Russia’s wealth of fossil fuel resources has inevitably made it easy for the country to ignore renewable energy sources (RES). In recent years, however, several government initiatives have been launched to develop this sector, and at the REENCON-21 International Renewable Energy Congress co-organised by the Skolkovo Foundation in Moscow last month, international experts agreed that Russia’s RES potential is huge.

Russia's volcanic Kamchatka Peninsula has potential for geothermal power production. Photo: Flickr.

The topic of alternative energy, which includes solar, wind, geothermal and marine power, was also raised by Skolkovo Foundation president Victor Vekselberg at the recent Open Innovations forum.

“I think we can start to reduce the catastrophic lag that exists in the sphere of alternative energy compared to other countries, using the potential that we have,” Vekselberg told an audience comprised of resident startups of the Skolkovo Foundation, one of whose five clusters is devoted to energy, including RES.

“We are the community that can prove to sceptics that Russia has that potential,” Vekselberg said, citing the foundation’s joint centre at the Ioffe Institute in St. Petersburg that makes hybrid solar panels using Russian technology.

“Only the Japanese can compete with us in terms of the production of these hi-tech solar panels,” Vekselberg said.

Despite the efforts being made by some, few would dispute Vekselberg’s diagnosis of a “catastrophic lag.” Compared with some European countries – even those with fewer natural resources – Russia’s use of RES is minimal.

“If for us it [renewable energy] is still quite exotic (the proportion of energy produced here by renewable sources – excluding large hydroelectric plants – is one percent or less), in other countries it’s quite a different story,” says Oleg Pertsovskiy, operational director of Skolkovo’s energy cluster.

“In Denmark it’s nearly 60 percent, in Germany – whose energy consumption is much bigger than Denmark’s – it’s about 30 percent, and in Spain it’s about 40 percent. It’s a very significant part of major countries’ energy systems, so we can’t remain on the sidelines,” Pertsovskiy told Sk.ru following the REENCON conference.

Under Russia’s energy policy through 2020, the country is supposed to increase the share of electricity produced using renewable energy (excluding hydroelectric plants with a capacity of over 25 MW) from 0.5 percent to about 4.5 percent.

Oleg Pertsovskiy, operational director of Skolkovo's energy cluster. Photo: Sk.ru.

Currently, the less than one percent of energy generated by RES is mainly produced by wind farms in the Caucasus and near St. Petersburg, geothermal enterprises in the Far East, and small hydroelectric stations in places including the Moscow region, Karelia and the Caucasus. Solar energy is also produced in the Caucasus and Far East.

Remaining obstacles

While acknowledging that renewable energy “isn’t developing as actively in our country as we’d like it to,” Pertsovskiy says obstacles are encountered at both a national and global level.

The main factors that have held back the development of renewable energy are its cost, capacity and reliability. There is one branch of renewable energy that is highly developed in Russia and has been since Soviet times, and that is hydroelectric power. But large hydroelectric plants of the kind seen in Russia are usually counted separately from renewable energy plants, because renewable energy is generally classed as that which has a minimal effect on the environment, while large hydroelectric stations are associated with flooding, as they require a reservoir, explains Pertsovskiy. Many villages across Russia – and all around the world – were lost in the 20th century when they were flooded to create large hydroelectric plants, which Pertsovskiy says still account for about 13-15 percent of Russia’s energy.

“All Soviet electricity was built on the principle of large power stations,” he said.

“That has some advantages, like economies of scale. Wind power technology on that scale didn’t exist and still doesn’t. Powerful hydro-turbines can produce several hundred megawatts. Even the most powerful wind turbine is still only 7.5-9 megawatts,” he said.

A technical problem encountered by countries such as Denmark, Germany and Spain that have developed RES is that of developing efficient power grids, said Pertsovskiy. Traditional power grids fueled by coal and gas tend to consist of a few large stations, he said, while renewable energy tends to be generated by a large number of small stations, meaning the network infrastructure required is completely different.

“If you look at what Danish energy looked like in the 80s, it was no more than 10-15 big power stations. Now, it’s thousands of small power sources, each farm has its own wind turbine, and that radically changes the technology for managing these networks,” explained Pertsovskiy.

Denmark and other countries are already developing smart grids, which use smart metres and appliances to make energy management more efficient.

The second technical problem is the development of energy storage: a crucial requirement, since unlike traditional fuels, renewable energy cannot be generated as and when needed, but depends on weather conditions.

“Everyone’s working on energy storage, and there are already technologies, but at the moment, it’s more expensive than we’d like it to be,” says Pertsovskiy. “Some kinds of renewable energy, primarily large wind farms, are becoming comparable to fossil fuels in terms of cost, and solar energy is catching up. With affordable energy storage, their competitiveness will be further improved.”

Large hydroelectric stations provide up to 15% of Russia's energy, but are usually classified seperately from other forms of renewable energy as their construction impacts the environment. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Russian potential

Many other key barriers that still existed a few years ago have however been overcome, he is quick to add.

“Now RES can exist in many countries without state support, but the development of technology remains vital, and that’s where we and our startups come in. We have a good chance of making products that are competitive, not just within Russia but on the global market,” he says.

One year ago, Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak said investment in RES in the country would total $53 billion by 2035, and that he expected small and medium-sized businesses to play the key role in the development of RES technologies.

“Generally, RES technology and equipment is imported from Western Europe, Japan and China, but I think now we have a chance in some areas such as solar power to become exporters of technology,” said Pertsovskiy.  “We have to be open to cooperation,” he added.

"Now RES can exist in many countries without state support, but the development of technology remains vital, and that’s where we and our startups come in. We have a good chance of making products that are competitive, not just within Russia but on the global market."

Of the approximately 360 resident startups within the Skolkovo Foundation’s energy cluster, more than 40 are working in areas related to alternative energy, said Pertsovskiy. The cluster discovered some new startups working in this sphere at the REENCON congress that he hopes will become residents of the foundation.

“They’re interesting and they have potential,” he said, adding that they are working in various areas of RES, including geothermal energy.

Russia could also become an exporter of renewable energy, according to Sakari Oksanen, deputy director of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), of which Russia became a member last year.

Speaking at REENCON, he said there was significant export potential from Russia of biofuels, hydropower and wind power to China and the rest of Eastern Asian, as well as Europe.

Closer to home, Oksanen said that renewable energy could provide a supply of affordable power to Russia’s isolated regions, representing more than 10 million people. The 2009 energy strategy also included plans to make use of wind power in Russia’s Far East, for example.

Greenpeace also argued in a report last year that increasing the proportion of its energy obtained from renewable sources would save Russia a lot of money currently spent on delivering petrol, oil and coal to remote northern regions, as well as ending the country’s economic dependence on fossil fuel prices and, of course, benefitting the environment. This year, the environmental campaign group said that Russia could get a quarter of its energy needs from RES.

For now, even to meet the 4.5 percent target set by the government for 2020, Russia still has a long way to go, and with next year designated the Year of the Environment in Russia, the pressure is on.

10 Skolkovo startups hoping to change the face of the Russian energy market

Thin Film Technologies in Energy science and technology centre: Hybrid solar panels based on heterojunction technology with efficiency of more than 21 percent

VDM-tekhnika: wind energy generators that are efficient at low wind speeds (starting from 2m/s) that make it possible to greatly increase the number of areas where wind energy technologies can be used

Svetlobor: an automatic water heater that uses pellet heating (in which wooden pellets are combusted) that works autonomously for more than a month.

Watts Battery: modular energy storage units that can be charged from the power grid, a generator or PV solar panels. They can power a whole house, and increase the effectiveness of solar panels and wind turbines.

Solex-S: solar photoelectric cells with bifacial sensitivity, enabling the conversion of solar energy falling on both sides of the cell. The company says its technology makes possible the creation of solar power plants that are economically comparable to traditional power plants.

Marineco: is developing an offshore wave energy electric power station that can be used in different geographical locations and sea conditions. It is also working on technology for producing hydrogen using seawater electrolysis.

4D Energetics: Hybrid energy systems that improve the sustainability of local power sources using an innovative adsorption battery  

AeroGreen: a new kind of wind turbine that is not dependent on wind direction and works efficiently even in storm winds and other poor weather conditions.

Topaz Research Centre (Inenergy): fuel cells that use hydrogen. Its products include portable generators for travellers.

Insolar: heat pumps and other energy-efficient systems for buildings and facilities.