Electricity Grid

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In 1920, Lenin famously said, "Communism equals Soviet power plus electrification of the whole country." He created the State Commission for Electrification of Russia (GOELRO) to achieve this, and the expansion of electricity generation and transmission became a core element in Soviet modernization. Total output rose from 8.4 billion kilowatt hours in 1930, to 49 billion in 1940 and 290 billion in 1960. After World War II the Soviet Union became the second largest electricity generator in the world, with the United States occupying first place. The soviets built the world's largest hydroelectric plant, in Krasnoyarsk in 1954, and the world's first nuclear power reactor, in Obninsk.

Electrification had reached 80 percent of all villages by the 1960s, and half of the rail track was electrified. Power stations also provided steam heating for neighboring districts, accounting for one-third of the nation's heating. This may have been efficient from the power-generation point of view, but there was no effort to meter customers or conserve energy. By 1960 the Soviet Union had 167,000 kilometers of high transmission lines (35 kilovolts and higher). This grew to 600,000 kilometers by 1975. Initially, there were ten regional grids, which by the 1970s were gradually combined into a unified national grid that handled 75 percent of total electricity output. In 1976 the Soviet grid was connected to that of East Europe (the members of Comecon).

The Soviet power supply continued to expand steadily, even as economic growth slowed. Output increased from 741 billion kilowatt hours in 1970 to 1,728 billion in 1990, with the USSR accounting for 17 percent of global electricity output. Still, capacity failed to keep pace with the gargantuan appetites of Soviet industry, and regional coverage was uneven, since most of the fossil fuels were located in the north and east, whereas the major population centers and industry were in the west. Twenty percent of the energy was consumed in transporting the coal, gas, and fuel-oil to thermal power stations located near industrial zones. In the early 1970s, when nuclear plants accounted for just two percent of total electricity output, the government launched an ambitious program to expand nuclear power. This plan was halted for more than a decade by the 1986 Chernobyl accident. In 1990 the Russia Federation generated 1,082 billion kilowatt hours, a figure that had fallen to 835 billion by 2000. Of that total, 15 percent was from nuclear plants and 18 percent from hydro stations, the rest was from thermal plants using half coal and half natural gas for fuel.

In 1992 the electricity system was turned into a joint stock company, the Unified Energy Systems of Russia (RAO EES). Blocks of shares in RAO EES were sold to its workers and the public for vouchers in 1994, and subsequently were sold to domestic and foreign investors, but the government held onto a controlling 53 percent stake in EES. Some regional producers were separated from EES, but the latter still accounted for 73 percent of Russian generating capacity and 85 percent of electricity distribution in 2000.

Electricity prices were held down by the government in order to subsidize industrial and domestic consumers. This meant most of the regional energy companies that made up EES ran at a loss, and could not invest in new capacity or energy conservation. By 1999, the situation was critical: EES was losing $1 billion on annual revenues of $7 billion. Former privatization chief Anatoly Chubais was appointed head of EES, and he proposed privatizing some of EES's more lucrative regional producers to the highest bidder. The remaining operations would be restructured into five to seven generation companies, which would be spun off as independent companies. A wholesale market in electricity would be introduced, and retail prices would be allowed to rise by 100 percent by 2005. The grid and dispatcher service would be returned to state ownership. Amid objections from consumers, who objected to higher prices, and from foreign investors in EES, who feared their shares would be diluted, the plan was adopted in 2002.

See also: chernobyl; chubais, anatoly borisovich


Ebel, Robert. (1994). Energy Choices in Russia. Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies.

EES web site: <http://www.rao-ees.ru/en>.

Peter Rutland

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Electricity Grid

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