 percent,” he confesses, “It’s very important that we check the variability next.”

While Breyer’s analysis shows it’s possible for large countries like Russia to shrink their dependency on fossil fuels without energy bills soaring, it’s an entirely different thing for such a scenario to actually happen.

It’s true that environmentalism does not have the same importance in Russia as it does in Europe where Green parties and NGOs champion renewables and advocate for their adoption.

Arguably the biggest barrier to the proliferation of renewable energies in Russia is political will, thinks Breyer. He says that very few politicians seem interested in his report’s findings; no one is pushing for this change in Russia.

about the author
Benjamin Plackett
I’m a journalist based in London. I report on all things science, tech, and health for a number of different publications. My work has been published by The Daily Dot, Inside Science and CNN among others. I earned my M.A. in Journalism at New York University and my B.Sci in Biology from Imperial College, London.