With its aged nuclear power plant scheduled to close in a decade, Armenians are discussing the feasibility of a shift to renewable energy.
A new Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement with the European Union has helped catalyze the renewables discussion. Metsamor, the only nuclear plant in the Caucasus, provides about one-third of Armenia's energy needs, but it is already past its original retirement date. As of now it is scheduled to close in 2026.
A provision in the EU partnership document calls for: “the closure and safe decommissioning of Metzamor [sic] nuclear power plant and the early adoption of a road map or action plan to that effect, taking into consideration the need for its replacement with new capacity to ensure the energy security of the Republic of Armenia and conditions for sustainable development.”
Armenia's Justice Minister Davit Harutyunyan recently raised eyebrows by suggesting, contra previous government assurances, that the country wasn't necessarily committed to nuclear power.
“Imagine that tomorrow a new technology emerges allowing us to get the same amount of energy, but without a nuclear power plant,” Harutyunyan told reporters in October. “Which path should we take? Definitely that of new technology.”
Such comments, along with the EU pact, have fed concerns – ginned up by Russia, many believe – that the EU was forcing Armenia to forego nuclear energy. An article in Sputnik Armenia, headlined “Agreement with the EU as a Threat to Armenia's Energy Security: They Will Take Away Armenia's Nuclear Power Plant?” suggested that the EU was under the influence of a “Turkish-Azerbaijani lobby” intent on depriving Armenia.
As unfounded as those claims are, they nevertheless have provoked debate about Armenia's energy future.
Metsamor entered service in 1976, and was shut down after a massive earthquake in 1988 – the epicenter of which was about 100 kilometers (62.1 miles) from the power plant – raised fears that another earthquake could cause a nuclear accident. But in 1993, newly independent Armenia, impoverished and in the midst of fighting a war against Azerbaijan, felt compelled to reopen the plant.
In 2011, following the accident at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan, Armenia announced that it would shut down Metsamor in 2016. But in 2015, Russia offered a $30 million grant and $270 million loan to extend the plant's life another 10 years. If, as scheduled, a Russian nuclear plant on the Kola Peninsula near the Arctic city of Murmansk is shut down in 2019, Metsamor would be the only remaining plant of its generational type still in operation.
Armenia has long debated building a new nuclear power plant, but it's unclear where the money would come from. Estimates on the cost of a new plant run upwards of $5 billion.
More recently, Armenia has started to look at a new technology of “modular reactors,” which are a fraction of the size of a plant like Metsamor. “By means of this technology we could construct a station of whatever strength,” said Ashot Manukyan, minister of energy and natural resources, at a news conference in October.
“This means a substantial reduction in investment expenditure for constructing a nuclear power station, and we also get the possibility of constructing small nuclear power plants with the possibility of subsequent expansion.”
Advocates of renewable energy say that it is particularly well suited for Armenia because of its particular geopolitical situation: its borders with Azerbaijan and Turkey are closed, and its dependence on natural gas and uranium from Russia has led to an uncomfortable degree of political dependence on Moscow.
Armenia was the first country in the region to easily offer permits to construct small solar, wind, and hydro power generation plants, and today renewable energy accounts for about 12 percent of Armenia's total power consumption. That's projected to grow to up to 18 percent in the next two years, according to Astghine Pasoyan, head of the Armenian Foundation to Save Energy.
Most of Armenia's renewable energy today comes from small hydropower plants; solar and wind represent only a tiny portion of Armenia’s total electricity generation. But that portion is growing: Solar panels with a capacity of 3.5 megawatts have been installed over the last 10 years, with more than two-thirds of that total built only over the last year, Pasoyan said.
Further expansion is in the cards: in May, Armenia's Energy Ministry issued a tender for a 55 megawatt solar power facility and a contractor, Arpi Solar, said in December that it will start work on the plan “very soon.”
“We started with a very small number and the trend is huge,” Pasoyan said. “I hope that the growth is not just in large-scale generation, but in average individual families, taking control of their energy needs and by doing that also helping the country strengthen its energy security.”
Pending changes in legislation would further liberalize the energy market. “For a lot of local communities and local businesses this will be a good opportunity to invest in renewable energy,” said Alen Amirkhanyan, director of the Acopian Center for the Environment at the American University of Armenia.
Amirkhanyan said that with sufficient investment in renewables, “there will no longer be a rationale for investing in very expensive technology, like building a new power plant.”
Despite Justice Minister Harutyunyan's apparent endorsement of “new technology,” other Armenian officials have said that Yerevan remains committed to nuclear energy. President Serzh Sargsyan, speaking October 27 at a meeting in Yerevan of the Council of Nuclear Energy Safety, said that the current agreement with Russia foresees the operation of Metsamor until 2027 “and later to implement phased installation of new nuclear blocks.”
Prime Minister Karen Karapetyan, as well, said recently that “security issues are extremely important for us and we intend to always have nuclear power.”
While the government may not be ready to abandon nuclear power altogether, its interest in renewables is genuine, Pasoyan said.
“The approach of the Armenian government is that Armenia will try to maintain nuclear power generation in its mix, simply because it is a national security issue,” she said.
“No matter how much we talk about renewable energy, supplying the base load [of the country's energy needs] with renewables is extremely complicated,” not least because power from renewable sources is intermittent and depends on weather conditions, she added.
Armenia may also not have to build a new nuclear plant just yet, said Armen Manvelyan, an energy geopolitics expert at the Armenian National Academy of Sciences. “It sometimes happens that nuclear power plants are extended not by 10 years but 20, 30, and even 40 years,” he said. With the Eurasian Economic Union planning to adopt a common energy market by 2019, the export potential of Armenian nuclear energy will become increasingly attractive, he said.
“If we use [Metsamor] better, and supply electricity to Eurasian and Iranian markets, it's likely that in 2022 or 2023, we could see the question of extending the life of this plant another 10 years,” he said.