In the age of nanotechnology and film-making in outer space an overwhelming majority of settlements in the Murmansk region are heated with increasingly expensive fuel oil. The heating fees are now barely affordable.
“Give us 9 billion rubles...”
The increase in the price of fuel oil makes a 9 billion-ruble hole ($125.593.200) in the region's budget every year. This is a recurring problem in the Murmansk region.
“Given the increase in export supplies, we have runaway fuel oil prices on the exchange even though I have a tender for direct contract with the producer of this type of fuel. It loses the Murmansk region alone nine billion rubles of revenues a year,” said Murmansk region governor Andrei Chibis in his recent speech at the Federation Council.
“We pay this money from the regional budget to provide heat to our population, and winter in our place lasts for nine months,” he said to make a point.
The region is like a junkie who only thinks about where to get the money for the next fuel oil dose. Regional authorities, led by Chibis, are used to being saved by federal subsidies. However, no money came in 2020-2021.
“I’m asking to record it and support us with a subsidy next year. As it stands, we cannot influence the situation taking into account the fuel oil price uptrend. We have no real competition here in the market nor state regulation. We need to insert a 10 billion-ruble earmark,” Chibis said.
“Fellow governors can imagine what 10 billion rubles is if this money could be spent on roads, schools, kindergartens, repairs, and so on,” he said. In other words, the region would live happily with new roads and schools if the federal government allocated the money.
At the same time, the price of fuel oil on the exchange has repeatedly hit all-time highs throughout this year. It has increased by 51.2% since January. According to the territorial index of the European part of Russia, the price of fuel oil rose by 2% to 28.264 rubles ($394.42) per tonne on October 11. The previous high of 28.038 rubles ($391.26) was posted on October 6.
“Can gas save us?”
Two years ago, the governor announced the ambitious plans to phase out fuel oil. The consumption of this type of fuel had to be reduced by 60-65% within five years due to the installation of gas supply networks in the region.
The federal center supported the proposal for gas delivery to the Kola Peninsula and it is now in the works. According to the regional authorities, the installation of gas services of the Murmansk region and the abandonment of fuel oil will cost more than 300 billion roubles ($4.186.440) but the construction of the gas pipe in the region will cut the residents' utility payments by up to 20%.
However, two years have passed but the problem is yet to be solved. There is no hope to end the use of fuel oil under Chibis and, consequently, to improve the Murmansk region budget.
“No, let us warm ourselves with electricity”
Regional parliament deputy Gennady Stepakhno wrote about the failure to build gas supply networks in his appeal to Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin. According to him, the conversion to gas-fired boiler houses was in question.
Even the new boiler houses, for example in Severomorsk, run on coal. Stepakhno believes that if there is surplus electricity production on the Kola Peninsula, heating should be switched to electricity instead of gas.
“Though our region has a nuclear power plant, three thermal and 17 hydroelectric power plants and surplus electric power, settlements are heated with fuel oil and coal for some reason,” Stepakhno said.
He gave an example: there are two hydroelectric power plants 3 and 14 kilometers away from Teriberka with a population of 500 people. The village is heated by two boilers that run on fuel oil and coal. The fuel is delivered by motor transport from Murmansk located 140 kilometers away.
“Now, it is planned to build a new coal-fired boiler house with federal money to replace the outdated one. It hardly makes sense,” Stepakhno says.
The budget funds allocated for the purchase of expensive fuel oil could cover part of the electric heating costs, he said.
“Wind power is better for heating”
Murmansk region scientists estimate that at least half of the fuel oil burned in polar boiler houses can be replaced by electricity generated by wind power plants (WPP).
According to calculations of experts from the Center for Physical and Technical Power Industry Problems of the North of the Kola Scientific Center of Russian Academy of Sciences, the joint use of boilers and wind turbines can save a lot of money, said Alexei Bezhan, an employee of the Center.
The idea is to heat buildings most of the time with wind turbines. The oil-fired boiler house is a backup to be used when the wind slackens or stops.
This heating option was suggested for the village of Vaida-Guba in the Murmansk region on the coast of the Barents Sea where the average annual wind speed is 6.6 meters per second. At intervals with strong winds, the wind turbine can fully supply consumers with heat. When the power generated by the wind turbine is not enough, the boiler plant is put to work. If
wind turbines generate surplus energy it can be stored in buildings with heat storage capacity.
Residents and experts on the fuel oil problem
“Governor Andrey Chibis is fighting for Murmansk region interests at the State Duma hearings on Russian budget 2022. His speech was met with understanding and support from both fellow governors and Cabinet members,” the Region 51 public page on a popular Russian social media site VK wrote citing Andrey Chibis’s pathos-filled speech in Federation Council.
However, judging by the comments to the post, it did not find support among Murmansk residents. Here is one of them:
“The fuel oil fairy tale is going on… They are begging for money from year to year ”
“We have a nuclear power plant next door (4 units.) We were promised that as soon as an electric boiler plant is built, heat tariffs will be much lower. The construction has finished but the tariffs are still high and keep growing...”
“Oh, he talks a good game. He should write books, novels or short science fiction stories...!!! Then he'll spend all the money on unnecessary art objects, parklets, all sorts of shows, promotional signs etc.”
“It's very hard to believe that the money will be spent for the purpose intended! We have seen that many times! Not a single project has come to fruition! That’s daydreaming!”
The Nezigar Telegram channel also mentioned Chibis in its weekly rating of governors:
“The local opposition believes that the governor is inefficient. The rise in fuel oil prices has caused difficulties for the wasteful governor, who is once again asking for subsidies, thereby shifting the responsibility to the federal center. In addition, the dissonance between the development strategy of the Murmansk region and the actual situation is widely discussed in the region. As shown by the recently published data on the results of 2020, the outflow of population from the region continues.”
The region got addicted to the “fuel oil needle” in the Soviet era. Back then it was justified as fuel oil cost little as a byproduct of oil refining. Unfortunately, the region has not been able to overcome its dependence on fuel oil for almost 30 years of modern Russian history.
The projects to switch to other types of fuel remain just projects. The wish to reduce the burden on family budgets of northerners is still wishful thinking. Getting rid of intermediaries when buying fuel and normalizing the situation with fuel supplies is the maximum that has been achieved in recent years.