Renewable energy and energy efficiency are not widely discussed in Russia for many reasons. Germany has certainly been an excellent example of energy transformation, an example other governments would do well to follow, but let’s take a look at the present situation in Russia. Vladimir Slivyak reports from Moscow.
Equipped with enormous resources of fossil fuel and an overfunded nuclear power industry that is running an aggressive international expansion campaign, the Russian government doesn’t care much about issues like energy transition. Moreover, the federal government has been ratcheting up its heavy propaganda campaign inside the country based on a hostile image of the West. Export of natural gas to the European Union is seen by national patriots as a crucial political instrument Russia could use, along with nuclear weapons, to control a possible Western political aggression. And the recent military conflict with Ukraine contributes a lot to this sentiment. While the country’s economic record is very poor, the export of oil and gas provides the opportunity to cover the enormous military expenses – and some wages too. And what is the share of renewables in Russian energy production? Right, it is zero. One more detail to finish this picture is that the most prominent experts consulting the leadership on the subject come from the fossil fuel industry and their view of renewable energy is that it has no chance in Russia. And so they tell the government. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Think the US or Germany 30 years ago. No doubt, Russia looks pretty hopeless here.
However, early this year an interesting report came out in Russia, entitled “A Review of Possibilities for Introducing Renewable Energy in the Russian Federation” and focused on the barriers that exist for the development of renewables and energy efficiency in Russia. A group of energy experts and scientists had spent about a year studying the most important obstacles to Energiewende in Russia and produced a set of recommendations.
Fossil fuel and nuclear energy have caused a lot of damage over the last 60 years to the environment and public health in Russia. But what is the potential of renewables, anyway, and is it really close to zero, as the fossil fuel industry insists? Not really. The report states that every third ton of fossil fuel can be replaced with renewable energy in Russia and no mysterious space technology is needed to achieve this. And as for the price tag, renewable sources of energy look expensive for one simple reason: they don’t get anything nearly close to the amount of subsidies that the fossil fuel industries enjoy. Even though Russia has put its signature under the G20’s recommendation to eliminate fossil subsidies, it is not doing much in this regard.
One of the most serious obstacles to energy transition in Russia is the country’s energy pricing policy. Because the standard of living is not very high, the price of energy is heavily subsidized by the government. In some Russian regions, actual energy production is ten times more expensive compared to what people pay for electricity. There are several regions across Russia that spend a half of their budget just to make energy affordable. The government does this simply in order to avoid a mass public revolt. At the same time, the central government would rather keep energy production and distribution as much centralized as possible. Moscow desperately needs to keep everything under its own control.
It is surprising, then, that Russia even managed to adopt two legislative acts that introduced renewable energy targets. One was approved in 2010 and set a target of – hold your breath – 1% of renewable energy in total energy production by 2013! It was not achieved anyway. The updated target now is 4.5% by 2020.
Another surprising – and much more important – fact discovered by the authors of the report is that Russian regions actually have the ability to set their own targets. Struggling against the chokehold of the high costs of energy production, regional governments might actually like to venture into renewables, which do not require expensive fuel to be transported for thousands of miles and also do not hurt the environment. This is where the authors of the report see some of the greater potential for Energiewende in Russia. Of course, this would still require federal budget support, but there are influential regional politicians who might consider lobbying for it.
Yet another factor that may gain importance in the near future is the poor condition of Russia’s energy infrastructure. In many places the power lines, the plants themselves, and other infrastructure have become very old and unreliable. This is a frequent cause of blackouts that forces people to look for more reliable, locally controlled small power sources.
Still, getting local support for renewables will help, but it will not allow for rapid development unless financial support from Moscow arrives, the report says.
Recently, some promotion on the federal level has already started for new wind and solar plants. But the requirements are tough: the proposed renewable energy plants must be large enough to get approval, so smaller companies are effectively shut out of competition.
That this development has already started is another surprise in and of itself. And maybe it is good that so far these changes have not been discussed much publicly. Lest the “national patriots” start to see a political threat in it. We are bound to have a public discussion of renewable energy later anyway, especially when we start to see wind farms springing up around cities. But it would be better for renewables to have grown to some extent and demonstrated its potential by the time this discussion starts, so people have some facts in hand.
Vladimir Slivyak is co-chair of the Russian environmental group Ecodefense. “A Review of Possibilities for Introducing Renewable Energy in the Russian Federation” (in Russian) was published by the Russian Ecodefense in January 2014 with support by the Heinrich Boell Foundation.