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The eastern promise of Russia’s hydropower

Issue 2 and Volume 19.

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After years of stagnation, the Russian hydroelectricity sector has bold plans to double capacity by 2030, providing stability to the transmission grid and bringing within reach the tantalising prospect of exporting more power to the world’s fastest growing economy – China.
Chris Webb

With 102 plants currently operating, a total installed capacity of 55 GW and an output of around 165 GWh/year, Russia is the fifth-largest hydropower generator in the world. Yet in terms of exploiting its hydropower resources, Russia trails markedly on the world stage, taking second place behind China.

Only 20 per cent of hydro potential in Russia has been developed, placing it way behind virtually every other developed country and even many developing ones. For example, France and Switzerland have taken advantage of more than 90 per cent of their hydro potential, Canada and Norway 70 per cent, and the USA and Brazil 50 per cent, according to RusHydro, Russia’s biggest generator of hydropower.

Yet hydroelectric power is vital to Russia, accounting for 20 per cent of its generation capacity. Huge potential remains, particularly in its far east. Like the country itself, the Russian power sector has undergone a metamorphosis of epic proportions and, after two decades of underinvestment, is set to enjoy a new lease of life.

With its massive hydrocarbon energy resources to call on, Russia has had little need to pursue renewables, contributing to its status as one of the world’s most inefficient users of energy, as well as the third-largest emitter of carbon after China and the USA. This situation is changing, albeit slowly. Two years ago, the government set national targets aiming to generate 4.5 per cent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020, notably from small hydro units, wind and biomass.

Hydropower is already a stalwart of Russian electricity generation and, while not yet statute, a draft Renewable Energy Law looks set to greatly expand the country’s total hydroelectric capacity by 60 per cent by 2020 and to double it ten years later. State-controlled RusHydrois planning to commission 5 GW this year along with a 3 GW plant in Siberia, in collaboration with Russian aluminium producer RUSAL.Independent power producers (IPPs) are also keen to get in on the act. Last October, EuroSibEnergo and China Yangtze Power, the largest listed hydropower producer in China and operator of the Three Gorges Dam, signed a framework agreement for developing joint hydropower projects in Russia.

The deal paves the way for various opportunities across the country, including upgrading EuroSibEnergo’s existing assets and constructing new hydro plants, specifically in Siberia. These would not only feed growing domestic demand, but also create additional capacity for exports to the north and north-eastern regions of China, in support of an intergovernmental agreement on power exports signed in 2006.

This follows an earlier memorandum of understanding (MoU) on strategic co-operation between EuroSibEnergo, the Chinese electrical equipment manufacturer TBEA, and Radian Group, TBEA’s dealer in Russia. This outlined the priorities for developing the Siberian electricity industry. The partnership will jointly explore the opportunities of upgrading and modernizing EuroSibEnergo’s power assets, including the Irkutskenergo and Krasnoyarskaya hydropower plants, as well as the Irkutsk GridCo, located in eastern Siberia. “This strategic agreement will help to cement economic ties between Russia and China,” said Evgeny Fedorov, chief executive of EuroSibEnergo.

Most of Russia’s electricity consumption is in the west, where industry and populations are concentrated, and where half the water resources are already producing power. Only 20 per cent of the potential is used in central Russia, yet the figure plummets to just five per cent in its far east, where the biggest rivers in the country are within easy reach of China.

It is not hard to see why generators are turning their attentions to the region, particularly southern Siberia, where hydropower potential is largely untapped. Located on the River Yenisei, collecting rainfall from an area four times the size of Denmark, is the Sayano-Shushenskaya hydroelectric plant, the biggest in Russia. It gained notoriety following a fire and the flooding of its turbine hall in 2009, which claimed 75 lives. One of the biggest and most powerful dams in the world, 75 per cent of the plant’s 6400 MW output is consumed by an aluminium smelter, in the same way that most of Russia’s giant hydro plants were built to feed the country’s energy-hungry metal industry.

Yet 18 months after the disaster that ripped out a 20-tonnes turbine and flooded nine others, the plant is still operating well below maximum capacity. Three turbines were returned to service within 15 months, but the plant is not expected to return to full capacity until 2014. The event marked a turning point in the hydro industry and focused attention on its ailing infrastructure. “A similar disaster might happen elsewhere,” said Sergei Pikin of the Energy Development Foundation. “Equipment in many power stations is worn out.”

Experts estimate the equipment in most operational Russian hydropower plants is more than 40 per cent obsolete and some of it 70 per cent. The problem is symptomatic of the chronic under-financing that has characterized the entire hydropower industry for the past 15 years.

If the Sayano-Shushenskaya disaster highlighted a single urgency it was to improve the reliability and efficiency of existing plants, as well as the Unified Energy System (UES), which connects 70 localized energy systems and allows power transfer across the country. It also threw into sharp relief the necessity to enhance security and safety at current projects while also building new facilities. The hydro sector is bent on putting that right. RusHydo has two large stations in eastern Siberia close to completion, while the Chinese are already building power lines up to the Russian border in the east.

It is hard to predict how fast Russian hydropower will develop, but Alexey Maslov, deputy board chairman at RusHydro, says there is ample potential to export electricity to China. The region is too remote to justify hydro development for domestic needs, making very large projects unlikely. But Maslov says: “A 4 billion kWh deal would be viable.”

In China and Russia, there is great pressure to move away from cheap coal-based energy. But weaning China off cheap coal will take time and any new Russian hydropower investments must be justified by substantial industrial projects. There are not many of those at the moment.

The Bureyskaya hydroelectric project provides an example of what can be achieved. Located at Amur in the far eastern region and operated by RusHydro, the plant has six 335 MW Francis-type turbines and was designed to curb regional fossil fuel consumption, to allow for power exports to China, and to reduce flooding on the Bureya and Amur rivers. Bureyskaya’s first unit was put online in July 2003 by then president Vladimir Putin and RAO UES representatives.

Projects such as this underline the importance of renewed hydro sector investment. More than all other existing power stations, hydropower provides vital flexibility in the system. Possessing 90 per cent of the capacity regulation reserves, it can substantially increase output in just a few minutes and thereby cover peak loads. This is made possible by the UES which, in turn owes its existence to the powerful hydropower plants of the Volga-Kama Cascade erected during the 1950s.

The Russian hydropower industry stagnated during industry reforms in the 1990s, but regained momentum in December 2004 with the formation of RusHydro. The company’s founding goals were to ensure reliable and safe operation of existing hydropower facilities, to complete projects in progress, and to design and build new plants. Those initiatives are now beginning to bear fruit.

RusHydro currently includes 15 federal hydropower plants, among them Sayano-Shushenskaya, eight stations of the Volga-Kama Cascade, with an aggregate installed capacity of more than 8680 MW, the first large hydropower plant in the far east, Zeiskaya (1330 MW), and a number of plants in the North Caucasus.

Russia’s second biggest hydropower plant in terms of installed capacity is Krasnoyarskaya (6000 MW), controlled by companies affiliated with RUSAL. The power generated by the plant is almost entirely consumed by the Krasnoyarsk aluminium smelter, one of the biggest enterprises of its kind in the world.

RusHydro is investing massively in upgrading its creaking infrastructure, buoyed by newly released figures showing Russia’s gross domestic product (GDP) grew by 4 per cent last year to 44.5 trillion roubles ($1.5 trillion), according to official estimates. The growth, slightly higher than forecasts, followed a revised 7.8 per cent fall in GDP in 2009 when the economy was in recession. The Russian government expects the economy to grow 4.2 per cent in 2011.

With a hydro potential amounting to some 9 per cent of the world’s total on Russian soil, there is ample opportunity for more small to medium hydroelectric power projects. RusHydro wants to see more like the Kashhatau plant, which was connected to the grid last December. This is one of RusHydro’s priority projects in the North Caucasus region, with an installed capacity of 65.1 MW and an average annual output of 241 million kWh.

Last October, Alstom signed a MoU with RusHydro that will see both parties consider jointly reconstructing and refurbishing several operating Russian hydropower plants, including pumped storage plants, as well as outlining ways to co-operate in research and development. Specifically, as a potential first case, Alstom and RusHydro are considering how they might co-operate on modernizing the Kubanski cascade hydropower complex in the south of Russia and the new pumped storage plant at Zelenchuk. As the deal was signed, French Prime Minister Francois Fillon said nine dams on the River Kuban will be upgraded.

The move follows a statement by the Russian government underlining the need to expand the role of hydro and nuclear power in the future in order to allow for greater fossil fuel exports. Again, the statement mentioned possible power exports to China.

Accidents at hydroelectric plants are, thankfully, rare. But when they do happen, they make news across the globe. The destruction of Sayano-Shushenskaya’s turbine hall and accompanying loss of life in 2009 had a dramatic impact on Russia’s approach to power and power plant engineering.

The state is giving these industries much greater attention, making efforts to manufacture new, highly-efficient and safe power equipment. It is also seeking to improve the diagnostics, control, servicing and modernization of existing turbines.

According to expert assessments, more than 70 per cent of Russia’s installed turbine capacities are already in need of urgent attention or replacement. Statistics such as these drive equipment manufacturers, such as home-grown OJSC Power Machines of St Petersburg and countless foreign manufacturers to devise innovative ways of upgrading the delapidated infrastructure.

As well as participating in the construction of the Boguchanskaya hydropower plant, Power Machines is manufacturing replacement turbine units for the stricken Sayano-Shushenskaya power plant, three of which are due to be delivered in late 2011. The new units’ service life is expected to be up to 40 years, with a maximum turbine efficiency of 96.6 per cent. Its power and cavitation characteristics will also be improved. The turbines will be equipped with a system that automatically shuts down a unit in case of a fault.

However, events at Sayano-Shushenskaya will overshadow the Russian hydropower sector for some time yet. The disaster is likely to provide further ammunition in the war over the new Evenkiiskaya (Turukhanskaya) hydroelectric power plant, which RusHydro plans to build on the Nizhnyaya (Lower) River Tunguska in the Krasnoyarsk region.

Heated debates on the advisability and risks of construction have raged ever since 2005, when the plans, once abandoned in the 1990s due to economic hardships following the collapse of the Soviet Union, were retrieved and dusted off by RusHydro.

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