Energy Dependence: Politically cheaper than energy independence

The Soviet Union embedded into the landscape and economies of Central and Eastern Europe a system of technological and resource dependence. Political and social benefit derived from this energy system. Politicians still continue to benefit from this arrangement. This system fails to reflect current political arrangements and technological advances. Failure to build an energy system that is technologically and resource independent of Russia maintains the political and social ties established during Communism.

The centralized system created a continental oil and gas pipeline network to deliver the natural resources of the Russian heartland and Central Asia to the ‘satellite’ countries in Europe. Replication of this networked approach also extended to nuclear power through scientific knowledge and components. To create sufficient political independence a new energy system needs to be built. This includes a new gas networks and new electricity generation technology – all non-Russian sourced. Failure to build an alternative system maintains the historical status quo.

Picture of a young Communist worker building the foundation of Hungary's future energy system
Picture of a young Communist worker building the foundation of Hungary’s future energy system [Also, the Hungarian text on the side lauds the brotherly friendship of the Soviet Union and Hungary – I’m working on a translation]

The old- new energy system

The Soviet energy legacy was handed off to the Russian state which posses three key energy resources and technologies: 1) Oil, a global commodity that is easily shipped, and holds limited pricing differences. 2) Gas, relies on transit pipelines, industrial and household infrastructure and is susceptible to supply interruptions and monopolistic pricing, without sufficient storage or alternative supply routes. 3) Nuclear, rests on technological knowledge, spare parts, fuel processing and storage; technological lock-in occurs creating high switching costs.

Breaking the energy dependence network established by the Soviet Union requires Eastern Europe to establish a new regime of energy independence. This is done in two ways: First, alternative supplies of resource are required. This means building alternative delivery systems for resources currently delivered by Russia. New gas transit pipelines bringing non-Russian sourced gas will deleverage the region from energy dependency. Second, alternative technologies offer the ability to reduce long-term dependency. Nuclear power affects two generations of citizens, the high sunk costs prevent present and future political and social independence. Adding more energy alternatives rather than subtracting old infrastructure, over time, brings about greater energy independence.

The cost of energy (in)dependence

Resource independence holds two approaches. Poland pursues and energy independence strategy opposite Hungary and Bulgaria. Both are influenced by the cost of resources. For Poland, domestic and imported coal provide 90% of the countries electricity generation. Imported Russian gas is important for industry and cogeneration of electricity and heat. LNG now provides an alternative source of gas – but at a higher cost. The true cost of coal is not reflected in its market price. Environmental and health costs are not priced into the energy security argument for continuation of coal. Therefore, the cost of resource independence does come at a price.

Hungary and Bulgaria, in contrasts, seeks to maintain and increase their use of Russian gas. Alternative supply routes are sought through interconnectors to Slovakia and Romania. With the expansion of interconnectors, Western European gas can now reach the CEE region and act as a limited bargaining lever for lower prices. Nonetheless, both countries are slow to build and open up existing pipeline capacity to neighboring countries. The limited steps taken for infrastructure and market diversification prolong their resource dependence.

Resource dependence extends to upstream diversification. Both countries see Russian sourced gas, via Turkey as a ‘true’ route of energy diversification. Both countries are heavily dependent on Russian gas and use gas a political measure of their political devotion to Russia. Gas transit fees can help offset politically controlled gas pricing for consumers. The financial losses incurred by Bulgaria’s NEK are equal to the transit payments of Russian gas flowing to Greece. Hungary’s support for South Stream and Turk-Stream only excludes Ukraine, they do not break Russian resource dependency. Annual gas contract negotiations are always framed by the Prime Ministers of Hungary and Bulgaria as diplomatic successes and servility to Russia.

Technological dependence in Hungary and Bulgaria are present in the form of nuclear power. Poland rejected the Soviet offer for nuclear power in the 1980s.
The built facilities in each country provide ‘cheap’ electricity at a price consumers in both countries can afford. The centralized and state owned facilities enable the state to actively manage and influence the energy system in both countries. Low priced electricity can be supplied to households. Bulgaria was in talks with Russia to build another nuclear power plant at Belene (more on this elsewhere) but ultimately backed out of the deal during the financial crisis as demand plummeted. Hungary, after Prime Minister flew in secret to Russia, signed a (secret) deal to expand Paks nuclear power plant. Hungary is now technologically dependent on Russia for another 40 – 50 years.

Hungary’s dependence on Russia, while masked by the technological dependence is also financial. As an interviewee in Bulgaria pointed out, the Russians have the whole package that no other company or country can compete with. They provide the financing, the technology and the fuel – they are the Amazon.com of nuclear power. Competing on these terms is almost impossible for other countries. Thus, if a country is serious about nuclear power, the Russian offer – particularly if you are a cost conscious country – is very appealing. If a country is open to non-centralized generation sources and able to finance its own energy system, then they will probably not choose nuclear power (this is a general statement and needs more support elsewhere).

Concluding Energy Dependence

For our discussion, I discounted the full environmental cost of nuclear and coal (including waste storage and CO2 emissions). Avoiding the environmental discussion (for the moment) enables engagement with the political prioritization of energy security and energy prices. Energy independence is not provided when the energy system is based on the old political-economic order. The Communist system linked the energy resources of Russia and Central Asia to the Communist satellite countries of Central and Eastern Europe. This system is perpetuated in Hungary and Bulgaria.

The overriding cost consciousness of governments and consumers results in continuation of the energy system. Investment continuity, just as private investors demand it, is provided to Russia through political agreements. Continuation of resource and technology dependency ensures Russia stays politically and economically connected to new EU member states. There is an inherent contradiction between neoliberal market requirements of the EU and the secret and centrally controlled monopolistic structure of the Russian energy system. So far, Bulgaria and Hungary accept this contradiction, while Poland strives for self-sufficiency from both systems.