From barriers to possibilities
The most powerful Russian solar power plant is currently operating in Crimea, which is by no means surprising. However, the Far East remains an absolute leader in terms of construction speed and commissioning of new projects in the field of renewable energy
Only here, thanks to the efforts of RAO ES of the East PJSC, the implementation of RES technologies is systemic and allows solving the most acute regional problems today. Solar, wind and geothermal sources bring electricity to isolated settlements, and allow saving millions of state budget funds annually.
The Russian Far East has a huge potential for renewable energy development. The sun shines on a major part of the region’s territory 250–300 days a year. Moreover, there are big opportunities to use wind energy and an immense number of small rivers (on Sakhalin Island alone, there are almost 40,000 rivers). And this is not including its volcanoes and geothermal sources. The prospects are unlimited.
In spite of economic difficulties, alternative power generation in the Far East keeps developing systematically. Today on Kamchatka Peninsula, 40 percent of energy consumption is supplied by geothermal sources. Wind power farms have been built in Ust-Kamchatsk and on Sakhalin. Thirteen solar power plants have been built and are operating successfully in Yakutia, including the biggest solar power plant north of the Arctic Circle, in the settlement of Batagay, commissioned in December 2015. The capacity of this plant, consisting of 3,360 polycrystalline modules (on a territory of 4.3 hectares or four soccer fields) is one megawatt. With the project costing almost 200 million rubles, it has led to diesel fuel savings (the only energy source in the settlement) of 300 tons or nearly 16 million rubles annually.
Power engineers consider the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia) as the center of RES development in the region. For a region with a territory exceeding that of France by four times, a population of only about one million people and a temperature range of 110 degrees (from minus 70 degrees in the winter to plus 40 degrees Celsius in the summer), renewable power generation is not a tribute to fashion, but an issue of survival.
There is no unified energy system in Yakutia, in the Arctic Zone and in the regions of the Extreme North life is sustained on local power generation, mostly running on diesel fuel. Considering the cost of diesel fuel and long delivery periods, in some settlements the cost of one kilowatt-hour reaches 383 rubles, and often at some diesel stations it almost doubles – up to 685 rubles per kilowatt-hour, says Vice-Chairman of the Government of the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia), Igor Nikiforov.
“Fuel delivery to some settlements takes up to two years,” says the first deputy prime minister of the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia) Alexey Kolodeznikov. “First the fuel is transported down the Lena River, then it is stored in the base station until the beginning of the Arctic Navigation Season over the Arctic Ocean. Afterwards, when the Northern Sea Route opens, the fuel is forwarded to other storage points, and after this, we wait for either the winter roads (an automobile road operable during winter only), or the unfreezing of the northern rivers. This leads to high costs per kilowatt-hour.”
Cross-subsidies make the situation with tariffs even worse – the price load on maintenance of local power generation is redistributed to consumers of the central power supply zone. The load on population and enterprises under the cross-subsidies program reached 6.8 billion rubles in 2016.
Local authorities acknowledge it is possible to decrease tariffs and the load on the power system at the expense of liquidation of the cross-subsidies program and the use of other sources of energy. According to Alexey Kolodeznikov, it is obvious right now that under the prevailing conditions of the Republic, with its climate and distances between population centers, renewable energy sources are very beneficial. Local stations with a capacity of up to one megawatt may become sources of energy in remote communities.
The first solar power plant
The first solar power plant in Yakutia was installed in the settlement of Batamay, the population center closest to the Republic’s capital city, isolated from all power grids. The road from Yakutsks to the settlement down the Lena River by motorboat takes nearly four hours, which for the locals is considered rather close. The plant consists of 258 panels with a total planned capacity of 60 kilowatts, and allows saving 15 tons of diesel fuel annually (nearly 600,000 rubles), stated Alexander Yefimov, head of Alternative Energy Sources Unit of Sakhaenergo. During the season of active sunlight, the plant generates 70 percent of the energy consumed by the settlement, and in the winter, it generates nearly 40 percent. All the rest is provided by a diesel generator.
This SPP is constructed out of imported equipment – Chinese solar panels and German inverters. The installation cost six million rubles, with almost the same amount being spent on storage elements.
There are 13 SPPs (1,335 kW) in total operating in Yakutia today, but this is definitely not enough for a huge territory with a limited infrastructure. A unique regulatory framework was developed in the Republic to attract investments and to develop renewable energy. However, the ruble’s weakening against foreign currencies also affected energy projects. According to the estimates of specialists, the payback period of investments in this sphere is 7–10 years, but due to the foreign currency exchange rate, the cost of equipment has increased, and the payback period has been increased respectively.
Nevertheless, interest in the Republic from the side of foreign companies is not decreasing, and this is not just a question of profits. Natural and climatic conditions of Yakutia pose not only a challenge, but also provide certain advantages for the Republic, which has become a unique site for the development of innovative technologies in the field of RES, or, as power engineers say – the place where nature tests not only people, but equipment as well.
From problem to solution
Patrick Willems, the head of IFC’s program on Developing Renewable Energy in Russia, is convinced that the alternative power generation has a promising future in the Far East. “The world has good examples of RES development in isolated regions. For instance, in the city of Kodiak, Alaska, where up to 99% of energy is generated by alternative sources. We just need to consider obstacles as opportunities,” the expert stresses.
In addition to economic feasibility, the adoption of the Paris Agreement on Combating Climate Change also forces Russia to develop RES. According to the document, member states must decrease greenhouse gas emissions by 25% from the level of 1990, and decrease all emissions by 5 percent by 2030. This means that Russia can be expected to improve its regulatory framework and create conditions for the development of renewable energy sources. The hope remains that RES development will start a little bit before the hydrocarbons run out.