Opinion: What’s holding Russia back on renewables?

Nikolayevka solar power station in Crimea

Workers in safety helmets at Nikolayevka solar farm in Crimea. Photo credit: Ruslan Shamukov / TASS

By Anders Lorenzen

Russia is quite the largest country on Earth. Spanning eleven time zones, with swaths of unpopulated land stretching from east to west, it is also one of the world’s least densely populated countries. These combining factors should make Russia a renewable energy superpower. Across the vast land, there’s literally no renewable energy technology that is not suitable. But so far, renewable energy has had very little uptake. In fact so little that when you exclude large-scale hydropower (not considered a renewable energy technology), it does not even figure in any official stats.

Russia a fossil fuel superpower

Of course, Russia has the second largest recoverable coal reserves in the world and is the third largest coal exporter. It is home to the world’s largest natural gas reserves and Europe imports 90% of its gas from Russia. The country is also the world’s largest producer of crude oil. There’s no doubt that they’re a fossil fuel superpower. No one would expect them to give that up.

Russia and Norway are two very different fossil fuel superpowers

But the country could be an even more powerful energy superpower if they were to adopt a more aggressive renewable energy strategy.  Russia uses much of its own rich fossil fuel reserves itself rather than exporting them. And if you were to compare Russia with its neighbour Norway, which is Europe’s largest oil and gas producer, you would see that almost all of that Scandinavian country’s oil and gas is exported, and hardly any is for domestic consumption.

Unlike Russia, Norway has a modern electricity system which hardly uses any fossil fuels. And in the Norwegian transport sector, oil consumption is falling rapidly, as they have the largest electric car market in Europe which is growing year by year. In Norway too, the market for wind power and other renewables is starting to grow rapidly in line with its Scandinavian neighbours and European counterparts. This is done both for environmental and economic reasons, as the fewer fossil fuels you use yourself, the more you can export, and hence the more you will earn. Russia would be wise to look and learn from its Arctic neighbour.

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Russia and the US to exit global climate negotiations

And then there’s, of course, the small detail of the Paris Agreement, which Russia so far has failed to ratify. Speculation mounts that Russia is exiting itself from the global climate negotiations. Similar noises are coming from the US, where the Trump administration is keen to exit the US from the Paris Agreement, which the Obama administration ratified. We should all be worried that two of the world’s largest fossil fuel producers, and the second (US) and fifth (Russia) biggest CO2 emitters are not going to sit at the climate negotiations table. There’s no doubt that Russia’s unwillingness to ratify the Paris Agreement is linked to the fact that it has not been willing to establish a renewable energy industry, and that Russia is not really interested in cutting emissions. That is despite the fact that an increased level of climate change impacts in Russia is playing out before our eyes.

Russia’s government should back renewables

In my recent interview with Russian energy expert and former energy minister, Igor Yusufov, he did not give the impression that Russia would start to interest itself more in renewable energy. He said that it was too expensive and that coal has a great future. This prompts one to wonder why it is that renewables, year by year outside Russia, are getting cheaper and investment is skyrocketing, but that the same thing is not happening inside Russia? Of course, renewables will never take off in Russia if the government does not back them. And they will never become financially feasible if the Russian government continues to subsidise fossil fuels at insane amounts while not offering adequate incentives or subsidies for renewables. On economic grounds, it is worth bearing in mind as economists would tell you, that an economy so reliant on one sector, in Russia’s instance, fossil fuels, is not a healthy economy. It would make economic sense for Russia to invest in renewable energy as, at the same time, it would make its economy more resilient.

The coal fairytale

US president Donald Trump and his administration are also keen on coal, planning to revive the US coal industry, while Australia is building the world’s largest coal export port. One would be right to ask who is going to buy all that coal? Let’s remember that China, the world’s largest coal consumer, now has a serious oversupply problem and is trying to slow down production by closing a large number of coal mines. In the US a majority of utilities have made or are making plans to move their facilities away from coal. Coal is a vanishing energy source and it is not coming back.

In the age of post-truth and fake news, it is nice to paint a rosy picture of a booming future for coal. But it is a fairytale.

As I said earlier, I do not expect Russia to become a renewable energy superpower overnight.

But by starting now to make plans to officially adopt an ambitious renewable energy strategy, while modernising their ageing electricity infrastructure through energy efficient and smart grid efforts, would be a good place to start.

Categories: energy, opinion, Russia

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