It seems like energy is the issue of the decade wherever you are in the world. We all know that Russia has abundant fossil fuel resources and that natural gas exports provide a significant cash flow into the coffers of Russia. And in Moscow, the electric energy industry is poised for major expansion. Like many countries, Russia coasted on robust investments made in the grid in the 1950s. Now much of the T&D equipment is nearing its end of life, and Russia's growing economy requires the systems not only be refurbished but, in many cases, upgraded.

Moscow and St. Petersburg are bustling cities. I went to Moscow in April and was shocked to find that unemployment is an unbelievably miniscule 2%. This is a full-employment economy, unlike the 8% to 12% unemployment you will find in Europe and the United States.

Transmission & Distribution World's publisher, Dave Miller, and I went to meet Ekaterina Guseva, our partner for the Transmission & Distribution World Russia Edition. Guseva is an electrical engineer and the president of Russian online magazine Electric Power T&D. She worked with my friend Konstantin Mekhanoshin, chairman of the board with global engineering and surveying company Opten, to set up visits for us to the transmission and distribution companies in Moscow.

Moscow Economy on a Tear

Before I provide an update on that status of the power delivery system in Russia, I'd like to share some perceptions from my visit to Moscow.

Moscow is an expanding and happening city of 17 million that is building out its infrastructure to support growth. I felt really safe in the city center, going on a walkabout each morning for an hour or more, always stopping to get my Starbucks.

The subways are easy to navigate, and the roads and highways are filled with new model cars made up of all conceivable global brands, many of them manufactured in Russia. And the shops are filled with the latest fashions from Paris and around the world. Oh, yes, and the restaurants are really good, too, and you can get any cuisine that happens to fit your taste.

One of the first restaurants we tried served native Russian fare. Andrey Shishkin, the deputy minister of energy of the Russian Federation, joined us for dinner, where we started with an unusual appetizer. I am not sure of the species, but we ate what seemed to be the Russian version of sushi. This fish is caught in the winter and flash-freezes when brought out of the water. It is then immediately sliced into thin slivers. It is eaten both raw and frozen. Sounds a little odd, but it was quite tasty. We then followed with plates of native game and raw fish.

My interest in Russian cuisine faded when I started chatting with Shishkin, who provided me with a view into the strategic decisions recently made at the federal level that will drive the future of electric energy in Russia.

You might know that the restructuring of the energy sector was completed in 2005 with the separation of the electricity sector into generation, bulk transmission, system operations and local distribution. A total of 67 distribution companies report under the Interregional Distribution Grid Co. (IDGC). Under Shishkin's guidance, the Russian T&D companies have decided to embrace advanced technologies and will be investigating advanced HVDC systems, superconducting cable systems and smart grid technologies. They are looking to better handle two-way power flows while placing more distributed generation near load centers. Shishkin agreed to share more details on this vision in an upcoming “Straight Talk” column for Transmission & Distribution World.

Our first utility visit was to meet with the technical directors of the Moscow distribution company MOESK, including Sergey Litvinov (central electric networks) and Vladimir Burtovoy (high-voltage cable networks). We learned that because central Moscow (comprised of 10 million citizens) is fed from substations that ring the city, and because the circuits are comprised of underground loop feeds, outages are rare in the city. But overhead lines feed the outer suburbs of Moscow and thus are susceptible to storms.

MOESK shared with us the devastating impact of a December 2010 ice storm, which took down lines and trees. Indeed, on the drive in to Moscow from the airport, we saw massive stands of birch trees bowed over at odd angles and pine trees that had lost their tops. As anyone who has worked ice storms knows, the combination of thick ice coatings on power lines and trees falling into lines can be much more devastating to the grid than floods, tornadoes or even hurricanes.

To plan work and dispatch crews to the hardest hit areas, MOESK had Opten fly helicopters to access damage for more effective dispatch of crews. The information from these flyovers also added tremendous value after the storm as MOESK engineers used this same LiDAR data to verify the magnitude of ice-caused damage to its power system. Verified damage data enabled MOESK to more accurately access line damage to its insurers, resulting in recouping twice the insurance rubles they could have reclaimed without this data.

Ice-Cold Vodka

Sharing experiences during meetings is fine but sharing life is even better. We got together for dinner over a series of traditional Russian appetizers with our new MOESK friends. Dave and I found that chatting in an informal setting with our MOESK engineering counterparts proved to be as productive as the more formal meetings where PowerPoint presentations were shared.

I'm not sure whether it was the ice-cold vodka speaking, but through a series of toasts, I expect we have embarked on developing relationships that will last. We weren't restrained by language barriers as our interpreter, Tatiana Shushkova, could translate Russian, English and engineer speak!

During our week in Moscow, we also visited the headquarters of Federal Grid Company (FGC). Deputy Chairman of the Board Roman Berdnikov provided us with details of the bulk Russian Grid made up of 220-kV, 500-kV and 765-kV circuits. In the five-year plan announced in 2010, Russia made the commitment to investigate and invest in breakthrough technologies, including advanced superconducting devices and battery energy storage. They also committed to improve existing technologies, including HVDC, low-sag conductors and flame-resistant transformer oil. To give you an idea of the commitment Russia is making in transmission, FGC has increased its capital investment in transmission from 93 million rubles in 2008 to 193 million rubles in 2011.

Our next stop was the central control center for all of Russia that dispatches power at 110 kV through 765 kV across nine time zones. We met with Sergei Pavlushko, board member and deputy chief dispatcher at system operations for the United Power System. Pavlushko shared that the control center runs on power flow control and stability software developed here in Russia. The operations center also manages interconnections to 11 neighbors including China, Finland and the former socialist states across 137 interstate transmission lines.

We then toured the training facilities and were impressed with the professional qualifications of the control room operators. But equally as impressive was the quarterly training required to assure the operators will be able to properly respond to major and minor events operational emergencies on the grid.

Storm-Response Tools in Place

We then met with Boris Mekhanoshin, IDGC's vice president of strategy and technical director. IDGC is the holding company for 67 distribution companies serving 120 million people. I was quite impressed with the storm-response system IDGC developed to enable remote distribution companies to share resources to respond to floods, fires and storms.

Mekhanoshin and the IDGC team showed us the geographical information system-based software they put in place in only six months that allows individual distribution companies to track the location and amount of available storm-response materials and equipment including transformers, poles and wire. Distribution companies requiring assistance also can access storm-response personnel down to individual teams and team members. This becomes quite helpful when a utility needs to mobilize for an incoming event.

But what really caught my attention is that individual distribution companies already have agreements in place so that response teams from non-affected utilities will be properly compensated for travel, time and materials. This makes the cleaning up of financial details on the back end of storms a detail rather than a recurring nightmare.

Academia

We then went to the Electric Power Engineering Institute in Moscow where I met with Sergei Serebryannikov, the director of this university of 10,000 students. He informed me that this university focuses on turning out electrical engineers who focus on areas including power delivery, generation, energy efficiency and communications control. This university works closely with industry and provides a steady stream of engineers to electric utilities, engineering firms and manufacturers.

Next I had an opportunity to address more than 100 electrical engineering students, sharing my observations on technical and business trends. A question and answer session followed with students opening up and sharing their concerns and aspirations. I then toured the university high-voltage lab which includes impulse generators up to 2.2 million volts and a series resonant set that can generate 400-kV AC.

Reflecting on my week in Moscow, I see that the engineers in Russia are eager to develop and maintain connections with the global technical community, and I am willing to do my part. I've offered to see if I can set up a trip by the FGC to witness an energized superconducting underground cable system in Long Island. And I would like to connect with the Russian delegation scheduled to attend CIGRÉ in Paris this August.

Deputy Director Shishkin and his counterparts in energy have come to the conclusion that they must embrace leading processes and technologies at a cost that makes sense for their customers. We can learn a lot from this country, which is heavily investing in its T&D infrastructure.

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