Here comes the sun, and it's going to burn brighter

Source: DPA/Vostock-Photo

Source: DPA/Vostock-Photo

Russia may be linked in people's minds more with long, dark winters than sun-drenched days, but that has not stopped private companies from tapping into a growing market for solar energy.

“There was an opinion that it’s better to use solar energy in countries where there’s a lot of sun,” said Marat Zaks, chief executive of Solar Wind, a Krasnodar-based solar panel manufacturer. “But the fact is that there’s a lot of sun in Russia as well. Germany is the world’s No. 1 solar energy consumer. But is Germany a sunny country,” he asked.

Solar Wind produces panels mostly for export but hopes to see the domestic market grow. Many Russian private companies are creating joint ventures with Rusnano, the state technology corporation, to address local needs. Solar Wind is collaborating with Rusnano in a $160 million project in which it will make double-sided solar panels, that harnesses solar energy from both sides, for domestic use. The plant, which may start working at the end of this year or in the first quarter of 2011, will have an annual manufacturing capacity of 30 megawatts at the start, and will eventually ramp up to 120 megawatts per year. Solar Wind’s domestic sales is much smaller compared with exports, said Zaks, adding that the company exports solar panels to more than 22 countries, including Germany, Britain and the US.

Industry insiders said solar energy could become a real alternative to traditional energy in some regions. “The Krasnodar region and most parts of Siberia have insolation levels [average exposure to the sun’s rays] comparable to south of France and central Italy, where solar energy is booming, while the Zabaikalsky region gets more solar energy than Spain,” said Vasily Malakha of the Electricity and Energy Council of the Commonwealth of Independent States.

The Krasnodar region woke up to solar energy after it launched an energy efficiency target programme in 2006. The roof of the central hospital in Ust-Labinsk, a town northeast of Krasnodar, is being covered by 300 solar panels. The installation will heat water for the hospital’s daily needs year-round, said Alexander Kiselyov, deputy chief doctor of the hospital.

The forbiddingly high cost of solar power station construction, however, could be a deterrent. The construction cost of a solar power station ranges from $10,000 to $17,000 per one kilowatt of installed capacity, said Malakha. A kilowatt of installed capacity at a nuclear power station costs upto $3,000 while the figure for a hydroelectric power station is just $1,000.

Solar energy use has a future in Russia, but it should be used only in combination with other renewable energy sources, said Brigitte Schmidt, a board member of Eurosolar Deutschland, the German division of the European Association for Renewable Energy. Solar energy has not become popular in Russia because of its focus on oil exports, she said from Germany.

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