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The recently built Adler thermal power plant dominates the skyline in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi, on January 21, 2013.  The 360 MW Adler thermal power plant will be one of the main sources of power for the coastal cluster of the Sochi 2014 Olympic venues.

The newly constructed Adler thermal power plant in Sochi is one among dozens of energy infrastructure projects built to power the 2014 Winter Olympics.

PHOTOGRAPH BY MIKHAIL MORDASOV, AFP/GETTY IMAGES  

Joe Eaton

for National Geographic

Published February 7, 2014

Luge athletes had an early taste of the pre-Olympics disarray that foreign journalists began cataloguing only this week on their arrival at Sochi.

In the middle of luge teams' November training sessions at Sliding Center Sanki, where they practiced supine sledding down a banked track at speeds near 90 miles (145 kilometers) per hour, the lights went out. Electricity was restored and the luge workouts continued the following day, but the incident shook confidence in the massive energy-delivery system that Russia built to power the Sochi Winter Games.

Most of that infrastructure will be invisible, although its capacity will be on full display in the glittering spectacle of Friday's opening ceremony. (See Sochi Photos.)

The system's resilience no doubt will be scrutinized closely over the next two weeks. But one thing is certain: The energy systems built to power the Sochi Olympics are as historic as the $50 billion price tag for the games. (See related, "What You Don't Know About Sochi.")

Russia is one of the world's energy superpowers, with the largest natural gas reserves on Earth, but delivery of fuel, heat, and electricity across the nation's vast expanse is often difficult and costly. (See related, "Arctic Shipping Soars, Led by Russia and Lured by Energy.") The nation's greatest energy stores are in remote and frozen regions of the north and east; Sochi, a Black Sea resort town in the west, was far from major pipelines and transmission when it was selected as host. (See related, "Putin's Party.")

Since winning its Olympic bid in 2007, Russia has built 49 major energy projects, according to Energy Minister Alexander Novak, increasing capacity to generate electricity in the Sochi region by 800 percent.

The country's challenging geography certainly drove the building spree, but experts say it is in line with the international trend toward ever-more-costly mega sporting events. (See related "Quiz: What You Don't Know About Energy in the Changing Arctic.")

Leaky Pipelines

Yuri Reylyan, who oversaw construction as Russia's deputy minister for Olympic regional development, bristled in an interview last month with Russia's online newspaper Gazeta, when he was asked about resident complaints about outages of light, heat, and water. Noting that he was a native of Sochi, Reylyan said the Olympics brought unprecedented improvement to the region in the Caucasus Mountains.

"For years, and tens of years, one could see in Sochi sewage piping coming out from the third floor outside of buildings, and effluents discharging into . . . open trenches," he said. "Now people have new infrastructure."

He singled out heating infrastructure in particular, noting that the previous pipeline was built in 1973. Because of major leaks in the pipe, about half the fuel was lost during distribution, he said.

That problem would not be unusual in Russia, where spending to heat homes is double that of its fellow northern nation, Canada, in terms of energy consumed per unit of GDP. (See related Quiz: What You Don't Know About Home Heating.) Studies have shown at least one quarter of the heat generated in Russia is lost in city distribution systems. As a result, it's estimated that Russia wastes as much energy in a year as all the energy consumed in France.

But Russia has been working to improve efficiency and delivery—and reduce costly energy waste.

Among the new projects built for the games are a 106-mile (172-kilometer) natural gas pipeline beneath the Black Sea that feeds fuel to the new Adler thermal power plant in Sochi, which is expected to supply one-third of peak energy demand during the Olympics. A second power plant built northwest of the city is projected to provide 25 percent of the power needed to fuel the games. Reylyan said the project involved 460 new power distribution lines.

"There has been no such project in Russia since Stalin's time," he told Gazeta. "And practically, we did not have the resources needed to do such a volume of work. It was a great lesson for everyone who participated in the Sochi project."

The power grid, in fact, was the last energy project completed, with the Moscow Times reporting in mid-January that work was still going on. (See Pictures: Past Olympic Venues-Rotting, Renovated, Repurposed.")

Sports in Emerging Nations

According to Russian energy giant Gazprom, which built the Adler plant and the pipeline, Adler is the largest power plant ever constructed in preparation for a sporting event.

Andrew Zimbalist, a mega sporting events expert and economics professor at Smith College in Massachusetts, said Sochi's remote location, paired with Russian President Vladimir Putin's over-the-top vision for the games, led to the massive need for power.

"A lot of it has to do with Putin's megalomaniacal approach to developing an area that is so far away from anything else in Russia and turn it into a 12-month resort," Zimbalist said.

The remoteness of Sochi meant it needed new roads, increased train capacity, and new rail lines, all of which require power, Zimbalist said. In addition, warm weather and unreliable snow in the mountains where the ski events will be held required an "unparalleled capacity to make snow."

But Zimbalist said the historic cost and number of energy projects for the Sochi Games is also a result of the trend of emerging countries like Brazil, China, and India bidding for major international sporting events like the Olympics and soccer's World Cup.

Because the energy infrastructure in those countries is underdeveloped, there is a lot of work to be done to prepare for the games. Brazil, which will host the World Cup in 2014, and the Summer Olympic Games in 2016, is expected to spend $1 trillion on public works projects, much of it for hydroelectric plants and transmission lines, Zimbalist said.

Zero Waste?

In its bid for the games, Russian pledged to follow green building standards and stage a "zero waste" event. (See related "Pictures: Green Stadiums.") Critics say the games will not meet that goal, but Russia said it has used a number of alternative energy sources, including solar-powered heat radiators and boilers in the new Adler train station, and wind generators throughout the grounds of the Olympic Park. (See related "Pictures: London Leaps Hurdles in Green Olympics Game Bid.")

Some of the power development online at the Olympics is temporary. The Russian company Power Technologies in June announced it would use more than 120 diesel generators to power sports arenas, media centers, and Olympic villages. The generators will also be used as a reserve supply source in case of an emergency, the company said. (See related, "Keeping the Super Bowl Lights On.")

Will it all work flawlessly?

Wolfgang Maennig, a professor of economics at the University of Hamburg, who rowed in the 1988 Summer Olympic Games in Seoul and has worked on three German Olympic bids, said the Olympics rarely go off without a hitch. At the 1996 Atlanta games, there were major problems with the IBM software, he said. At the 2000 Sydney games, bus drivers ferrying athletes got lost on the way to Olympic venues. (See related stories: "What Caused the Super Bowl Blackout at the Superdome?" and "Super Bowl Blackout: Was It Caused by Relay Device, or Human Error?")

But Maennig expects there will be no major problems powering the winter games in Sochi. The International Olympic Committee, which organizes the game, requires hosts to guarantee they can meet peak energy demands, he said. And a blackout during the games would be a major embarrassment for Russia and for Putin.

"The Russians, they know what they could lose in international perception," Maennig said. (See related Interactive Map: Four Ways to Look at Global Carbon Footprints.)

Additional research by Ludmila Mekertycheva in Moscow and Marianne Lavelle in Washington, D.C.

Are you in Sochi for the Olympics this year, or enjoying them at home? Share your photos with the Your Shot communityusing #SOCHI2014.

This story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.

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