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Tina Casey headshot

The Sleeping Giant Stirs: Russia Revs Up Renewable Tech

By Tina Casey

TriplePundit is in Abu Dhabi this week where global energy leaders are meeting for the seventh IRENA Assembly and the World Future Energy Summit.

The gathering provides an up-close look at the challenges involved in accelerating the pace of decarbonization. The two-day event is packed with activity, so it's difficult to pick out just one bit of standout news. But so far it looks like the contribution of the Russian Federation could be among the most interesting in terms of future impact.

TriplePundit had an opportunity to speak with Russia's First Deputy Energy Minister Mr. Alexey Teksler, who laid out the country's plans for the renewable energy field. Setting aside other news involving the U.S. and Russia, our conversation revolved around the growth of global demand for innovative energy technology.

A head start for Russia on renewables...

In terms of energy resources, Russia has been in the public eye mainly on account of its vast fossil fuel reserves. However, the country's energy profile also includes a healthy dose of renewable energy, primarily in the form of hydropower.

The former USSR cemented Russia as a global hydropower leader in the 1960s, Mr. Teksler explained, and hydro now accounts for 17 percent of the country's energy mix. (For those of you interested, the International Hydropower Association provides a handy timeline of global hydropower development.)

The latest global hydropower rundown from the International Energy Agency places Russia as one of the top five producers in the world. The other four are China, U.S., Brazil and Canada.

Interestingly, Russia and the other top hydro producers far outstrip the next five by a wide margin in terms of hydropower potential. EIA puts the hydro potential for the top five countries at 8,360 terawatt hours per year. The next five -- DR Congo, India, Indonesia, Peru and Tajikistan -- only hit a combined total of 2,500 TWh annually.

Russia has ample room to expand its hydro sector, but an increase in output is also possible without building new hydro dams. The country's hydro power generator, RushHydro, has embarked on a modernization initiative that includes a number of innovative R&D projects to boost efficiency.

Mr. Teksler also mentioned that the USSR was an early adopter of wind energy, but those former efforts involved technology that has been surpassed by the turbines available in today's market.

As a side note, the USSR was host to one striking example of very early wind turbine technology. The turbine began operating near Yalta in 1931. It was designed with a horizontal axis and had a capacity of 100 kilowatts with a 32 percent load factor -- not shabby by today's standards!

...and a new push

At several points during our conversation, Mr. Teksler emphasized that Russia has sufficient capacity to fulfill its needs through its traditional power sources.

Mr. Teksler said, though, that in global terms the world is entering "a new period of energy, a new history of new energy."

"We see growth globally ... technology growth is driving the decision to develop renewable resources."

Although Russia does not need the additional capacity from renewables, the country's policymakers have recognized that the global demand for renewable energy is accelerating, Mr. Teksler claimed. For countries with the expertise, that translates into new opportunities to develop and export renewable energy technology.

In that regard, it's worth noting that RushHydro's recent R&D efforts have resulted in several patents, including improvements in spillway technology, geo-technical materials (aka clay or bentonite mats) for hydropower structures, and monitoring systems.

Russia is now embarking on a new push for solar and wind, Mr. Teksler told us, in order to develop its own supply chain and expertise with an eye toward technology export. He estimated that approximately 6 gigawatts of renewable energy capacity would be enough to launch a viable domestic supply chain.

In 2015, PV Magazine reported on several new developments in Russia -- including an advanced, high-efficiency photovoltaic cell and the construction of a wind and solar microgrid to enable a remote village in the Bashkortostan region to go off the central grid. The project was undertaken as a more economical alternative to replacing aging power lines.

Mr. Teksler noted additional large-scale renewable energy projects Russia will soon deploy. Two major onshore wind farms are slated for development in the next two years. In a demonstration of how new wind turbine technology has matured commercially, these are no small potatoes. A 35-megawatt wind farm is getting under way this year in the Volga region, and next year a 150-megawatt farm is on the table in the south.

Offshore wind could also be in the works. A proposed wind farm off the coast of Karelia has made the news recently, though Mr. Teksler said plans for this project have not yet firmed up.

Our conversation also touched on two areas closely related to renewable energy technology: energy efficiency and advanced manufacturing. These sectors also provide Russia with opportunities to develop and export new technologies.

New opportunities for business

A statement Mr. Teksler contributed to the IRENA (International Renewable Energy Agency) Assembly underscores Russia's historical perspective on the demand for renewable energy technology:
"... The world is changing rapidly. Today renewables should stop being seen as an "alternative," should be developed side by side with traditional energy and become mainstream instead."

The statement also emphasized Russia's interest in applying its technology sector to renewables:
"... The Russian Federation is a huge country with great technologic potential. Not only are renewables crucial in terms of supplying energy to isolated and remote areas of the country, but it is also extremely important for us to build up our own competencies in the area of 'energy of the future,' to develop and test technologies and equipment."

That could translate into a significant new employment sector for Russia. Last year, TriplePundit noted that renewable energy employment in some countries was beginning to show signs of slowing. That hitch was evident in countries that have already developed a renewable energy sector large enough to shrink. With the exception of its hydro sector, Russia is just getting started, so it has room to grow even when other countries experience cutbacks.

As for the potential impact of Russia's new technology initiative, consider that the last time Russian scientists embarked on a cutting-edge mission with global, historic implications, the result was the first satellite launched into space, the Sputnik in 1957.

That event galvanized the U.S. scientific community into action, resulting in the creation of NASA, the planting of the U.S. flag on the moon and the routine deployment of solar technology in aerospace, a niche dominated by the U.S. solar industry for many years.

The "space race" also lead directly to the establishment of the International Space Station, which kicked off in 1998 with the launch of Russia's Zarya control module, funded by an international coalition representing the U.S., Europe, Canada and Japan.

In terms of private-sector opportunities, the space station supported numerous innovations that have steadily trickled into commercial use.

That brings us back to IRENA and its mission of supporting the transition to renewables.

One key takeaway from the IRENA Seventh Assembly in Abu Dhabi is nations and businesses are moving too slowly toward decarbonization. Part of the slow pace has to do with regulatory environments, financial markets and other structural factors, but an equally important factor is the technology gap between what exists and what is needed.

If the story of international cooperation in space is any guide, Russia's decision to compete in the global renewable energy marketplace could be the spark that helps accelerate another historic transformation.

Image (screenshot): International Space Station via NASA

Readers please note: This interview took place with the help of translators.


Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

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