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Lenin's Goelro And The Myth Of Total Electrification

Politics / Electricity Dec 26, 2013 - 02:35 PM GMT

By: Andrew_McKillop


Announcing the Goelro plan on 21 February 1920, Vladimir Lenin said that communism was to politics what electricity is for the economy, saying: “Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country”. Without total electrification “industry cannot be developed” and for Lenin, the plan was even a bulwark against barbarism, ignorance and disease, and a silver bullet for Russian recovery from the ravages of WWar I and the October Revolution.

The Plan called for the major restructuring of the Soviet economy based on total electrification,  removing all differences between cities and rural areas, town and country, raising the level of Soviet culture, driving down ignorance, poverty and disease. From late 1920 the Goelro State Commission for the Electrification of Russia was in place with a target of quadrupling power production “within 10 to 15 years”, which it achieved in 11 years. From 1932 the Goelro Plan became the infamous 5-year Soviet economic plans, which continued until the USSR collapsed in 1989.

Web sites of today listing European energy-environment policy documents give advice on how to start organic waste composting at your school or workplace and fend off invading alien species of plants and animals on the same page they list the Euratom Treaty of 1957 ( but at the time this Treaty was set, it was seen as a miracle worker. Signed alongside and with the Rome Treaty founding the European Economic Community, Euratom was presented as the silver bullet  “to tackle the general shortage of conventional energy” by increasing electricity supply, and the means for the six founding States (Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands) to achieve national energy independence.  The preceding 1952 Coal and Steel Community Treaty (ECSC Treaty) featured a major role for European coal to produce more electricity, and power the continent's industrial recovery from WWar II, but the advent of nuclear power seemed to offer a better and cheaper way to electrify Europe, develop its industries and provide national and continental energy security.

On 17 December 2008, after eleven months of legislative work the European Parliament gave its backing to the EU's climate-energy package. The package's aims were to ensure that the EU states will achieve climate-energy targets by 2020 of a 20% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, a 20% improvement in energy efficiency, and a 20% share for renewables in the EU energy mix. By early 2009, the parliament decision had been transposed into the laws and regulations of the EU's 27 member states of the time (28 today).

To be sure, the 20% raise in energy efficiency could be interpreted as potentially signaling a decline in electricity demand, but related policy and programmes within the national renewable energy action plans, and related energy laws and regulations, all favour the growth of electricity due to almost all renewables being used only to produce electricity. Electric power could be the sole type of energy which grows, as all forms and types of energy dependent on fossil fuels are whittled back.

Also, the electrification of surface transport, especially road transport to replace fossil fuel with renewable energy, implies that all-electric car fleets should grow rapidly by 2020, massively raising electricity demand. Today however, European energy and economic policy makers are careful not to talk about the need for, or the possibility of “total electrification”, and the subject of nuclear power is for the least “sensitive”, making electrification an opaque area of European energy policy.

Using PRIMES Eur-25 data on European Union member state power demand for the 2005-09 period, the overall average role of electricity was exactly 20.00% of total energy demand. For the industries of the Eur-25 group, 28% of their total energy use was on average electricity. Residential power covered 34% of total energy demand in this sector – but in transport, electricity only covered 1.7% of total energy used due to near-total (96% dependence) of road, air, ship and rail transport on oil.

The huge transport sector potential for raising electricity consumption, squeezing out oil, is therefore clear. Several European and international political-corporate lobby groups work this theme on a constant basis, such as Eurelectric, Alstom, McKinsey & Co, the EU JRC, the World Energy Council, Desertec, some European car makers and other interest groups - especially the nuclear lobby.

One major problem for “total electrification” was however already evident at the time of Vladimir Lenin's Goelro. Soviet electricity production was relatively easy to double and then quadruple, but its transport and distribution, and final end-use posed infrastructure and absorbtion problems which grew rapidly, in fact near-exponentially as the production of electricity increased arithmetically. Goelro's morph from a state program of electrification, to the 5-year economic plans in 1932 was decided and declared by the Soviet praesidium proclaiming that Goelro's goals “had been achieved” by 1931, but with electricity covering far less than 12.5% of total Soviet energy demand at that time!

In Europe, electricity demand growth has been low, stagnant or even in decline for at least 5-10 years in the majority of countries, starting before the 2008 financial-banking-debt crisis. Some nations such as the UK have had very low growth, zero growth or annual decline of power demand for over 15 years. Member state total electricity demand has declined by double-digit percentages in some countries (unsurprisingly in the PIIGS at rates up to 15%) since 2008. For 2012, the Commission's Energy Directorate said that gross inland electricity demand decreased by 1% compared to 2011, falling to its lowest level since the second quarter of 2009 signaling zero growth, or less, for a 3-year period.

Especially in Germany, related to its very high power prices needed for Energiewende funding, and despite Germany's flourishing economy, power demand has shrunk on a regular basis since 2008.  In other words, this sets the increasingly open question as to whether Europe has structural decline of electricity demand, or only recession-driven decline of power demand. 

Despite its economic and financial crises however, the EU28 group remains the single most electricity intensive group of countries in the world, with about 20% of total energy demand covered by electricity but as noted above, slow-or-no growth of power demand in Europe and other “advanced or postindustrial” nations is the likely long term trend. This is shown also for example by the USA's near-stagnant power demand trends making the potential for electricity's energy role to rise above 20% of total energy in the OECD group of countries probably very low, without major and special long-term programs to boost its role.

Also, taking the 20% share of electricity in EU28 total energy consumption, this ignores the other 80% of European energy, which is not electricity. Electrifying this “residual” 80% of total energy demand is the real challenge for electrification – and is more than difficult, shown by repeated national and sectoral case studies of electrification and its barriers.

One of the simplest cases is the role of industry, where electrification has always been championed (firstly by the Soviets) as the key to industrial output growth. Industrial power demand growth was strong in some developed countries as recently as 2005, but whenever and wherever industry declines, through de-industrialization or due to uncompetitive industrial sectors, or due to recession, electricity demand will also tend to decline.

More subtle declines can be triggered by the very success of electrification – notably the extremely rapid worldwide growth of electrical smelting and metal refining. The world iron and steel industry is now close to 60% electrical-based, and many countries (including India and Brazil, for example) approach or exceed 65%-electrical for their iron and steel output. This has accompanied the also-rapid growth in scrap-based iron and steel, copper, zinc, lead and other base metals production, which is now often well above 50% scrap-based, resulting in a large total net decrease in global energy needs, including electricity, for the same primary metals output.

Urban subway rail and suburban rail is now majority-electrical, worldwide, meaning that further gains for electricity in this part of the surface transport sector are difficult. Only high speed intercity trains offer rail-sector power demand growth opportunities – at high or very high railbed and infrastructure costs, that is “entry costs”.

Residential electricity demand in the majority of European countries is at least equal to, or above industrial power demand. This demand sector is both captive and at near-saturation rates, measured on a kWh per square metre annual basis. It is captive due to government policy, and zoning, building safety, environment and other regulations which limit non-electrical energy supply. This is despite at least 45% of final energy use in households being for heating, making the major substitution of electricity a real possibility. Near-saturation of power demand by households, in Europe is shown by the rapid success of low-watt lighting and more efficient appliances, and above all improved insulation, cutting household electric power needs. On cost-effectiveness grounds, these and other end-use electricity demand reduction and efficiency raising measures are faster acting and cheaper than increasing power supply and may well forestall, or reduce the attractiveness of smart grid-smart metering development on a widespread basis – which also targets reduced total electricity demand.

Several national energy ministry or agency forecasts in Europe for electricity demand going forward set continued decline as most likely for the coming decade. In the case of Germany, Energiewende policy and program forecasts include potential goals for reduced electricity demand as high as 30% by 2030 relative to current demand, featuring industrial power efficiency raising and increased residential energy efficiency. Europe-wide new construction energy standards since 2009 set 50 kWh per square metre per year as the norm for total energy consumption, compared with 200-300 kWh for average demand in habitat stock of pre-1945 vintage, still accounting for 33% or more of the urban housing and commercial habitat stock in most EU28 states.

Very surely the growth of all-electric car fleets would dramatically change electricity demand outlooks in the few developed countries which might be able to afford all-electric cars on a large scale basis. Government policy makers and deciders are however getting a handle on the fantastic power capacity and charging infrastructure cost implications of mass scale all-electric fleets. On a peak-hour charging basis of around 4 kW per car, only 1 million of these cars would need 4000 MW of dedicated power capacity and the cabling infrastructure for wide-area charging in city centres. This has to be compared with existing “thermal” car fleets. In the EU28 case, its current road fleet numbers about 210 million cars, compared with about 200 million for the US, and 74 million for Japan.

Taking 5% or 10% car fleet penetration goals for all-electric vehicles, the power demand and above all power capacity implications are extreme. Substituting and replacing cars in city areas – by electrified fixed rail and other electric mass transit – is more cost effective than attempting to provide for rising urban car fleet numbers, with overall and large energy and environment gains.

Early development of, and investor support to centrally-produced but widely-distributed electricity supply, notably in the US and UK from the 1880s, was in many cases thwarted or ruined by the rapid development of gas supply grids for the same end use – lighting. One main reason for electricity's substitutability was the lower total infrastructure costs for gas distribution and transport and to be sure, the potential for using gas fuel to generate electricity on-site for final end uses where electricity cannot be substituted or is hard to substitute. Modern fuel cell development and local or district CHP (combined heat and power) also sets the same challenge for electrical energy demand growth relative to its alternatives and substitutes.

Returning to Lenin's Goelro plan and the reasons for its abandonment and replacement by the 5-year economic plans of the USSR, one real but never stated reason was the sheer infrastructure costs for wide-area power grid transport infrastructure development, including substations and switching, demand forecasting and control. The Goelro plan was in fact almost entirely limited to western Russia, the Baltic area (Kaliningrad) and Black Sea regions of the USSR. This was simply due to the prohibitive costs of extending power transport “corridors” across the vast Soviet space.

Exactly the same daunting problems face the EU28 countries with their heavily promoted “European continental super grid” concept, which is projected by the European Commission and certain agencies (such as ACER, CEER, ERGEG, ENTSO-E) as needing the construction by 2035 or soon after, of about 4000 kilometres of new high capacity (rising to 90 000 MW), power transport infrastructures with 24/24 and 365/365 capability. Potential costs are probably above 400 billion euros if this Super Grid was ever built. Current high power capacity electricity transport infrastructures in Europe are measured at the 2000-6000 MW level between neighboring countries, only, and span less than 500 kilometres in most cases.

In other words Europe's own Goelro plan seeks a 15-fold raise of power transport capacities and an 8-fold jump in distances operated – on a simultaneous basis.

Faced down by reality, even Lenin was able to tame his “electrified Marxist” rhetoric. The USSR of the 1920s and 1930s found there were ceilings to the role of electricity in the economy, and to the costs of trying to push electricity's role too far in the energy economy. When the “Eurocrats” also learn to eat humble pie we can salute real progress!

By Andrew McKillop


Former chief policy analyst, Division A Policy, DG XVII Energy, European Commission. Andrew McKillop Biographic Highlights

Co-author 'The Doomsday Machine', Palgrave Macmillan USA, 2012

Andrew McKillop has more than 30 years experience in the energy, economic and finance domains. Trained at London UK’s University College, he has had specially long experience of energy policy, project administration and the development and financing of alternate energy. This included his role of in-house Expert on Policy and Programming at the DG XVII-Energy of the European Commission, Director of Information of the OAPEC technology transfer subsidiary, AREC and researcher for UN agencies including the ILO.

© 2013 Copyright Andrew McKillop - All Rights Reserved Disclaimer: The above is a matter of opinion provided for general information purposes only and is not intended as investment advice. Information and analysis above are derived from sources and utilising methods believed to be reliable, but we cannot accept responsibility for any losses you may incur as a result of this analysis. Individuals should consult with their personal financial advisor.

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