Decarbonising the Russian energy sector by 2050

Decarbonising the Russian energy sector by 2050


Why 2050?

The need to transform the energy sector both in the world and in Russia namely by 2050 follows from the commitments under the Paris Climate Agreement. According to it, all countries of the world have pledged to limit the rise in global temperature by 2° C, and to do their best to limit it by 1.5° C.

According to results of numerous scientific studies, in particular, by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), this requires achieving full carbon neutrality by 2050. Moreover, the main reduction (by half) of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions should be made by 2030 (already in eight years), and by four times before 2040 as compared to the volume of emissions in 2020.


Why is so much emphasis on energy?

In climate simulations, the energy sector includes the extraction, transportation and processing of fossil fuels (FF), their combustion to produce energy, and the use of FF in transport. In the world, this sector gives almost half of all GHG emissions, in Russia — more than 80 percent. Therefore, special attention is paid to climatic solutions in the energy sector.

The energy sector compares favorably with other sectors, because the technologies for the complete elimination of GHG emissions in this sector are known and well developed. They represent a complete rejection of the use of FF and the transition to renewable energy sources (RES). In other spheres of human activities, for example, in the production of cement and steel, in waste management and in agriculture, methods are known to reduce GHG emissions, but not to completely eliminate them.


Wind energy potential in Russia

When talking about renewable energy, usually the focus is on wind and solar energy. These two sources are almost universally available and the technology for their use is well developed. Russia has the largest wind energy potential in the world. The technical potential of wind energy in this country is estimated to be 50 times greater than current electricity consumption in Russia.

The map below shows the distribution of the wind energy potential in Russia at the altitude of 200 m (modern wind turbines are built with tower heights of more than 200 m). One can see that the wind potential is excellent or good throughout the whole European part of Russia. In the Asian part, the optimal wind potential is concentrated mainly along the sea coasts and mountain ranges.

Solar energy potential in Russia

According to assessments, the technical potential of solar power plants (SPP) in Russia is 2.5 times higher than the current electricity consumption, and the potential of solar thermal power plants is 30 times higher than the consumption of thermal energy. In the southern regions of Russia, the specific potential of solar energy is 1.5 times higher than in Germany.

The map below shows the distribution of the annual average daily total solar radiation arriving on the surface with the southern orientation inclined at the angle equal to the location latitude. One can see that the best conditions are in the Far East, in the Baikal region, the Southern Federal District, Crimea and regions along the southern border.

At high latitudes, the potential of solar radiation is small. It is technically and economically inexpedient to build solar thermal or power plants there. Moreover, in winter in high latitudes, when the demand for energy increases significantly, these stations generate almost no electricity, and beyond the Arctic Circle they do not generate it at all.

In contrast to Russia, in low-latitude countries, the solar energy potential is very high, and the maximums of the SPP output coincide with the maximums of electricity consumption (for air conditioning).


Geothermal energy potential in Russia

The annual thermal technical potential of geothermal sources in Russia is 40 times higher than the annual consumption of thermal energy. These sources can be used for heating on two thirds of the territory of Russia.

To generate electricity, it is required to obtain steam from the ground at temperatures above 120 degrees, or better (more economically) at temperatures above 200 degrees. There are not so many such places on the territory of Russia, these are mountainous regions with volcanic activity. The map below shows the distribution of geothermal sources.

Prospects for tidal energy sources in Russia

There are projects for tidal power plants: in the Mezen Bay of the White Sea (8 GW), in the Tugursky Bay of the Sea of Okhotsk (8 GW) and in the Penzhinskaya Bay in the northeastern part of the Shelikhov Bay of the Sea of Okhotsk (87 GW). In total, their projected installed capacity is almost half of the installed capacity of all power plants in Russia.


What is not discussed in this article

The small volume of this article does not allow even briefly discussing other types of renewable energy sources: hydroelectric power plants, small hydroelectric power plants, bioenergy, waste heat, etc. The environmental problems caused by the use of renewable energy sources are also not discussed. In addition, other climate solutions are not discussed, especially since they cause fierce controversy. These include: nature based solutions, nuclear power, carbon capture and storage, geoengineering and others.


Intermittence of renewable energy production

Most renewable energy sources have a significant drawback – the intermittence of energy production. Wind farms do not work well in low winds and stop completely in calm conditions. Solar power plants work very poorly in cloudy weather, almost do not work in winter in high latitudes and stop generating at night. The tide stations are always running, but they stop generating electricity approximately every 6 hours and 12 minutes when the tide changes. Such intermittence of generation is completely unsuitable for the power grid. Geothermal sources are a stable sources of energy.


Variability of energy consumption

Variability of energy consumption adds to the intermittence of renewable energy sources. There are daily, weekly and yearly cycles of energy consumption. Electricity demand rises during the daytime, on weekdays and in winter. The consumption of thermal energy in Russia (which is consumed 2.5 times more than electricity) increases five times in winter as compared to summer, and the total consumption of electrical and thermal energy in January is approximately three times higher than in July.


Renewable energy generation must be matched with its consumption

The graph below shows the total residual load (taking account of demand-side management and pump storage)
for 2050, based on meteorological data from 2009 with the following source composition: the share of intermittent  sources - wind power plants and solar power plants - 85%, the remaining 15% are provided by biogas, geothermal and hydropower. One can see that the power can fall 6 times and grow 2.5 times as compared to the average power generation, which is 61 GW. The country's electrical system cannot operate in such conditions, and additional measures shall be taken.

How to match energy generation and consumption?

There are three ways to manage the intermittence of renewable energy sources. The first one is to accumulate energy in the periods of excessive generation with returning it to the network when the need arises. It is also possible to create huge power systems and transfer energy from areas with its temporary surplus to areas with its temporary shortage. Since calm or cloudy weather can spread over large parts of continents, such a power system must cover entire continents or even be intercontinental. The third way is to build such a quantity of renewable energy sources that even during periods of low generation it will fully meet energy needs. All three methods must be used together.


Energy storage technologies

There are various energy storage technologies for periods of low generation ranging from few minutes to several months. The analysis shows that the main technologies currently used — batteries and pumped storage hydroelectric power plants — are capable of storing energy for hours, maximum for a couple of days. These technologies allow to match energy generation with its consumption on a daily and weekly basis. They do not solve the problem of the heating season. For example, heating a medium-sized rural house in central Russia throughout the winter would require 240 tons of batteries (this is 4 railway cars) worth about $ 3 million. And what is most ironic, they should be in heated premises.

The only way to store energy for several months is to produce hydrogen or syngas using renewable energy sources during a period of excess generation. Such fuels produced with the help of renewables are called "green" ones. The first stage in the production of any "green" fuel is the production of hydrogen by electrolysis of water. Therefore, the Hydrogen Directive recently adopted by the European Union is a safe decision. Now it is still not possible to predict definitely what will be technologically and economically preferable – the use of hydrogen or another energy carrier – but hydrogen will be required in any case.

It should be noted that building energy storage systems is not cheap. When storing energy for 2-6 hours (2-hour storage battery or 6-hour storage by storage hydroelectric power plants), the cost of accumulation is about a quarter of the cost of an energy unit. Such systems can be used in countries or regions without a heating season. When storing energy for 6-7 months using the same technologies, storing will cost approximately 200 times more than generation, not to mention the technical impossibility of doing this.


The desired image of Russian energy sector in 2050

The energy sector in Russia in 2050 can be imagined as follows:

- Wind energy is the backbone of power generation. In regions with insufficient wind potential and good solar power, solar power plants are widely used.

- Geothermal energy sources and solar energy are widely used for heating.

- Wind and solar energy sources are complemented, depending on the region, with other locally economical renewables.

- The infrastructure for the production, transportation and storage of "green" gas, as well as a sufficient number of other energy storage systems, has been created and is operating.

- The unified power system has been heavily reinforced.

- Extraction of fossil fuels has been terminated. Only cavities in old fields can be used to store “green” gas.

- All power plants on fossil fuels are closed, coal-fired power plants in the first place. Gas-fired power plants remain, but use only “green” gas.

- All oil pipelines stop working. Gas pipelines work only for pumping “green” gas.


What will really happen by 2050?

In fact, global carbon neutrality will not be achieved by 2050. Some countries promise to be carbon neutral by this year. Fortunately, their list also includes large emitters of greenhouse gases: the US (15% of GHG emissions), the EU (9%) and Japan (4%). By 2060, China (30%) and Russia (5%) promise to become carbon-neutral. India (7%) promises to be carbon neutral by 2070.


Difference between carbon neutrality (net zero) and zero emissions

Unfortunately, carbon neutrality is not the same as no greenhouse gas emissions. Carbon neutrality means that GHG emissions still remain, but they are “offset” by so-called “sinks” of carbon, for example, the absorption of atmospheric carbon by forests. The magnitude of such absorption is difficult to determine. For example, Malaysia claims that every tree in its forests absorbs four times more carbon than the same tree in neighboring Indonesia. The amount of carbon sequestration by Russian forests is increasing every year on paper, sometimes very significantly, while emissions from huge forest fires are underestimated.

Even more puzzling is trading the so-called “offsets,” which also count towards carbon neutrality. It is believed that the money from their sale and purchase goes to projects in developing countries that lead to carbon sequestration. It happens that such projects are not implemented at all and exist only on paper. Verification of such such projects is    a big problem. There are no countries in the world that promise to achieve carbon neutrality without the use of such schemes.

Carbon capture and storage technologies remain completely undeveloped. However, they are also counted on in the promises of carbon neutrality.


Achieving carbon neutrality by 2050 is real

Real global carbon neutrality is achievable by 2050. But this requires much stronger actions by all countries in comparison with the present. Rich developed countries, which have sufficient financial resources and necessary technologies, and are mainly responsible for the anthropogenic carbon dioxide that is now in the Earth's atmosphere, shall make the main contribution to this activities.

Recognising the need for a significant increase in climate efforts, the Russian Social Environmental Union and other environmental organisations in Russia call on the Russian government, in particular, to set the national goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2050 and to revise the 2030 goal for reducing greenhouse gas emissions — to set the goal of reducing by 60% of the 1990 level, not accounting for absorption by forests.


A. Fedorov

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