Renewable Energy & Energy Efficiency Partnership (REEEP)

Russia turns to wooded heartlands for clean energy

Russia’s heated conversations with oil company Shell reminded the world of its new role as one of the world’s major oil and gas producers – the debate centred around control of Sakhalin-2, the largest direct foreign investment project in Russia. It will create the world's biggest liquefied natural gas plant in the far east of Russia. Reports suggest that the Russian government wishes to take a direct stake in the project (currently owned by UK and Japanese companies) as part of a strategic move to control more of its own oil resources.

Yet Russia’s equally important role as one of the world’s major tree producers has yet to hit headlines. As oilmen squeeze, so foresters chop down row upon row of woods every day for the use of paper use of paper and pulp, timber and other industries in a fabulously tree-rich country. In fact, as far as forestry goes, this nation is endowed with over a fifth of the planet’s forests, or 720 million hectares. “It is therefore reasonable to consider forest biomass as the main renewable energy source in the country,” suggests Prof. A.N. Kosarikov, Vice-chairman of the Committee on Ecology at the Russian Federation’s State Duma (parliament).

Clean energy has thus far not figured very high on the government’s agenda, and biomass energy is small beer in comparison to the thick draughts of income derived from oil. Why then the sudden interest in wood-based biomass? One likely reason is that, having ratified the Kyoto protocol last year, Russia now wants to show that it can make a noticeable contribution to emissions reduction.

“One may estimate that transition from fossil fuel to wood would save between 10 and 20 million tons per year of fossil fuels (primarily coal) and reduce CO2 emissions into the atmosphere by a corresponding quantity,” says Dr Natalia Davydova, Director of the Environmental Projects Consulting Institute (EPCI), which has examined the feasibility of developing a biomass energy industry in Russia. Biomass is usually viewed as carbon neutral. The organisation is testing the extent of that potential transition and the issues it brings up, using the help of the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Partnership (REEEP). Nizhny (lower) Novgorod, a densely wooded region in the Volga basin in central Russia, is to provide the setting for its first tests and strategy creation.

Like other locally-based energy, biomass could generate attractive economic opportunities for the region – and that is another reason for the renewed interest in forest industries. It is a mark of the complexity of global trade that Russia exports 50% of its oil and oil-based products and 43% of its natural gas, leaving many of its own regions hungry for fuel.

“Despite the high power budget of the Russian Federation, there are many regions and towns which experience energy deficits. The utilisation of the renewables potential, including wood, can make up for this deficit as soon as the relevant infrastructure is established. Shortages of energy supply are typical for remote towns and villages which are situated far from main transport arteries,” explains Prof. Kosarikov. Lower Novogorod typifies this problem. Surrounded by a source of fuel as well as paper, the inhabitants of its villages nevertheless regularly buy in coal or oil from distant regions, an activity viewed as “not economically feasible” by energy expert Andrej Terentiev of the Russian Regional Environment Centre (RREC). The development of a stronger import infrastructure is not worthwhile for these rural areas. According to Dr Davydova, the switch from fossil fuel to wood waste would hence release significant amounts of cash trapped in transportation and fuel costs.

She reckons between 3-5 million people living in the Volga basin, including the regions of Penza and Kirov as well as Lower Novgorod, could benefit from this transition. Many of them would be recruited by the growing wood processing, fuel production and heating/energy industries while enjoying a generous cut in their own energy bills. Given that these rural populations earn an income below the Russian average, this would be a welcome dividend – particularly during the harsh winters. REEEP and EPCI estimates suggest heating costs could be halved.

The Lower Novgorod project represents a small but pioneering step in a huge country where clean energy discussions have been restricted in comparison to those in Western economies. Thus far, renewable energy (excluding large hydropower stations) accounts for 1% of heat production and about 0.5% of electricity generation in Russia. But Davydova believes the project has real potential and is politically and economically feasible. The realisation of the biomass programme, she argues, will “stimulate large-scale projects on forest recreation and forest quality upgrading and on improving the commercial and ecological value of forests.” In an area such as Lower Novgorod, 47% of which is covered by trees, this would probably have a significant impact.

But much of the commercial potential of Russian forests has not been tapped, according to information from the EPCI. Trees are felled in less than 20% of the areas in which logging is permitted. In vast portions of the remaining areas, forest quality is of a low grade and hence not commercially interesting. Davydova thinks some of these low-grade forest areas could be used as a source of clean energy once the relevant infrastructure had been developed for the purposes of equipment production, preparation, delivery and the burning of fuel in modernised stoves and boilers. Wood waste from forestry activities would also represent a significant source of fuel.

Observers and councillors have shown their approval of the idea. “The development of renewable energy based on forest biomass looks promising through its perspective in increasing energy efficiency and meeting Kyoto Protocol targets,” says Dr. Alexander Gudyma, Head of United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in Moscow.

Mr. S. L. Zimin, Deputy Minister, Ministry of Investment policy in Lower Novgorod is attracted by the economic opportunities offered by biomass energy: “We need forceful arguments to attract private investment and new technologies in this sector. In our opinion, the ECPI project proposals lay a sound foundation for information gathering... The anticipated project results shall be used for development of a regional program of transition towards the utilization of renewable energy sources and for the development of forest biomass combustion technologies,” he says. Once finished, the work will be taken to national level and discussed in the Russian parliament and, if taken further, will generate one of Russia’s first drafts of clean energy policy.

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