Siberia may not seem like the most obvious place to build a solar power plant, but Russia’s largest independent power company disagrees. Tildy Bayar spoke with EuroSibEnergo about its new PV plant and its plans for future solar development

The Abakan solar PV plant

Credit: EuroSibEnergo

On the eve of Russia’s Energy Industry Workers’ Day in December 2015, the country’s largest privately-held power company launched Siberia’s biggest solar photovoltaic (PV) plant in Abakan, capital city of the Republic of Khakassia.

The launch was presided over by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev via teleconference from Moscow and attended by Viktor Zimin, head of the Republic of Khakassia, and representatives of Russia‘s energy ministry.

The 5.2 MW plant is no longer Siberia’s largest, having been superseded by a 10 MW solar installation. However, EuroSibEnergo, the company behind the project, says it is considering an expansion of the Abakan plant’s 20,000 PV modules and 18 square hectares to use more of the 90 ha of unused space that surrounds it.

Vyacheslav Solomin, EuroSibEnergo’s chief executive, told Power Engineering International that his firm “has the opportunity to increase [the plant’s capacity] by several times”.

“When we built a smaller plant, we also invested in infrastructure in connection to the grid and other things, so when we expand it we don’t have to incur those costs. So expansion will be much cheaper” than the initial RUB600 million ($8 million) project, he explained.

Although Siberia does not immediately come to mind when thinking of places in the world with high solar power potential, the region actually features a high DNI and Abakan boasts an average of over 310 sunny days per year. According to EuroSibEnergo, the city’s solar power potential, if exploited, could potentially cut its annual coal-fired power production by 5000 tonnes.

Solomin describes Siberia’s energy mix as “primarily big hydropower plants, but because it is Siberia, heating in homes is usually through a central [district] heating system. So we have combined heat and power (CHP) plants, and most of them are coal-fired. Electricity is primarily produced by hydro plants and heating is mostly produced by coal.” One of the aims of the solar PV plant, he says, was to replace coal-fired energy production from a plant located within Abakan’s city limits with a more environmentally-friendly solution.

The PV plant will supply around 3.3 per cent of the city’s energy needs, and is expected to save around 8000 tonnes of carbon emissions per year.

The plant in operation

The Abakan PV plant has now been running for three months, and Solomin says its performance has been “stable”. He adds that “we’ve had a pretty good experience with its performance, and I don’t even think we have any technical issues with this plant, so it’s quite a successful plant.”

However, he adds that it does have “some peculiarities, because it’s Siberia”. The problems normally associated with solar plants in hot climates, such as dust and sand, are present in Abakan during the summer months but are “not really such a big issue”, he says. Instead there is snow – but even this is “not a big issue” according to Solomin.

“Siberia is a very dry region so there’s not much snow,” he explains. “Siberia doesn’t have a lot of storms, it is mostly the high atmospheric pressure, so it is very clear.” But the snow, while it mostly “slides off” the solar panels, can be a problem.

“When the plant was built we did consider [the snow] factor,” he says. “We did think about it, but we didn’t predict the intensity of that event.”

The main operational issue for the plant has been condensation, as Solomin explains: “There is a river nearby, and a big hydropower plant on that river which prevents the water from freezing. A lot of steam goes up during winter, so at -35oC the water is open, without ice. The moisture evaporates into the air and condenses on the panels – like frost, not like snow.”

So, he says, “until the sun comes up at midday we do have low efficiency – much lower than we thought. Even though the weather itself is pretty good, with over 300 sunny days throughout the year, the moisture from the air is a big issue. Not every day, and in special weather conditions when there’s no wind and it’s very cold, that’s when we have [this problem]”.

This is a unique issue for a solar plant: “Nobody in the world has this problem,” Solomin says. EuroSibEnergo is now working with scientists to find a solution. “We’re thinking about hydrophobic and hydrophilic substances to make [the panels] clear so the sun can go through the ice,” he says. The company expects to begin testing these coatings during the coming winter, “so by the middle of the winter we will get some solution.”

For now, the panels are cleaned manually: “We’re going a very traditional way,” says Solomin.

Renewables in Russia

Russia aims to add 6 GW of renewable power capacity including solar PV, wind and small hydropower by 2025, although Solomin says “a lot of people are sceptical than this level will be achieved” due to Russia’s current economic difficulties.

EuroSibEnergo is among a number of utilities developing renewable power projects under a subsidy programme approved in 2013. Winners of government-run auctions receive a guaranteed premium price for their power for a period of 10 to 15 years.

Vyacheslav Solomin

Credit: EuroSibEnergo

“There are no cases where the subsidy’s conditions have retroactively been changed,” says Solomin, “so the system is fairly stable” and renewable power project developers are able to get the expected returns on their investments. However, he adds that “these are not particularly great economic times, so people are not investing at the same rate as the government thought when the programme was adopted”.

In addition, he says the subsidy is not popular with many sectors in Russia.

“If more [renewable power] producers sell this premium electricity to the market,” he explains, “then somebody has to pay for it so the market evenly distributes the premium to all customers in the country. It’s not just a choice for a certain group of people who want to pay for green power – so there is growing resistance from businesses who do not necessarily want to be part of that story. They want to have an option, but so far nobody has a choice.

“For example, customers sit at the other end of the country but their electricity is more expensive because, 5000 km away, somebody builds a solar power plant.

“If anything changes in the [subsidy scheme], it will be because of that distribution mechanism.”

Ideas are afloat in Russia for how to deal with this problem, he says, including initiatives designed to limit the number of renewable power projects that can be developed, or to confine the increase in power price to the region where a project is sited.

“Then there is another idea to not give more government subsidies to new [renewable] projects,” he adds, but to “let them be in the marketplace to replace heavy fuel oil or diesel plants in remote areas.

“There are several ideas about how this market may evolve. It may stay as it is, some limits may be imposed on it, or it may develop into some market price idea to replace expensive [diesel] generators.”

For EuroSibEnergo, he says, “as we have customers in remote areas, sometimes it’s cheaper to build a small solar plant instead of building a power line to that area. We’re moving in that direction, and I think the economic condition in Russia is not improving so the government will have to impose certain restrictions, because ultimately somebody has to pay for all this new technology.”

Going off-grid

The idea of off-grid renewable power projects is gaining popularity in Russia, Solomin notes, because grid connection prices are rising. “A lot of businesses choose to have their own power generator not necessarily connected to the grid,” he says.

“From the Soviet past, a lot of industry and energy production was highly concentrated, and this meant the construction of super-long power lines. So we do have HV lines, but the power distribution networks are not in good shape. Sometimes maintenance of those distribution lines is quite expensive – line losses can reach up to 30 per cent – so there are a lot of issues in this area.”

Condensation on solar panels is an issue EuroSibEnergo is working to solve

Credit: EuroSibEnergo

For mid-sized businesses, he says, once all costs are considered, it is often cheaper to generate power for self-consumption than to pay for grid restoration. These distributed power solutions can include solar systems, wind turbines and small gas-fired plants.

Solomin is positive about this trend. “At the end of the day, all this distributed generation will be grid-connected and that will drive the construction and development of smart grid technology,” he says.

Doing it yourself

For renewable power projects in Russia that want to build under the subsidy scheme, there is a local content requirement designed to grow manufacturing and technology in the country. “You can build a solar or wind plant for yourself and connect it to the grid, and you can do it without the subsidy,” Solomin says, “but if you want to get the subsidy there is a special procedure with the auction and a percentage of domestic technology is required.”

When EuroSibEnergo built the Abakan PV plant, the local content requirement was 55 per cent; it has now been raised to 70 per cent. To fulfil this requirement, EuroSibEnergo established its own multicrystalline silicon ingot production facility in the city of Angarsk in the Irkutsk region, and an inverter assembly factory in the city of Divnogorsk in Krasnoyarsk Territory.

“Of course because the market to produce silicon is not really developed in Russia we calculated,” Solomin says, “and it was cheaper to buy the equipment and produce silicon blocks than to hire some other company to do that. The silicon itself was also produced in Russia.

“It may be cheaper to buy material from, say, China, but then you don’t get the subsidy.”

The local content requirement is “one of the obstacles why renewable energy is not as popular in Russia as in other places,” he says. “First, it is expensive to do in small volumes. Companies like Iberdrola would not bring their plant to produce wind farms in Russia. If you want to build 30 MW rather than a gigawatt like in European countries, there is no economy of scale.” So, he says, the requirement ensures that the technology associated with renewable power projects comes to Russia, but has also limited its uptake.

Solomin is cautiously positive about the future of the sector, though. “If more and more companies start going into such projects,” he says, “it will be more economical for component production to come into Russia.”

Looking ahead

EuroSibEnergo’s main business is hydropower. The company is Russia’s largest privately-held power producer and owns the country’s four biggest power plants, all hydro. Its parent firm, En+ Group, also owns UC Rusal, the world’s second-largest aluminium producer, which is a key offtaker of its power. And the potential for hydropower in Russia is “huge” according to the company, especially in Siberia, which boasts the world’s second-largest hydropower potential but currently uses only 20 per cent of the available water resource.

Solomin doesn’t expect Russian solar projects to compete with hydropower anytime soon. “Our company is more about hydro than solar,” he says. “Solar is our pilot project.” In the future he expects solar plants to grow in popularity and to replace a significant number of smaller coal-fired plants, but they will “still be fairly small compared to hydro dams, in terms of power production”.

As a hydropower project developer, EuroSibEnergo has found solar power plants “easier to do, with a clear canonic model,” Solomin says. “When we build hydro plants we have to understand exactly what the offtakers of power should be: a new consumer nearby, and no subsidy.

“When we consider building a new hydro plant near Krasnoyarsk, we’re talking about creating an industrial cluster around it with metal smelters, manufacturing, a lot of businesses. The hydro plant will be a core element of that industrial cluster. We haven’t come to the idea that we can build industrial clusters around solar plants, so more auxiliary solar plants is a good business by itself, but hydro plants are more of a driver for a regional economy.”

The impetus for building the Abakan plant was to get in at the beginning of solar power development in Russia, he adds. “With a solar plant, it’s a new technology and we wanted to understand how it works. We understand that it is going to develop and we want to be part of that story and to have the technology.”

The company aims to use its experience from the Abakan plant in several ways. “First,” Solomin says, “we are considering building new solar power plants. Second, we are talking with other companies who work in this area so we can provide a service to build and produce equipment, produce inverters and grow the silicon ingots. And we now have the engineering knowledge in this area; we know how to build the plant.”

EuroSibEnergo will focus initially on solar project development in Siberia and other Russian regions, although Solomin says the company is “working with other countries primarily in the area of hydro, but we might well go with solar technology too.

“This was our first project and we have to go through the learning curve before we bring it to other countries. We’re at an early stage – we’ll have to see how it goes.”