As reported by Censor.NET citing Reuters, in the past few years Russia has imported the large-capacity gas turbines required to run modern power stations from firms such as Siemens (SIEGn.DE), GE (GE.N) and Alstom (ALSO.PA).
After Western sanctions were imposed on Russia over the conflict with Ukraine four years ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin urged officials to replace imported technology with home-grown substitutes in energy, software, aerospace and medicine.
The mishap with the 110 Megawatt turbine, a capacity large enough to power a sizeable town, underlines the technical challenges.
Testing was underway on a prototype 110 MW turbine at the Saturn engineering plant in Rybinsk, central Russia, in December last year according to one of the two sources, who are both in the energy sector and familiar with the results of the tests.
"The turbine fell apart," said the first source, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. "They tried to repair it in time for March, but they did not manage it."
March was the target date for completion of tests on the turbine. Putin, in power since 1999, won a second consecutive term in an election on March 18.
The first source, and a second source, both said it was not possible to rebuild the prototype turbine and the project would have to start again with new equipment.
"The turbine broke up," said the second source, who requested anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media. "There’s no turbine, that’s it."
Without any home-grown equivalents, Russia should in most cases still be able to buy turbines from Western suppliers, but U.S. and European Union sanctions have made it harder to import Western power technology under certain circumstances.
Last year Russia clandestinely delivered turbines made by Siemens to a power station in Crimea, which is subject to sanctions, and the European Union retaliated by imposing extra sanctions on officials and companies involved in the operation.
Set-backs to the domestic turbine program could hamper the modernization of power generation if growing tensions with Western states result in tighter sanctions since Russia’s modernization plan is focused on using gas turbines.
The technical hitch also carries a potential political cost: Putin has publicly trumpeted progress in replacing Western technology imports, so any failures will jar with the picture of success he has painted.
The new turbine is being developed by a consortium of ODK, a unit of state-owned conglomerate Rostec that owns the Saturn factory where the testing was being conducted, Russian state technology firm RUSNANO, and state energy firm InterRAO.
In a statement, ODK said one of the mechanisms of the prototype turbine had malfunctioned. It said that would delay work on the project, but could be fixed. "It is not fatal for the project." It said set-backs were to be expected since this was a pioneering project for Russia.
RUSNANO acknowledged there had been an accident but gave no details. It said it remained committed to the turbine project and expects it will be completed. InterRAO declined to comment.
Russia’s Trade and Industry Ministry, which oversees the machine-building sector, declined to comment and referred questions to Rostec.
Large capacity gas turbines have been in use around the world for years but their construction is tricky to perfect.
Because they operate at extremely high speeds and high temperatures, they need to be engineered to very precise standards and they use sophisticated electronic control systems to make sure that they operate efficiently.
For many years Russia made no major investment in developing the technology because it was able to import the turbines or the know-how to produce them. A scheme started in the 1990s to develop a large-capacity turbine produced prototypes but they did not go into production.
At a meeting in Russia’s second city of Saint Petersburg in May last year, chaired by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, Energy Minister Alexander Novak said a 110 MW turbine had been developed and testing should be completed by March 2018.
"This is the first Russian produced powerful machine with 100-percent domestic manufacture and it will, of course, help us to completely substitute purchases of foreign equipment of this capacity," Novak told the meeting. His ministry did not respond to questions on Tuesday about the set-back.
Siemens denies flatly its involvement in the delivery of turbines from Russia to Crimea. On July 11, 2017, Siemens filed lawsuits against two Russian companies with the Moscow Arbitration Court concerning gas turbines, which were illegally delivered from Russia to the Crimea circumventing the sanctions.
On June 21, Siemens said in a statement that it would stop supplying power equipment under the Russian state order.
On August 4, the European Union expanded the sanctions list by adding in it three more Russian officials and three entities following controversy with Siemens gas turbines supplied in annexed Crimea in violation of contracts.
Siemens and its Russian-based subsidiary are suing two companies with the same name of Technopromexport (Tekhnopromexport OJSC and Technopromexport LLC), subordinate to Rostekh Corporation, over four gas turbines that popped up in annexed Crimea. Siemens notes that the contract mentioned a thermal power plant in Russia as an end user of the turbines while that very contract completely denied possibility of their delivery from Russia to Crimea designated by the EU sanctions.
Russia argues that after one of the two Technopromexports, the one which the contract was signed with, resold the turbines to another Tekhnopromexport, these turbines started being considered as "goods acquired in the second-hand market" and were no longer a subject to restrictions under the initial contract.
On Dec. 10, 2017, the Moscow Arbitration Court dismissed the complaint of Siemens’ subsidiary against the companies of Rostekh Corporation on cancellation of contracts for the supply of gas turbines, which were subsequently brought in Crimea. Earlier, in December 2017, the same court rejected the request of the German corporation to return back to Russia the four gas turbines smuggled to the peninsula in violation of the agreements. In November 2017, the same court for the third time dismissed an action to attach the turbines.