Book review: Renewables in the Russian Arctic

Book Review.

Renewable Energy Sources in the Isolated Communities of the Russian Arctic (Возобновляемые источники энергии в изолированных населенных пунктах Российской Арктики). Authors: Berdin, V. H., Kokorin A.O., Yulkin, G.M., Yulkin, M.A. (Бердин В.Х., Кокорин А.О., Юлкин Г.М., Юлкин М.А.). Publisher: WWF, 2017. 80 pp.

By Hilma Salonen

Far-flung, sparsely populated settlements of the Russian Arctic have, since the Soviet times, received energy deliveries via the so-called Northern Delivery system. The deliveries travel distances of thousands of kilometers, often in conditions where roads are in such a condition that using waterways and ice roads is the only option. It may thus take from several months to even 1.5 years for these shipments to reach their destination. These difficulties raise the price of fuel considerably, so that the share of transport expenses in the fuel cost can be as big as 70%, and the deliveries are only possible with the help of heavy subsidies. To complicate the situation further, the deliveries are under increasing pressure as the effects of climate change warm up the Arctic, melt ice roads and prolong the thaw period.

The report that we are reviewing, published by WFF and written by V. Berdin, A. Kokorin and G. Yulkin and M. Yulkin, concentrates on evaluating current solutions to the challenges posed by the distances in the Far North through the increased use of renewable energy as well as on identifying the regions where and technologies with which these challenges might be overcome in the future. The writers of the report have succeeded in meticulously mapping the past efforts and current potential for future projects in each region of the Russian Arctic. The cities of Murmansk and Arkhangelsk, and the autonomous districts of the Nenets, Yamalo-Nenets and Chukotka, Taimyr, Sakha and Kamchatka are examined separately in detail, with special attention to their resources and projects of wind energy and solar power. In most regions, these resources, especially when combined with diesel generators, have the best potential to provide solutions to the problem of energy supply in the far-flung small settlements. These energy sources can be installed on a small scale in a range of locations and help to ease the problem of storage of typical fuels used in those areas.

The report takes the effort to illustrate both the limits of the central grid, the geographical dimensions of local renewable resources and the location of the settlements with the help of maps. In general, the wind power potential is highest along the coasts of the Arctic Ocean, while the prospects of solar power stand out mainly in Sakha and parts of Kamchatka. As for the centralized power grid, it is very limited especially in eastern Siberia and the Far East, concentrating around the bigger urban settlements and excluding vast areas of sparsely populated land and its industries. While some settlements dependent on the Northern Delivery system are already mixing energy from wind turbines and solar panels with that of diesel generators, Arctic conditions pose a lot of challenges to this. For example, in locations where the winds are especially strong, e.g. in Tiksi, several pilot projects have failed as the equipment has been blown over. Therefore, the best results have been achieved under ‘intermediate’ conditions, for example in Murmansk and Kamchatka, where the winds are strong but the overall climate is milder. To complicate the issue further, the current legislation requires wind energy equipment to be at least partially manufactured or assembled in Russia, limiting the possibilities to utilize foreign technology and expertise.

Thus far, most regions have experimented with small wind energy installments. The republic of Sakha is a notable exception due to its large potential for solar power, and Kamchatka for its geothermal sources and plans for hydropower dams in the region’s smallest rivers. Utilizing tidal power is also a theoretical possibility in many regions, although not in near future. The problem common to all regions is that the current maintenance problems of the central grid networks require more attention than the needs of the remote settlements. The report concludes that many actors in the field are waiting for successful examples from pilot projects in other regions, whose example could be then copied.

The republic of Sakha has been a frontrunner in the field because of good cooperation between the regional government and private energy companies in developing pilot projects previously. The conditions for wind energy might be more favorable in Murmansk, where the winds are strong and the overall climate milder, but the motivation to develop renewable energy is diminished by the fact that 99% of the population lives within the reach of the centralized power network. In some regions such as Taimyr, only 64% live in urban settlements and thus the need to update the isolated energy supply becomes much more pressing. Unfortunately, the energy company RAO Energy East, owning most companies responsible of the power stations of Eastern Siberia and Far East, has been suffering from financial difficulties lately and is thus concentrating on only the most necessary maintenance work. Although balancing imported fuels with renewables would save money and fuel, the savings are not yet big enough to motivate regional leaders to make them a priority. In addition, the poor state of the power network should be considered before any major changes in the fuel mix take place, but the problem is that the electricity tariffs are already too high. In other words, for the time being, only a long-term investor such as the state is a viable option for developing the use of renewables.

The report recommends more flexible solutions to be considered in order to overcome both the financial and maintenance problems and gain long-lasting results. Especially combined wind-diesel units are seen as a way to ensure sufficient energy reserves while also decreasing the need for imported fuel and coal. These types of innovations also seem to be more exciting for investors. The report also stresses the need for a more efficient fuel economy, which would entail replacing many outdated diesel generators with new, energy-efficient ones that could also be connected with wind or solar generators. Also here, the greatest progress thus far has happened in Sakha. In addition, it is suggested that the requirement for localized production of renewable equipment could be loosened regarding these type of pilot projects and that a targeted subsidies system should be implemented to meet the targets. There are successful examples of solar power and combined wind-diesel units in a larger scale from Sakha and Murmansk, albeit in connection with the centralized grid and not within isolated energy systems. On this basis, and with adequate funding, it may be possible to develop them further, according to the report.

In this report, Berdin et al. succeed well in presenting the realities facing new renewable energy projects in the Russian Arctic, from the geographic and environmental as well as the financial point of view. In their analysis, it becomes clear that the situation cannot be solved with a simple solution. Instead, several problems, such as the poor condition of the central power network and the lack of investors for renewable energy projects, are connected to each other. On the other hand, the report also notes that the actions of the Russian state should strive to be more consistent and practical-minded. Despite the special attention given to the role of renewable energy in the isolated regions of the Arctic, a detailed support program is still lacking. In order to push for real progress in the field, a common effort between all stakeholders is required. Another obstacle in the way of renewables as a standardized power source in the Far North is that ecological reasons do not seem to motivate the regional decision-makers or local residents, so they cannot offer these solutions a competitive edge.

Although the report is quite comprehensive, a critical note must be made. Considering the complexity of the situation, it would have been useful to get more concrete information regarding other actors potentially interested in developing local renewable sources, such as gas and oil companies or mining companies. Regarding the increasing effect of global warming on the Northern delivery system, it would also have been useful to see more maps depicting the complicated delivery routes in order to better estimate its future challenges. However, the report gives a good basis for future research on the subject by opening up several possible growth points to be examined.

Hilma Salonen is a PhD student at Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki. Hilma’s research focusses on the use of renewable energy sources in the Russian domestic energy market and energy efficiency issues in the Russian energy sector. She can be contacted via email: hilma.salonen@helsinki.fi

Illustration: Batagay solar power plant, the largest solar power plant north of the Polar circle. Capacity: 1 MW. Area size: 4.2 hectares. Equipment: Suntech STP300-24/Ve. Temperature range: max. +40°С, min. -45°С. Source: Petr Okoneshnikov, ysia.ru

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