Renewable Energy Sources

With the largest territory in the world, Russia should be able to capitalize on the use of wind, solar, and biomass power, which are more evenly distributed over large areas than coal, oil, or gas deposits are. However, at present the country is far behind the United States, Germany, or even Denmark in the use of renewables. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA, 2003), Russia could satisfy over 30% of its energy needs from renewables, but at present they account for less than 3% of the total energy mix, and less than 0.5% if hydropower is excluded. Compared to the United States, Russia generates 30 times fewer watts from alternative energy sources other than hydropower! Indeed, about the only renewable energy source generated in Russia is hydropower. Russia has 12% of the world's developed hydropower resources, and it is behind only the United States and Canada in hydropower generation worldwide.

Once a dam is built, hydropower costs less than either nuclear or thermal power per kilowatt produced. The Volga River has 11 big dams that produce cheap electricity. A major problem in the Volga basin, however, is the decline in sturgeon species because of the dams. Fish hatcheries help somewhat, but the large sturgeon are history. (Poaching of black caviar in the Caspian Sea is of course another reason for the sturgeon's decline.) Large Siberian rivers are also tapped, especially the Angara–Yenisei and the Ob–Irtysh systems. Recently dams were completed on the Zeya and the Bureya Rivers in the Amur basin and on some tributaries of the Lena in eastern Siberia. Relatively few dams exist in mountainous regions of Russia, however.

A site that has been repeatedly proposed for hydropower generation is the scenic Katun River gorge in the Altay. This, however, is a World Heritage Site and a popular tourist destination, so any future plans for building a dam and flooding the gorge are bound to generate massive opposition. To date, the most powerful dam in Russia is Sayano-Shushenskaya on the Yenisei (6,400 MW); this is about as powerful as the biggest hydropower plant in the United States, the Grand Coulee on the Columbia River in Washington State. However, it produces less than half the power of the Iguasu Dam on the Parana in Brazil, and only one-third of the Three Gorges' capacity. One of the geographic problems of using more hydropower in Russia remains its seasonal climate: An average dam produces only a fraction of the energy in winter than it does in summer, because of the much-reduced water flow under ice. Also problematic is flooding of large fertile floodplains. Construction of the Volga reservoirs in the 1950s destroyed hundreds of villages and a few historical towns, such as Kalyazin, with its famous old cathedral bell tower defiantly standing in the middle of the Rybinsk reservoir. Outside Russia, important hydropower facilities exist in Ukraine, Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan. In the latter, United Energy Systems of Russia completed the new Sangtuda-1 hydropower plant in 2008. However, in the fall of 2009 the plant suspended its electricity sales to local users, citing payment delays. Additional hydropower installations in Tajikistan are being built by Chinese and Iranian interests.

Russia has a huge potential for using wind power, although Kazakhstan and Ukraine have an even better potential per square kilometer of territory. Coastal locations in the Far East; the Yamal Peninsula; mountain passes in the Urals and the Caucasus; and flat steppe areas show the greatest promise. So far, however, virtually no wind power has been utilized in any FSU country. The problem is lack of consistent wind over much of the Eastern European Plain, where the population concentration is the heaviest and the need for energy the greatest. Nevertheless, more wind generation is likely to be developed in the next 10–20 years; it is estimated that about 12 mmt of coal can be economically replaced by wind in the near future. About one-third of this power would come from European Russia, and two-thirds from Siberia and the Far East.

Russia has relatively low potential for solar power generation, despite its size. It is a northern country, and much of its territory experiences heavy year-round cloud cover. Better potential exists only in the extreme south (e.g., in the Kuban and Astrakhan regions) and in parts of eastern Siberia (Yakutia, Buryatia). However, even there the solar potential per square meter is much lower than in the Central Asian republics, especially Turkmenistan, as well as Armenia and southern Ukraine. About 46% of U.S. territory has good potential for solar power generation, but only 6% of the U.S.S.R. (Pryde, 1991). Nevertheless, the Soviet Union had experimental solar stations in the Crimea (Ukraine), Armenia, and Uzbekistan. There is continued interest in both solar heating stations and photovoltaics in the region. In the IEA (2003) report, the overall economic potential of solar power is estimated as the equivalent of 12.5 mmt of coal per year—about the same as for wind power. This, of course, is only an estimate of what is economically feasible in the near future, but it puts things in perspective: Russia mines well over 300 mmt of coal annually, so neither renewable option is likely to replace coal anytime soon.

The geothermal potential of Russia is virtually all concentrated in the Far East, with the exception of low-heat devices (heat pumps) that can be used anywhere. In the Far East, Kamchatka has 22 active volcanoes, and the Kuril Islands 21. Geysers and hot springs are found in Kamchatka and Chukotka. The economic potential of geothermal power, according to the IEA (2003) report, is about equivalent to 115 mmt of coal per year—a much higher figure than that for either wind or solar power, at least given the economic assumptions. However, almost all of this power will be coming from a very remote region unconnected to the national electric grid. Two small geothermal stations already exist in Kamchatka. Local uses of geothermal heat are also possible in parts of southern Siberia and in the Caucasus. Ukraine has limited potential for geothermal power development in the Carpathian Mountains and the Crimea.

Finally, Russia has a vast potential to produce ethanol, biodiesel, and energy from wood chips or hay. About 35 mmt of coal can be economically replaced with biofuels in the near future (IEA, 2003). Some agricultural regions (e.g., Kurgan, Altaysky Kray, Rostov) have already been using ethanol in tractors and combines. However, the efficiency of Russia's big farms is lower than that of U.S. farms, and consequently the biofuel production is more expensive. Also, because of Russia's vast petroleum reserves, the oil lobby is strong and does not want competition. Both ethanol and biodiesel are mainly made from warm-season crops (corn and soy, respectively), and only a few areas in the country have adequate climate for their production. There is also a concern that increasing the acreage dedicated to biofuels will use up some land available to food crops. Production of electricity from wood chips is a more feasible long-term option for Russia, given its huge forest reserves and plenty of waste available from the forestry sector. There is additional biofuel production potential in Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, and Kazakhstan.