SVOBODNY, Russia--In the northeastern Chinese city of Heihe, buildings along the Amur River are brightly illuminated at night, while lights are dim in Russia’s Blagoveshchensk on the opposite bank.
Heihe, a city of about 200,000 in Heilongjiang province, depends entirely on Russia for its electricity supply.
In the city’s suburbs, 20-meter-tall pylons stick out of coniferous forests on both sides of the river that marks the Russian-Chinese border, supporting power transmission lines.
Russia is rushing to ramp up electricity exports from its Far Eastern region, which has abundant water resources, to meet growing demand in China.
It is part of an effort to promote economic development in the Far Eastern region, where the population has been declining.
Heihe began receiving electricity from Russia in 2004. The volume increased after State Grid Corp. of China took over the business from a local private-sector company in 2009.
Inter RAO, Russia’s largest power exporter, set up Eastern Energy Co., a subsidiary for exports to China, in 2007.
The company installed a high-voltage 500-kilovolt power transmission line over the Amur River this year in addition to existing 110-kilovolt and 220-kilovolt lines.
China has also completed a new substation in Heihe, giving the city the capacity to receive 2.6 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity a year from Russia, more than twice the previous year.
“Any surplus electricity will go to (other parts of) China’s northeastern region,” said Wu Bo, deputy director of the municipal commerce bureau.
Up to 7 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity can be supplied, accounting for 9 percent of annual consumption in Heilongjiang province.
Some 150 kilometers north of Heihe lies the Russian city of Svobodny, with a population of 60,000.
The huge Amurskaya substation, which stands in a forested area in the city’s suburbs, sends electricity from hydro and thermal power plants in Russia’s Amur Oblast to China.
Facilities that can handle 500-kilovolt electricity were completed last year.
The director of the substation said the facility can supply China with four to five times the power it did and also minimize power losses during transmission.
Rasim Khaziakhmetov, director of technical policy at RusHydro, Russia’s largest hydroelectric power company, said only 5 percent of potential hydroelectric power generation capacity in the Far Eastern region is utilized. The ratio for Siberia is 20 percent.
In February, Eastern Energy Co. clinched a contract with State Grid Corp. of China to supply 100 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity over the coming 25 years.
The company plans to raise power exports to China from the Far Eastern region and Siberia to 60 billion kilowatt-hours a year by 2020.
The volume represents only about 1 percent of China’s electricity demand last year, but is almost equivalent to the amount sold annually by Chugoku Electric Power Co.
Chinese companies are also making aggressive investments.
EuroSibEnergo plc, a subsidiary of Russian energy company En+ Group Ltd., established a joint venture with China Yangtze Power Co., which operates the world’s largest hydropower plant at the Three Gorges Dam, in February 2011.
The new company plans to build two hydropower plants and one thermal power plant, with a combined capacity of 3 million kilowatts, in the Far Eastern region and Siberia.
En+ Group also plans to spend $10 billion to build a 10-million-kilowatt power plant with State Grid Corp. of China for exports to China. The project was discussed when Vladimir Putin visited China as Russian prime minister in October.
A number of hydropower plants are operating or under construction along the 1,800-kilometer Angara River, which flows from Lake Baikal.
The Nizhne-Angarskaya hydropower plant, one of the three plants planned by the joint venture between EuroSibEnergo and China Yangtze Power, will be built in its middle reaches, a 10-hour car ride from Krasnoyarsk in central Siberia.
Even in May, the temperature was only 1 degree, and there was still ice along the shores.
A further 120 kilometers upstream, the gigantic Boguchanskaya hydropower plant was under construction. The plant will be 2.7 kilometers wide and 96 meters high, with a maximum capacity of 3 million kilowatts.
Russian millionaire Oleg Deripaska, who owns a company that invests in En+ Group and the Boguchanskaya plant, told domestic and foreign media that he intends to export 15 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity a year to China in five years.
En+ Group CEO Artem Volynets said the company is considering five plans, including a 1,400-kilometer transmission line from Chita in eastern Siberia to Beijing via Mongolia.
RusHydro plans to build a new plant along the Angara River, where three plants are already in operation.
Local officials and environmentalists are concerned that a rush to construct power plants may harm the ecosystem.
Securing energy is a life-and-death issue for China, with its huge population and "global factory" status.
“To reduce risk, China needs to import electricity from power plants in which it has a stake,” said Hu Zhaoguang, vice president of the State Grid Energy Research Institute.
Russia, however, is somewhat wary of China’s ravenous need to acquire energy.
Alexey Maslov, director of the Center for Strategic Studies of China, said, “China tends to try to control prices in addition to securing interest with huge loans.”
Russia is also discussing exporting electricity to South Korea and North Korea.
In addition to hydropower plants, tidal power plants are planned in the Far Eastern region, including a 13.6-million-kilowatt plant in Tugursky Bay in the Khabarovsk district and an 87-million-kilowatt plant in the Penzhina Bay in the Kamchatka district.
Russia exported 23.7 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity last year, ranking it eighth among the world's suppliers.
Its export volume has remained flat since the 1990s, partly because self-sufficiency ratios have risen in former Soviet states, according to reports.
Cross-border electricity trade began in the 1950s to the 1960s in Europe and North America.
France, a nuclear power producer, is a major exporter in Europe. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations has an ASEAN Power Grid initiative, and power lines connect Thailand, Malaysia and Laos.
* * *
Japan may also be able to import electricity from Russia’s Far Eastern region and Siberia.
In June 2011, then Russian Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin told Nobuo Tanaka, former executive director of the International Energy Agency, that Moscow is eager to sell electricity to Japan.
“I think it is a very interesting plan,” Tanaka, an advocate of a cross-border power grid linking Japan, Russia and South Korea, said as he introduced the episode at the Japanese-Russian Far Eastern Forum in Vladivostok on May 3.
Sechin, who was in charge of policy for energy and natural resources, earlier outlined a broader initiative toward Japan to Putin, then prime minister.
On March 12, 2011, a day after the Great East Japan Earthquake, Putin summoned Sechin and other officials and instructed them to arrange emergency supplies to Japan.
Sechin proposed sending electricity directly from Sakhalin to Japan via an undersea cable as a long-term measure, in addition to increasing coal and natural gas exports.
He emphasized that Russia could expect increased Japanese investment if it cooperates with Japan in setting up a power transmission project.
For years, Russia toyed with the idea of supplying electricity from hydro, tidal and thermal power plants in the Far Eastern region and Siberia to neighboring countries via large-capacity cables.
In 2000, Unified Energy System of Russia, which had a monopoly on the nation’s electricity business at the time, announced a Japan-Russia Energy Bridge project.
The plan called for construction of a thermal power plant in Sakhalin and exports of 4 million kilowatts of electricity, roughly equivalent to the output of four nuclear power reactors, to Japan.
Trading house Marubeni Corp. was involved in a preliminary feasibility study.
The plan did not make headway due to a number of problems, among them fund procurement and electricity loss during long-distance transmission.
In recent years, however, technologies to handle high-voltage, direct-current electricity have made advances, and the cost advantages of the Japan-Russia Energy Bridge project, compared with nuclear power plants, have received growing attention.
The disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, which led to the shutdown of all 50 nuclear reactors in Japan, triggered calls to buy electricity from overseas.
In September, the Japan Renewable Energy Foundation, set up by Softbank Corp. President Masayoshi Son, announced an Asia Super Grid, which would cover from the Far Eastern region to Southeast and South Asia.
The following month, the Japan Policy Council, chaired by former communications minister Hiroya Masuda, proposed an Asia-Pacific Power Grid, which would link Japan and South Korea with Australia.
Under both initiatives, Japan would import electricity generated by renewable sources such as wind and geothermal energy.
In March, Softbank agreed with Mongolian cellphone carrier Newcom Group and Korea Electric Power Corp. to cooperate in wind power generation.
Mongolia’s Gobi desert will serve as a supply base. It will be linked to South Korea via China and eventually to Kyushu through an undersea transmission line.
A drastic review of the domestic electric power industry will be required before any electricity can be imported.
Japan’s established utilities, which generate, transmit and distribute power and enjoy virtual regional monopolies, have few incentives to purchase electricity from abroad.
There are other factors to consider, such as the risk of an exporter suddenly suspending supplies in favor of domestic customers.
Some experts have voiced particular concern about imports from Russia, citing delicate diplomatic relations stemming from the thorny territorial dispute over the Northern Territories off Hokkaido.
Still, it will be more difficult for Russia to suspend supplies if it is part of an international power grid serving a number of countries, including Japan, such as one proposed by Tanaka.
“Countries will become more dependent on each other if they are connected by electricity lines,” Tanaka said. “Japan has good reason to consider the feasibility of a cross-border power grid, partly as a means to strengthen its relations with Russia.”
(Tetsuo Kogure and Masami Ono contributed to this article.)
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