Small hydroelectric power plants and war

Typical collective farm hydroelectric power station. Low quality photograph, but giving an idea that such an object was built from scrap materials

The military-economic history of wars has been poorly and one-sidedly studied. If the details of major battles are described by the day, and sometimes by the minute, the rivets on the tanks are counted with great care, then about the rear and especially about military production it is not so easy to find worthwhile literature.

Meanwhile, during the Second World War, in the military-industrial rear of the warring countries, sometimes grandiose battles for an industrial scale unfolded, in terms of their intensity and importance for victory, in no way inferior to the largest battles. The fact that the military-industrial rear is no less important than the army and its battles must be constantly remembered; this circumstance must be taken into account in the current defense construction.

Now I would like to touch upon a rather little-known, but very important topic for the military economy – small hydroelectric power plants. According to the modern classification, small hydroelectric power plants are considered to be power plants with a capacity of up to 10 MW, or up to 30 MW, with a capacity of one hydroelectric unit up to 10 MW.

Although the USSR always gravitated towards the construction of large power plants, in particular, large hydroelectric power plants, the backbone of the country’s energy system, nevertheless, from the very beginning of the electrification plan, much attention was paid to small power plants that supplied electricity to collective farms and MTS. The emergence of a dense network of machine and tractor stations, which usually included repair shops, required the creation of local power plants. The first collective farm HPP is considered to be the Yaropoletskaya HPP in the Volokolamsk District of the Moscow Region, launched on November 7, 1919. But most of them were built in the 1930s. For example, the Bukskaya HPP on the Gorny Tikich River in the Cherkasy region of the Ukrainian SSR was built around this time and gave electricity in 1936. In 1937, there were 750 small HPPs with a total capacity of 40 MW, and in 1941 there were already 660 collective farm HPPs in the USSR with a total capacity of 330 MW, which produced 48.8 million kWh of electricity. Most of the collective farm hydroelectric power plants were in Belarus.

Many small hydroelectric power plants

The war has become a powerful catalyst for the construction of local hydroelectric power plants. In 1941, during the retreat from Ukraine, almost all the energy was destroyed, and the explosion of the Dnieper Hydroelectric Power Station on August 18, 1941 became the pinnacle of this destructive process. The Germans found everywhere either empty foundations, or debris twisted by the explosions. Now they began to call it stupidity, but the destruction of the Ukrainian energy sector during the retreat had a fateful significance for the entire course of the war. The Germans failed to use the industrial resources of Donbass and Kharkov. Without electricity, they were unable to pump water out of the mines (they were flooded), they were unable to establish large-scale coal mining. Without electricity, it was impossible to extract and enrich iron ore, it was impossible to smelt metal, since blast furnaces and open-hearth furnaces require cooling, and the pumps of cooling systems require electricity. Many machine-building enterprises fell into German hands almost entirely, but they also turned out to be almost unusable.

The Germans had to carry all their weapons and ammunition from Germany; coal for railways and military needs was also imported from Germany, from Silesia. This, of course, sharply weakened the German army and reduced its offensive capabilities. Now imagine what it would be like if in the immediate rear of the Germans a large industrial region, which before the war gave the overwhelming part of coal, steel, aluminum and a significant part of machine-building products, began to operate at full capacity.

The evacuated enterprises in the eastern regions of the USSR immediately found themselves in a situation of acute shortage of electricity. Power engineers had to share scarce resources between a number of factories and plants. I recently studied the documents of the Chirchik Agricultural Engineering Plant in Uzbekistan. In the fourth quarter of 1942, when the plant began to produce the bodies of the FAB-100 and AO-25 bombs, it received about 30% of the required electricity from the Chirchik hydroelectric power station. There were times when electricity was supplied only for lighting.

In the rear areas, intensive construction of new power plants began, and already in 1944 the situation was largely rectified and the military factories were supplied with sufficient electricity. But even so, many consumers, the same collective farms and MTS, were left without power supply. This negatively affected the production of grain and other agricultural products, without which it is impossible to fight.

In general, my experience was drawn from the cruel lesson of the war. During the war, they began to actively build small collective farm hydroelectric power plants. On February 8, 1945, the Council of People’s Commissars of the USSR adopted a resolution on rural electrification, which opened the way for large-scale electrification.

Small hydroelectric power plants and war
Why not build such hydropower plants a thousand a year? But we must remember that any hydroelectric power station requires a good design and preliminary hydrological survey of the river. Thus, hydrology becomes an important science for war.

The scope of construction reached thousands of small hydroelectric power plants per year! In the early 1950s, there were 6.6 thousand collective farm hydroelectric power plants in the USSR. Some areas received a dense network of power plants. For example, in the Ryazan region, which is not the largest in the country, there were 200 small hydroelectric power plants, supplying electricity to 500 collective farms and 68 MTS. In 1958, there were up to 5,000 small hydroelectric power plants, which provided 1,025 million kWh of electricity.

Destruction of small hydroelectric power plants – refusal to prepare for war

1958 was the year of the peak of small hydropower. Then came the rout. It cannot be called otherwise. Small HPPs produced 901 million kWh, and in 1962 only 2,665 small HPPs remained in operation, which gave 247 million kWh. That is, less than a third of the initial production.

Subsequently, their number has steadily decreased. In 1980, there were 100 small HPPs with a total capacity of 25 MW, in 1990 there were 55 of them. Now, according to RusHydro data for 2018, there are 91 small HPPs in Russia, together with recently built ones.

In my opinion, this is an expression of whether preparations were under way for a real large-scale war or not. Stalin definitely carried out such training, and that is why small hydroelectric power plants occupied such an honorable place in his program. The reason for this was elementary. A small hydroelectric power plant is such an object that is difficult to destroy by bombing due to its compactness, and thousands of small hydroelectric power plants were scattered over a vast territory. The blow to large energy centers caused significant damage to the military industry. For example, when in 1943 the Germans were developing plans for massive raids on the electric power industry of the Central Industrial Region, according to their estimates, military production should have been reduced by at least 40%. These German plans, dubbed “Anti-GOELRO”, were subsequently studied, and they were one of the reasons for the massive construction of small hydropower plants. Even if dear and beloved former allies carry out a series of nuclear strikes on power facilities, there will still be something left. It is a pity for a small hydroelectric power station and “five hundred”, and even spending a nuclear charge on them is quite obvious waste.

After Stalin, the Soviet leadership decided to abandon preparations for a real large-scale war and relied on intimidating the enemy. One of the expressions of this was the rejection of the system of small hydroelectric power plants. They simply began to close, dismantle equipment and abandon dams and buildings without care and supervision. Large hydroelectric power plants may have been more profitable, but they were much more vulnerable in a war environment. All major hydroelectric power plants were on the list of priority targets for nuclear strikes. Even if a nuclear explosion does not destroy the dam, it will all destroy the transformers, switchgear, bring down the turbine hall and disable the entire station. On the example of the disaster of the Sayano-Shushenskaya HPP, it can be seen that the restoration of a thoroughly destroyed HPP takes several years, provided that the necessary equipment can be ordered and delivered. In the context of a large-scale nuclear war, it is far from the fact that such opportunities would exist.

What is a small hydroelectric power plant?

It would seem what a trifle – a hydroelectric power station with a capacity of 10-30 MW or 10-30 thousand kW. However, let’s look at the case from the other side. The power of the welding inverter is from 7.5 to 22 kW, the power of the CNC lathe is about 16 kW, the power of the CNC milling and lathe is 18-20 kW. There is a wide range of machines of various capacities, from small to very large. A hydroelectric power station with a capacity of 10 thousand kW allows powering 100-200 units of machine tools and welding equipment, that is, it is quite a decent plant that can do a lot: repair damaged equipment, produce and repair weapons, produce ammunition. For example, at the cascade of the Chirchik hydroelectric power plants, which had a capacity of about 100 MW before the war, a whole group of military plants operated, including the Chirchik nitrogen fertilizer plant, which produced nitric acid and ammonium nitrate, components for the production of explosives during the war. At the end of the war, this plant began production of heavy water for a nuclear project.

Small hydroelectric power plants could and have been a support for metallurgy. The oldest hydroelectric power station in Russia, Porogi, which operated from 1910 to 2017, supplied current for a ferroalloy plant that produced ferrosilicon, ferrochromium, ferro-tungsten, ferromanganese – alloying additives, as well as silicon and calcium carbides. For example, an arc furnace DP-1.5, which can melt 1.5 tons of steel in 36 minutes, will require 1280 kW. That is, a small hydropower plant with a capacity of 10 thousand kW can provide electricity for 3-4 such furnaces with a total melting of about 48-50 tons of steel in one work shift or up to 150 tons around the clock.

So do not underestimate the capabilities of small hydropower for the military economy.

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