Red Sun — Russian’s Largest Solar Power Plant Opens in Siberia

Red Sun — Russian's Largest Solar Power Plant Opens in SiberiaSiberia isn’t exactly a hot spot for urban development. But according to The Moscow Times, the region’s Atlai Republic is now home to Russia’s largest solar power plant. With plans to boost national renewable energy use from 0.5 to 4.5 percent by 2020, the new five megawatt (MW) Kosh-Agachskata plant is a good start — but is it really all sunshine and rainbows from here?

Location, Location

“It’s always sunny on Chuyskaya Steppe” isn’t much of an exaggeration: the new solar plant’s real estate gets up to 250 sun-filled days per year. The Steppe is also cold — in fact, it’s the coldest place in Atlai at almost 2000 meters above sea level. Building the plant cost more than $135 million and brought Atlai’s solar output up to 45 MW total; according to the Energy Ministry if Russia made best use of renewable resources, it could generate more than four times the energy needed to power the entire country. Renewable energy advocate groups, meanwhile, warn that Russia is behind schedule to hit even 4.5 percent total use in the next six years. So what’s the holdup?

Free Energy, Costly Conversion

Aside from the risks of sunburn and skin cancer, the sun’s energy doesn’t come with a cost. Converting that energy into usable electricity, meanwhile, poses a challenge. A recent Washington Post article notes that the first hurdle is costly solar panels, which require dedicated maintenance and occasional replacement. Still, the price of panels has fallen 75 percent in the last five years and by 2020 solar should match the cost of fossil fuel production.

But that’s not the only stumbling block. Once solar cells capture radiation, it must be converted into usable, AC electricity. In pure photovoltaic power plants, this is accomplished by first converting the energy into DC power, then inverting it to become AC. The problem? On cloudy days there’s little to no energy production. Solar-thermal alternatives, meanwhile, use solar energy to heat synthetic oil known as therminol which is then used to heat water, produce steam and drive a turbine. A backup natural gas boiler is also used to augment the system as needed.

Here, clean energy meets the problem of not-so-clean traditional generation technology. Water-based systems develop scaling over time, limiting their output an increasing their time to boil. As a result, regular cleanings are essential to plant efficiency.

Stop Rushin’ Me

Despite the concerns of renewable energy groups over speed, the Kosh-Agachskata plant is a step in the right direction. Chances are that no one’s going to build a hotel on Chuyskaya anytime soon and the country has a vast array of untapped renewable resources — with any luck, the Russian Bear has sunny days ahead.

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