The Energy Transition Initiative is a new program being considered by the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology (Skoltech), the educational arm of the Skolkovo ecosystem. The Skoltech Center for Hydrocarbon Recovery is creating the program with the aim of helping the transition to new sources of fuel, most notably hydrogen.

The head of the center, professor Mikhail Spasennykh and his colleague, professor Dmitry Pisarenko, the vice president of R&D at Total Russia, believe that the program will allow the institute to be among the leading academic partners of Europe’s largest energy companies in this particular area.

Fossil fuels still account for 80% of the world’s energy, with nuclear, renewables and biofuels accounting for the rest. However, with countries across Europe committing to cutting their CO2 emissions, the new “green trend” is giving rise to greater demand for clean fuel, hydrogen being one such candidate.

“The energy balance in the world as a whole has not changed cardinally; however, for a number of European countries, the changes are significant. The important thing that has changed is the attitude to the current situation in which humanity is increasingly aware of the need to move towards clean energies,” said Professor Spasennykh during an interview with

Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology. Image:

The fall in demand for traditional car fuel in Europe is partly what is driving the trend towards developing clean fuel. Another factor is the fact that the EU is considering imposing a carbon border adjustment mechanism, more commonly referred to as a carbon border tax. Given that the EU is Russia’s biggest export market for oil, it comes as no surprise that this is a concern for Russian energy suppliers. Demand in Europe is already low because of the transition to cleaner technologies, not to mention as a result of the coronavirus pandemic; it’s little wonder that oil companies have seen some of the lowest revenues from the EU market in years.

According to Professor Spasennykh, companies working in hydrocarbon extraction, production and processing need to understand which way the wind is blowing and those that react to this new scenario quickest will emerge with a distinct advantage in the future energy market.

Patrick Pouyanne, the CEO of Total, in an interviewposted on the company website, stated in so many words that it is a matter of deciding whether or not to participate in this transition to a market where alternative sources of energy account for a larger overall share. Mr. Pouyanne sees this simply as another stage in the evolution of the energy industry, which began with wood, before moving on to coal, oil, gas, nuclear energy, and now renewables.

Professor Mikhail Spasennykh, the head of the Skoltech Center for Hydrocarbon Recovery. Photo source: Personal album..

Total isn’t the only multinational company seeking to carve out its piece in the emerging green energy market. British Petroleum aims to adapt to the changes in the sector and this seems increasingly likely given that one of its main shareholders is the Institutional Investors Group on Climate Change, a pressure group that uses its stakeholdings to urge significant greenhouse gas emitters to decarbonize. The new head of BP, Bernard Looney, was recently quoted in Forbes as saying that BP must “reinvent” itself and that “the world’s carbon budget is finite and running out fast; we need a rapid transition to net zero.”

Professor Dmitry Pisarenko said that the largest European corporations, under pressure from the public, have accepted the unavoidability of an energy transition and have made it a part of their strategy. The European Union is taking financial measures in the form of green bonds and new taxes in order to motivate energy companies to adapt to the energy transition and become a part of the so-called “European Green Deal.” 

“A carbon duty on the borders of the European Union is part of the plans being discussed,” said Professor Pisarenko of Skoltech and Total Russia stated. “That is, energy imports will be subject to duties that will be estimated based on their full carbon footprint.”

Non-green energy in the EU will become more expensive in the near future, thus having a knock-on effect both for European businesses and for energy providers. The goal of this measure, however, is to make green energy more competitive; businesses will undoubtedly seek out cleaner and cheaper sources and energy providers will be compelled to try and meet this new demand. This is where Skoltech’s Energy Transfer Initiative comes in.

Professor Dmitry Pisarenko, vice president of Total Russia R&D. Photo: Personal Album.

According to Professor Spasennykh, his center’s potential partners are not limited to energy companies. Together with the Institute of High Temperature Electrochemistry of the Ural branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Skoltech applied for a grant to research one of the most important components of green energy - hydrogen and its use in fuel cells. Not so long ago, this technology was impractical, primarily due to its high costs. Now, with costs of fossil fuels in Europe on the increase, hydrogen cell technology is becoming more feasible.

“Our partners are developing fuel cell technologies and we have new technologies for hydrogen production during oil production - the injection of steam into a methane reservoir leading to the generation of hydrogen under reservoir conditions. There are also are many other processes that can be optimized for hydrogen production,” said Professor Spasennykh. 

With the effects of climate change beginning to show across the world, this initiative comes at a crucial time. The melting of the permafrost, due to increasing land temperatures, is largely blamed for the Norilsk fuel spill in the Arctic Circle last May.

Total has already shown interest in budding green industries, one of these being batteries. The company purchased the European battery producer, Saft, in 2016 for $1.1 billion with the goal of developing batteries for transport and for energy storage solutions. Like Total, Skoltech also has its own center dedicated to batteries.

“My work is aimed at positioning Skoltech as a strategic academic partner for Total,” said Professor Pisarenko. “The best universities in the world have this status and, of the Russian universities, Skoltech could easily be the first to enter this elite club. But to achieve this status, we need to have a solid number of joint research projects on subjects that are relevant to today and to the new global energy sector.”