The need to balance climate change with sustainable power supplies is one of the greatest challenges facing the global environment. The Nov. 30-Dec. 11 United Nations climate change summit in Paris will likely demonstrate that while there is widespread international resolve to tackle climate issues, short-term national interests are still being put before long-term collective environmental objectives.
According to the International Energy Agency, the power sector is responsible for 37% of man-made carbon emissions, amounting globally to roughly 23 billion tons of CO2 emissions a year. That is more than 700 tons a second. As the global population and demand for energy continue to grow, more and more fossil fuel power plants are being built to satisfy the demand.
Policy makers, environmentalists and world leaders alike continue to dispute the efficacy and viability of various forms of clean energy supply, yet of all the available options it is hydroelectric power, a mature power source, which holds the greatest potential.
The benefits of hydropower are many. It is clean, has low operating and maintenance costs, and is based on long-proven technology. Hydropower also makes a two-fold contribution to decarbonizing the energy mix. It produces renewable electricity without greenhouse gases and acts as an enabler for greater contributions from other sources of renewable energy by providing reliable base load supplies which can be supplemented by weather-reliant systems such as wind and solar. Finally, hydropower offers incomparable operational flexibility; it can be switched on quickly to meet demand and is less dependent on the weather than solar and wind power.
The Asia-Pacific region is one of fastest growing parts of the world and its demand for power is expected to double by 2030. Existing renewable energy supplies will be insufficient to meet this insatiable demand.
A renewed focus on hydropower combined with the development of an international power network for energy trading through the integration of national power grids could significantly reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. Russia can play a significant role in this process.
Russia has the world's second largest hydropower resources, only 20% of which is utilized. Most of these resources are concentrated in eastern Russia, which creates opportunities to build hydropower plants in remote unpopulated areas close to Asia. These new plants could provide up to 30 gigawatts of efficient, environmentally friendly, carbon-free hydro capacity.
New ultra-high voltage transmission technologies make it possible to ship electricity for thousands of kilometers. China has six UHV power lines in operation and is building six more, each stretching up to 2,200km. A similar power line more than 1,900km long has been built in Russia. The technological foundation for interconnection already exists and interconnection projects will spread as UHV technologies develop.
One such project is the Northeast Asia Supergrid. The idea is to build a regional power network that will allow the exchange of electric power flows between eastern Russia, north and northeast China, Japan, South Korea, Mongolia and other economies. Due to differing time zones and variations in wind and other climatic factors, there are gaps in the timing of high demand and supply periods among these countries, promising huge synergies if the various power grids can be combined.
For example, summer floods provide excessive volumes of cheap hydropower in eastern Russia that could be shared with China, Japan and South Korea, where air conditioning creates significant demand for power at the same time. Clean Russian hydroelectricity could substitute for dirty coal in the energy mix, enabling more investment locally in other renewables.
Furthermore, the case is economically sustainable: the market price for electricity in eastern Siberia is among the lowest in the world. Existing interconnections between Russia and China and Russia and Mongolia can be considered the first step in building the Supergrid.
Power companies from China, Japan, South Korea and Russia have been looking at this project for several years and have concluded that it is both mutually and environmentally beneficial. However, regional political tensions have stalled efforts to launch the program, and it still lacks the necessary support from some governments. The recent announcement that China, Japan and South Korea have "completely restored" relations is an encouraging sign.
It is critically important that new hydropower projects adhere to the highest environmental standards. The best way of doing this is by involving world-renowned independent environmental organizations. That is why EuroSibEnergo, Russia's largest privately controlled power producer, has completed a comprehensive three-year research project with WWF, the conservation organization, on the impact of potential hydropower plants on the ecosystem and socio-economic development of the Amur River basin in eastern Russia. The process succeeded in identifying the most environmentally friendly dam locations in the Amur basin and those with the maximum potential social and economic benefit to the region.
Renewable energy can minimize our ecological footprint and fight climate change. The key to that lies not only in bringing together best practices, but also in developing an international system of interconnected collaboration, with continual efforts by policy makers, political leaders, government groups and people to meet the rising global demand for clean, sustainable energy.
We are under no illusion that what we need to do will be easy, but let us take that step and strive towards innovative and sustainable solutions, building a lower carbon, higher energy future together.
Vyacheslav Solomin is chief executive of EuroSibEnergo.