Power to the People: With minor steps toward alternative sources Armenia is a long way from life without nuclear energy

On a spring day in Armenia, two forms of energy go mostly unused – the republic’s abundant sunshine, and its pleasant breezes.

While steps are being taken to exploit the wind, Armenia remains a country largely dependent on electricity from nuclear power. And the future looks little different as the National Assembly considers a replacement for the Soviet-built Metsamor nuclear power station.

Even Viktor Afyan doesn’t see Armenia without a nuclear future. Afyan is president of Solaren, a company owned by American-Armenian businessman Gerard Cafesjian that specializes in wind, solar and biogas power and is now building wind power plants in the republic.

Afyan says economically profitable wind farms could produce about 18 percent of the country’s energy demands, now about 5.5 billion kilowatt hours of electricity per year.

The only operating nuclear reactor at Metsamor is expected to be shut down in 2016, at the end of its 30-year lifespan. Energy Minister Armen Movsisyan says that Armenia lacks sufficient natural energy resources to replace nuclear power, which generates nearly 40 percent of the country’s electricity.

Geo-thermal power – using pockets of hot underground water to generate electricity – is expected to be introduced to Armenia next year. Currently thermal power plants produce nearly 30 percent of the country’s electricity.

Hydroelectric power, including the Vorotan and Sevan-Hrazdan cascades, and a number of small plants, provides about 20 percent of the nation’s power supply.

Thirty-eight small hydro-power stations are under construction in the country, but Movsisyan says these will only provide 10 percent of the country’s electricity needs.

Wind catches on

Solaren’s president — as well as Armenian environmental groups — see wind power as a natural source and following a trend of many European countries that are seeking earth-friendly alternatives to nuclear power and hydroelectric plants, which damage fish and wildlife habitats.

The first wind farm consisting of four turbines with a total capacity of 2.6 megawatts was commissioned last year. So far this year, several applications have already been submitted to the government for construction of new wind farms.

The first wind farm – built by an Iranian firm – began operating on December 6 in the Pushkin mountain pass. Preparatory work is being done for constructing turbines in Sotk mountain pass, in Vardenis, and in Sisian.

Other potential locations for wind turbines are in the northern part of Lake Sevan and at the foot of Mount Aragats.

Sun sourcing

Solar energy in Armenia is largely limited to home uses. Solar water heaters sell for about $300, with installation adding as much as $900 to the cost. While the initial cost is expensive, installers like Safyan’s Solaren company point to the long-term benefits of energy-free hot water.

At the American University of Armenia, a pilot project was started in 1999 that, today, provides the university with hot water and cools the auditorium, using solar panels.

Deputy Dean of Engineer Department Artak Hambaryan says AUA’s solar water heaters are very profitable today, when the prices for oil, gas and energy grow yearly. Hambaryan says going solar is worth the initial financial investment because eventually energy will be produced free for up to 25 years.

“It’s an endless source of energy, it gives energy independence and does not contaminate the environment,” he says.

The university has also invested $50,000 in photo voltage plates for collecting energy, in a program funded by Ameerican-Armenian benefactor Zhirair Turpanjyan.

Beginning last week, students at the Mkhitar Sebastatsi educational complex can take hot showers after sporting classes, thanks to a solar heater promoted by the Tapan Eco Club NGO as part of an energy resources school project. The SunEnergy organization installed the unit, which can heat water to 80 degrees Celsius.

Hrant Sargsyan, chairman of the NGO, says it is a pilot program and has cost $1,430 dollars. The NGO is looking to put such devices in two other schools.

“The expenses are paid back in 6 years if we compare it with electricity; compared to gas – in 10-12 years. The life expectancy of the solar heater is 50 years minimum,” says Mikayel Martirosyan, director of SunEnergy.

The Hrashk Agrospasarkum dairy farm near Yerevan is using another source of energy to generate electricity – manure. Animal waste is burned to generate gas, and the ash is sold to farmers as fertilizer, according to Afyan.

But Gagik Minasyan, chairman of the National Assembly’s finance and economic affairs commission, says that Armenia’s past energy crisis means nuclear production remains the backbone of the nation’s energy supply.

“If we undertake nothing beginning today, then in 2016 we will again face energy hunger. In this case we must build a great number of thermal power plants and extend our dependence on the outer world. Raising tariffs will hit our people. Or we will use less energy and will be left behind in the competition race,” Minasyan says.

Submarine solution?

The cost of decommissioning Metsamor and replacing it is estimated at $1.5 billion. Some physicists say there may be a less expensive nuclear alternative—using compact nuclear reactors like those built in Obninsk, Russia, first designed for submarines and later modified.

The National Academy of Sciences last year sent a letter to the energy minister, saying that the use of the reactors designed in Obninsk may be a promising alternative to conventional reactors specifically designed for nuclear energy stations like Metsamor.

Proponents of using these reactors, including physicists at the Yerevan Physics Institute and Arev-Nuclear Company in Yerevan, say the Russian-built reactors would reduce the cost of a new power station by half.