Why Russia wins against the EU’s single energy market

A battle of ideologies is underway in the energy sector of the South and Central Eastern Europe. Just as the ushering in of democracy after 1989 was viewed as a done deal, infusing market mechanisms into energy system was also viewed as an obvious choice. In Hungary, preparing energy companies for privatization began in 1989. However, just as democracy is now eroding in the region, so are the neoliberal energy market mechanisms. State ownership in energy is maintained, while formerly privatized companies are bought back. A new era exists of state owned utilities, politicized energy regulators and retreat of private investors marks the EU’s eastern energy markets.

The cost is high for the energy systems of Bulgaria, Hungary and Poland. State ownership in Bulgaria results in failed strategic endeavors and huge debut (Belene NPP and NEK). In Hungary the repurchase of MOL shares, EON Foldgas transit and storage, gas distribution from RWE and now the take-over of electricity distribution obligations. These are all funded by taxpayer money, most of the endeavors in Hungary affecting end-user pricing are done by their development bank, with the potential to cover losses.

In Poland, large state ownership exists while the failure to launch a shale gas industry partially stems from the inability and the lack of experience to work with foreign investors [each of these three countries and these issues will be discussed in other blog posts, along with costs]. The financial cost of mismanagement and cancelled projects stymies efficient, secure and lower cost energy systems from developing. The once hoped flow of private capital in the region is in retreat.

My bias on the issue of state ownership is clear, I do not favor mismanaged state owned companies or overtly politically shaped utility rates. In the US government ownership exists, and there is political influence in rate setting and market structure. However, in our three countries examined, political influence prevents the system to function in both an environmentally and economically sustainable manner. Electricity and gas rates are cut across the board, benefit even those that heat their swimming pools in the summer, rather than those stuck in energy poverty. Investments into energy efficiency are neglected in favor of maintaining lower electricity and gas prices. Corruption and favoritism often floats around state ownership. From the favored gas trades with MET, in Hungary to selling yearly capacity in a no-bid sale to a private company in Bulgaria; the exclusion of transparency and competitive bidding for capacities stymies fundamental components for a market based energy system from developing.

Excluding the air of favoritism, the political view in all three countries is clear: State ownership (or deals with favored companies) protects the natural resources of the country and provides social benefits that private companies do not. This contradicts the neoliberal competitive market agenda and cross-border operation of energy companies instilled into EU institutions and treaties. The past Communist system held development of the energy infrastructure central to social acceptance. The panel house (with a lifespan of 30 year) may be badly insulated but at least the central heating is cheap. Centrally controlled pricing is still linked to income levels.

(Source: European Commission, 'Energy Prices and Costs in Europe', 2014)
(Source: European Commission, ‘Energy Prices and Costs in Europe’, 2014) Overall, the cost of electricity for households in Eastern Europe is low to average in comparison to other European Union countries.

Universal access to electricity was the last great global energy project. The goal was clear, provide access to electricity – almost at any cost. This agenda drove the development of energy systems in North America and Europe. Communism accepted the same mantra, thus we should not view some central tenets of political-economic systems as exact opposites. But there are fundamental differences in financing system expansion and operations. The Communist state, as compared to users, pays the overall bill. For example, wages, in the factories of Eastern Europe, may not have been high, but nor were daily living costs. The district heating facilities of Dunaujvaros (previously Stalin City) are connected to the town’s main employer, Dunaferr steal mill. Shutting down certain parts of the steal mill requires a new cogeneration facility – based on full market pricing. Just as universal access was an engineering and political project (hydroelectricity in America), integrated energy and socio-political systems are integrated.

The full commodification of the energy services, electricity and gas, in the household is a market mechanism. Private owners of generation and distribution facilities need to be reimbursed, and with a profit margin, to provide ‘efficiently’ managed services. The energy value chain in both Capitalist and Communist systems holds the fundamental flaw of incentivizing energy production and not demand reduction.

Despite great strides in Western Europe reducing energy intensity of economies, full commodification of energy efficiency does not exist. In Eastern Europe, energy efficiency programs are usually funded by EU funds without governments viewing efficiency as reducing gas imports or improving people’s living conditions. It is still more ‘efficient’ for politicians in Hungary and Bulgaria to sell discounts on people’s utility bills than to provide them with better living conditions in the form of insulation and new windows.

The incentives for supply side, while existing in both neoliberalism and Communism, plays out despite both sitting in contrast to each other. Neoliberalism is inherently an economic project. It was developed by the Chicago School of economists and is often linked to the privatization of energy companies in Latin America and Pinochet’s regime of oppression and rise of Neo-Marxist guerrella fighters. In general, the shift towards global capitalism took off in the 1980s and early 19990s. Neoliberalism, viewed as a project by academics focus on the inherent evil obliterating state support and jobs for three quarters of the world’s poor. Economic shock therapy, eloquently described in Naomi Klein’s ‘The Shock Doctrine’. Neoliberalism, privatization and the market economy rob the factory workers of their jobs, heat and wages.

In Eastern Europe, Communism and political suppression of free speech and religion were just a few ‘costs’ that were paid for living in a utopia – a non-market economy. Now the Communist days of low cost utilities and relatively low cost living standards are now fondly recalled in Hungary, Bulgaria and Poland. Marxist economists trained in Moscow guided the broken and inefficient economies of these countries. While the engineered infrastructure of these countries were designed with efficiency and rational engineering principles in mind, operating them created a different level of engineered and economic inefficiencies. Such as opening windows to regulate heat and an economy based on bartering.

Five year plans favored the academic discipline of engineering for developing the energy system of Eastern Europe. Markets worked according to the infrastructure, rather than the markets dictating what infrastructure would be built. The failure of the EU to integrate its energy system lies more with the market policies that must underwrite new infrastructure, with short pay back periods and avoidance of state aid rather than a lack of engineering skill to integrate the markets.

Even from a market perspective, infrastructure projects planned out over a five year time horizon (or longer) hold significant financial savings for companies supplying the energy and for consumers consuming. The failure of the Nabucco and South Stream pipelines are partially attributable to the conflicting demands of open market access and infrastructure ownership. Energy regulators are meant to create these efficiencies in a market based system. Their role is negated when decision making is politically influenced and returns on private investments are not realized. Thus Bulgaria, Hungary and Poland cannot secure long term advantages from a market based system.

Profits then losses in Hungary's utility sector. Source: Hungarian Central Statistical Office
Profits then losses in Hungary’s utility sector. Source: Hungarian Central Statistical Office, draft statistics compiled for a benchmarking report for the European Commission – not done by me.

The higher risk for investors and the inability of the state to secure long-term private financing for large infrastructure projects opens the door for Russia to have it’s way (this is less relevant for Poland). The ability for Russia to finance large pipeline projects (North Stream, South Stream, Turk Stream) and nuclear power projects (Bulgaria and Hungary) demonstrates the strength the Russian state has (paradoxically) in financing energy infrastructure in the EU. Thus while the EU’s energy market is based on economics it can’t compete on financial terms.

The market approach also can’t compete when political involvement overrides long term private investments. Political interference pushes these countries closer to Russia as the availability and interests of private companies shrinks. In an environment with politically influenced energy prices, realizing returns on investment becomes more and more challenging. In Hungary, the response has been clear. Private distribution companies, paid out high dividends thereby removing capital from the companies while slashing investments. With the rejection of a market based approach, a financing gap emerges. Russia is happy to fill this by offering its former satellites a one stop shop for finance, infrastructure, technology and the potential for politically favorable pricing.


The Collapse: Utility investments in Hungary
The Collapse: Utility investments in Hungary H1 = first half of year, H2 = second half of year, draft statistics compiled for a benchmarking report for the European Commission, not done by me.

It is no coincidence that the biggest supporter of Putin and Russia in the EU is Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orban. After securing a secret late night deal to expand Paks nuclear power plant with Putin, Orban now acts as Putin’s European cheerleader for building Turk Stream. The ultimate goal is political support for Orban and his 25% utility price cuts – that must be maintained.

The clash occurs in South and Central Eastern Europe between former Communist systems and the neoliberal regulatory approach to EU energy markets. The two overriding academic disciplines of engineering and economics only realize their potential with political permission. While these two approaches are reconcilable, politically, past and current adherance to one or the other approach dominants. Favoring a market orientated approach relies on trust in market forces that efficiency will be introduced to the energy market. Trust in engineering enables political involvement to set energy prices – rather than the market.

After the fall of Communism trust was placed in the neoliberal market approach, after 25 years of playing with economic markets, politicians are no longer willing to place significant trust in markets. Thus the crisis of the energy system in the region is set to escalate between the neoliberal market approach required by EU membership and a politically guided market price resting on centrally controlled and engineered large energy systems backed by Russia.