Tag Archives: Gas

Poland’s disjointed path to innovation in energy technology

Innovation in the energy sector relies on a coherent national framework of cooperation and competition. Poland’s pursuit of universal low prices stunts energy innovation. First, it short changes innovation by preventing companies deploying practices and technologies to lower energy costs and second rewards static and established generation technologies due to the lack of competition. These were my main points in the panel discussion, ‘The climate policy, innovations and the RES – strategy of the future of energy utilities’ at the Energy21, Energy Futures Week, in Poznan, Poland, May 10 – 13, 2016. Very simply, innovation is not maintaining and investing in coal fired power plants that operate beyond 2050.

My pointed comments came after a morning focused on efforts in Poland to continue and renew Poland’s fleet of coal fired power plants. Gasification and liquefaction of coal were viewed positively, while integrating renewable energy into the grid was viewed as a threat to the energy system. In opening up my remarks, I appealed to the Hungarian and Polish friendship – allowing me – as a resident of Hungary, to speak directly to Poland’s perceived direction towards more coal in the energy mix. (If you don’t know about this special Hungarian-Polish friendship, we’ll just say it is a brotherhood of eastern Europeans, influenced by the Russians, Germans and Turks – so still relevant today).

The Polish government perspectives, as expressed in the morning by the Energy Minister Krzysztof Tchórzewski, as I previously wrote about, holds coal as an innovative energy source. Labeling technological advances in coal as innovative and propelling the Polish energy system forward, as I stated, only ends with continuation of an old technology that does not match with global changes in both the environment and social change. This is important because if Poland wants to keep coal as the main component of electricity and heat production then it will crowd out other technologies that offer wider spread economic and social benefits. It also goes against the technological trend of dropping prices and wider uses for renewable technologies – it’s hard to see that coal is still more competitive than renewable technologies in 30 years-time (for a similar view with price comparisons see this report). The larger companies, like PGNiG, made a point to state they needed to realize the full investment lifetime of their coal fleet. But as I pointed out, it was not regulation that phased out the steam locomotive, but the superiority of the diesel engine that created the transition away from coal powered trains.

Polish Energy Minister Krzysztof Tchórzewski, “We are rejecting that,” zero emissions by 2050 in the power sector.
Polish Energy Minister Krzysztof Tchórzewski, “We are rejecting that,” zero emissions by 2050 in the power sector. (Source: Patryk Rocicki)

Innovation in Poland’s energy sector

Polish efforts to foster technological innovation belie an active sphere of researchers and even politicians set on moving Poland forward. This is very good news. While the main political party in power pushes coal, Poland researchers, progressive policy makers pursue Poland 2.0. I was very impressed by the words, and the understanding of Michal Kurtyka, Deputy Minister of Energy, as he outlined the relationship of regulation and innovation. He stated a new regulatory framework needs to spur innovation and renewable energy sources, with an eye on global and EU innovation efforts, regulation and innovation are interlinked.

In other presentations at the four day conference, I became more familiar with the companies and researchers who are actively working on projects like energy storage in Poland. The technical progress, and even investment by Polish companies all demonstrate the latest trends in energy research and technologies – there are some who are ‘doing’ the innovative research. The country has a clear choice; it can pursue innovative clean technologies, it does not have to transform itself into an innovative powerhouse for coal technologies, as outlined by Minister Tchórzewski.

Unfortunately, it is this disconnect that keeps Poland ranked fifth from the bottom in the European Commission’s Innovation Scoreboard. Despite deployed research projects in innovative spaces of energy, pursuit of the wrong macro-energy strategy can prevent the wider use of Polish created technologies. There were consistent complaints against Germany and Danish wind and solar power – crowding out Polish coal. It is these countries , condemned by the politicians and business managers who are the most innovative.  If Poland could unify its macro-energy strategy with its own R&D and industrial base – outside of coal – a lower cost transformation could occur.

(Source: European Commission. “Innovation Union Scoreboard 2015.” European Commission, 2015. http://ec.europa.eu/growth/industry/innovation/facts-figures/scoreboards/files/ius-2015_en.pdf
(Source: European Commission. “Innovation Union Scoreboard 2015.” European Commission, 2015. http://ec.europa.eu/growth/industry/innovation/facts-figures/scoreboards/files/ius-2015_en.pdf

The Polish government pursues a low cost energy policy to justify the continued use and renewal of the coal power sector. However, it over accounts for how much a transition towards a more environmentally sustainable energy system would cost. This division can be seen in the differing cost assumptions published by the International Renewable Energy Agency in the country report, “Remap 2030: Renewable Energy Prospects for Poland.” The projected costs by the Polish government are over twice the amount IRENA estimates. In particular, the doubling of the cost is assessed in industry and buildings.

Source: International Renewable Energy Agency. “Remap 2030: Renewable Energy Prospects for Poland.” International Renewable Energy Agency, October 2015. http://www.irena.org/DocumentDownloads/Publications/IRENA_REmap_Poland_paper_2015_EN.pdf.
Source: International Renewable Energy Agency. “Remap 2030: Renewable Energy Prospects for Poland.” International Renewable Energy Agency, October 2015. http://www.irena.org/DocumentDownloads/Publications/IRENA_REmap_Poland_paper_2015_EN.pdf.

Let the Innovation Out!

Regulation is best used to open up spaces for innovation. This was my concluding comment on the panel. There was a decidedly slanted view of Brussels regulations as a punishment mechanism against Poland, I took the opposite view. I stated, instead of seeing regulation as punishing  and a source of uncertainty, EU Directives and the price drop in renewable technologies should be viewed as inevitable. I controversially stated, the idea that a coal fired power plant can get a 30-year price guarantee is simply impossible in today’s market environment (an assumption supported by this report). Regulatory targets in Poland should be used to spur Polish companies to innovate for the Polish and EU market. From the companies and people I met at the conference, I’m convinced holding onto coal only deprives a more innovative country from emerging.


Panel IIIA – The climate policy, innovations and the RES – strategy of the future of energy utilities

Moderator: Dorota Dębińska-Pokorska (Moderator) – PwC

  1. Maciej Burny – Dyrektor Biura Regulacji, Biuro Regulacji, PGE Polska Grupa Energetyczna S.A.
  2. Artur Stawiarski – Dyrektor Departamentu Rozwoju Przedsiębiorstwa / M&A w RWE Polska S.A.
  3. Marek Woszczyk – Dyrektor Generalny PGNiG Upstream International
  4. prof. dr hab. inż. Tadeusz Skoczkowski – Zakład Racjonalnego Użytkowania Energii, Instytut Techniki Cieplnej Politechniki Warszawskiej
  5. Dr Michael Carnegie LaBelle – Assistant Professor at Central European University Business School and CEU Department of Environmental Sciences and Policy

 

Poland’s Innovative Revolution in Coal: Reflections on Energy21 conference

Poland is looking for a revolution in coal. The renewal of Poland’s coal fleet of highly and inefficient power plants is now seen by the Polish government as drivers of Poland’s economy. Cheap electricity for consumers and industry is the mainstay of economic growth in the country. In addition, coal gasification and turning coal into liquid fuels offers opportunities in innovation for industry and for researchers. This is the viewed given by Poland’s Energy Minister Krzysztof Tchórzewski, it was also reflected in the views of other Polish energy executives speaking on the opening panel of the Energy Futures Week, in Poznan, Poland on May 10, 2016 – focused on innovation in the energy sector.

Poland’s pursuit of a coal revolution – and innovation in the sector, comes after the failure of the country to launch a shale gas revolution. So I’m very grateful to the organizers of the conference to invite me to this event to continue my observations and grow my knowledge of the Polish energy sector. So my comments below – and around the conference – are not directed at the forum, because without such a place where ideas are aired, I – and others – would have less access to the views of the leaders of the Polish government and energy companies. So I’m immensely grateful to have literately a front seat on the reformulation of Polish energy policy.

With that said, not once during the day was ‘shale gas’ or ‘carbon capture and storage’ mentioned – until I brought it up in the final session of the day (I’ll write a separate post later). I felt like I was breaking the china at a party. I wasn’t that the people in my panel were against or forgot about these things, but rather the previous speakers, particularly from state owned companies were fighting for maintaining coal as a central element of Poland’s energy mix – at the lowest cost, i.e. without high emission pricing. The panelists in this session, including representatives from RWE, PGE, and PGNiG – also put forward a more technology and consumer orientated energy system, than heavy coal. So some moderation needs to be expressed about continuation of centrally supply orientated energy sector – that participants are aware runs counter to international trends. To understand developments in Poland it becomes understanding the heavy coal driven supply model, with utilities awareness of changing consumer and technology preferences and opportunities.

Polish Energy Minister Krzysztof Tchórzewski, “We are rejecting that,” zero emissions by 2050 in the power sector.

Returning to the discussion in the opening session, the theme was built on the need for low cost energy in Poland. socially and economically Poland cannot afford ‘high’ priced renewables in the energy mix. The EU is pursuing zero carbon emissions in the power sector by 2050, and the Minister Tchórzewski stated the Polish government, “we reject that, clearly unacceptable” the sacrifices for Poland would be too great to move away from coal. The path for Poland is higher efficiency power plants, so more power output can be gained by more efficient burning of coal.  Renewables, in the view of Tchórzewski are expensive and require 100% reserves by other power sources – making them very expensive to run, and making them unreliable, whereas if coal fired power plants are only operated, then they are more efficient, due to better predictability of demand and operations. Finally, the grid itself can only support 10% of renewables, and so renewable must be constrained for security of supply reasons.

Overall, the panelist seemed to agree that Poland has an image problem when it comes to their efforts to reduce carbon emissions. Poland, as was stated, added renewables to the grid at twice the rate of other European countries last year. And emission reductions, as was mentioned by the PGNiG representative have dropped 30% since 1989 while the Polish economy has expanded seven fold. Billions have already been spent modernizing coal power plants but the EU regulatory requirements are constantly changing, make past improvements irrelevant, thus costing end-consumers even more money. Echoed by many on the panel, was this demand for a stable and predictable regulatory environment, investments into the power sector are being devalued by the instability in EU regulations.

The common position of the panelists was the end-user price of household consumers and Polish industry. Energy prices cannot go higher than what they are now, this justifies the pursuit of coal and maintaining Poland’s fleet of coal fired power plants, while keeping out both German renewable electricity from the Polish grid, and restraining the growth of on-shore wind and solar in Poland.

Panel I – Opening panel – The energy sector: between security, innovativeness and competitiveness

Moderator: dr hab. Mariusz Swora

Speakers:
1. Prof. dr hab. inż. Maciej Chorowski – Dyrektor, Narodowe Centrum Badań i Rozwoju NCBR
2. Krzysztof Tchórzewski – Minister Energii
3. Dr Ted Kury – Director of Energy Studies for the Public Utility Research Center PURC, University of Florida
4. Mirosław Kowalik – Prezes Zarządu Enei
5. Remigiusz Nowakowski – Prezes Zarządu TAURON Polska Energia
6. Hans ten Berge – Sekretarz Generalny Eurelectric

Putin-Orban Politburo Meeting: Cash and energy co-dependency

The global fall in oil prices and the shaking foundation of Russia’s economy has analysts and the media questioning Russia’s commitment to financing and  building Hungary’s expanded Paks II nuclear plant. On February 17, Hungary’s Prime Minister will be in Moscow for a meeting with Putin – almost a year to the date Putin visited Hungary. Top of the agenda is energy. In this short analysis, I’ll simply be stating the importance of energy projects and the historical commitment both Russia and Hungary hold to supply side economics of energy resources. Their common energy policy is: Immediate cash is more important than long-term energy reduction methods. This is in contrast to more advanced countries which are moving to tackle demand side inefficiencies and rolling out low cost distributed generation technologies.

The autocratic habits of Putin and Orban make them susceptible to stick with supply side economics. Pushing out natural resources and producing more and more energy to grow an economy is straight from the Politburo playbook. Or more accurately, Gosplan’s book.

To frame my discussion on supply side history of energy resources let’s go back to the 1980s, when the Soviet Union’s organization of Gosplan set the five-year plans. And let’s frame this discussion within the general economic difficulties the Soviet Union found itself in the 1980s. Energy investments were planned to increase 50% between 1981 and 1985. More broadly, this “implied that energy was to absorb fully two-thirds of all new Soviet investment during the coming five-year plan…. [With] the share of energy in the planned increment of industrial investment came to a whopping 85.6 percent.” This means, almost all of the money meant to build the Soviet economy was going towards energy projects. Much of this was down to the increasing costs of extraction and expanding the energy network from Siberia (Gustafeson 1989, 36). We can also insert gas pipelines to Eastern and Western Europe. In short, the energy sector was the primary recipient of financial resources for the Soviet Union. The sector held both domestic and foreign political-economic dimensions.

Just to bring us back to the era of Soviet energy policy and the Politburo

Wrapped in the Soviet energy strategy was rolling out nuclear reactors across the Eastern bloc. Hungary was a recipient of this push with the building of Paks in the 1970 and early 1980s. But Hungary pursued Paks only after it became clear that oil was going to be very expensive over the long term for producing electricity. Paks II represents the continued economic investment abroad for political-economic influence, and this supply side ideology.

There was a moment of rationality, by 1983, Gorbachev recognized the need to re-orientate, at a significant scale, capital onto energy conservation measures. Nonetheless, by 1985, global oil prices plummeted along with the dollars fall against other currencies. Oil profits were wiped out in the Soviet Union (Gustafeson 1989, 36, 46 -48).

It is important to pause here, I’m spending time on this, as it reflects our world today – in 2016, low oil prices and external conflicts (even down the the Syria/Afghanistan comparison).  The push for conservation was a watered down for the five-year plan starting in 1985, investment into energy supply would continue at a high pace – the money was needed, while energy conservation was given lip-service (Gustafeson 1989, 36, 46 -48).

An energy conservationist?

Russia is built on an export hand-to-mouth energy system. Political influence and immediate cash needs supersede long-term planning for efficiency and effectiveness of energy resources. Putin is lucky to find a friend like Hungary’s Orban who also understands the benefits of supply side energy for political and economic purposes. Cash generated from consumers helps to finance government expenses.

Hungary holds no ambition to reduce its raw energy needs. The solution of the Orban government since 2010 is to take money from foreign and domestic energy companies to reduce household’s energy bills by 25 percent. I’ve outlined how unsustainable this is before. The drop in oil and gas prices over the past few months, has seen households in Bulgaria pay less for their gas, but the same has not happened to Hungarian households. Essentially, either the financial losses in the system are being paid off, or the money goes into the ether.

Under the Orban government, over the long-term, Hungarian households are no better off than the foreign energy companies. The dramatic reduction in investments into the energy sector means fixing things as they break will cost more money. In addition, there is almost no money to invest into energy efficiency. If a large number of Hungarian households have trouble paying their energy bills – and this is the rational used for nationalization and reducing bills 25 percent – then they don’t have money to invest in energy efficiency which will reduce their bills more than 25 percent. Thus over the long term, Hungarian households will  pay more for an energy system with spot repairs and for leaky windows and walls.

Demonstrating the common perception in Hungary of corruption at the highest levels, the government is reallocating EU funds of HUF 309 billion meant for energy efficiency measures in 50,000 homes. The money will now be used only in public buildings. In my opinion this is an attempt to satisfy the EU’s energy efficiency directive. This stipulates that governments must renovate three percent of the buildings they own per year. Just like other large scale projects in Hungary (notably LED street lighting by Orban’s son-in-law), these government controlled projects are susceptible to corrupt tendering practices. Or in the eyes of the government, they can meet the EU energy efficiency directive while also channeling money to selected companies. They also do not need to finance this three percent goal from the state budget.

Just like the government of the Soviet Union, both Russia and Hungary place supply side energy economics ahead of demand side efficiency measures. Even if these measures cripple and stunt the economic growth of each country. Supply side measures are only short term building projects pumping out more and more natural and financial resources. Only the companies and individuals vested into building the infrastructure and selling energy resources make money. The financial resources of households are degraded over the long term because they must pay more for emergency repairs and inefficient homes.

Hungarian gas bills represent a simple wealth transfer to Gazprom and both the Russian and Hungarian governments: Twenty-percent of every gas bills goes to pay Hungarian VAT (this is higher than in 2008 – and even higher than Norway’s VAT), around 70% of householders bill payments go to the (mostly) Russian entities that sell the gas, including Gazprom Export. Thus, Hungarian households do a wealth transfer to Russia and to Hungarian government approved entities involved in the gas business. Only a small percentage of the bill actually covers the network costs – which the government waged the war against foreign utilities over. The increase in corruption in Hungary and the endemic corruption levels in Russia means Hungarian households are forced to pay for energy services that may also be involved in corruption. The costly expansion of Paks II, also fits into this narrative. If investments into energy efficiency (both electricity and gas) were carried out households could reduce this wealth transfer to Russia and the Hungarian government.

Source: European Commission, 'Energy prices and costs in Europe' 2014, https://ec.europa.eu/energy/en/publications/energy-prices-and-costs-europe
Source: European Commission, ‘Energy prices and costs in Europe’ 2014, https://ec.europa.eu/energy/en/publications/energy-prices-and-costs-europe

The original push for energy conservation by Gorbachev in the mid-1980’s was also a push for increase resources to benefit consumer goods and the lifestyles of Soviet citizens.  In the end, the financial resources went into expanding the energy sector to underpin an inefficient industrial sector. Immediate cash was the main concern. This is the same concern that underpins the operations of Hungary and Russia – thus they maintain a supply side energy system with high taxes. It would be useful if Putin and Orban spoke together about improving the lives of their citizens through energy efficiency efforts – and not expanding the profits of Gazprom and intermediaries involved in the gas business or large government projects meant expand energy production (Paks) or steering energy efficiency contracts to approved companies.  Hungarian household should not subsidize the supply side energy interests in Russia and Hungary. It would also help if Putin and Orban stopped acting like members of the Politburo in 1985.

Additional sources:

European Commission. “Energy Prices and Costs in Europe,” 2014. https://ec.europa.eu/energy/en/publications/energy-prices-and-costs-europe.
Gustafson, Thane. Crisis amid Plenty: The Politics of Soviet Energy under Brezhnev and Gorbachev. A Rand Corporation Research Study. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1989.

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.

SCEE countries extend the Communist energy systems to the future

There is a delicate and blurred line between investments into the sustainable energy technologies and security of supply. Both are overreaching concepts that describe a multitude of approaches. At the core is the attempt to upgrade technologies with a low environmental impact while ensuring energy resources (primary and secondary) are secure. Creating a sustained momentum of investments through a clear trajectory is core to an efficiently managed system. The sustained trajectory towards a more secure and environmentally sustainable energy system is where countries in Central Europe fall short.

In Europe, there is a clash of how embedded energy systems contribute to energy security. There are two distinct approaches, one in older member states (UK, France, Germany) and one in newer eastern member states (e.g. Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria). Some countries transformed their energy systems in a rapid manner, like Germany and Spain, where solar and wind received a tremendous boost through feed-in tariffs. This transition is now self-sustaining due to the drop in the cost of technologies and a mature domestic service industry. While Spain cut off financing the industry became well established. In Germany, support remains and the renewable sector will continue to grow.

More broadly, the transformation boosted both countries’ energy security while moving them towards a sustainable energy system. Both environmental and commercial reasons (being leaders in energy technology) fueled this conversion. Spain reduced its oil imports while Germany reduced coal (temporarily) and nuclear power in their energy mixes. Social support existed in both countries for this transition.

Energy technologies in the SCEE region

Building a sustainable technological trajectory to transform energy systems is not occurring in South and Central Europe. Some countries, like Poland, Hungary and Bulgaria have not noticeably altered their energy systems. In fact, these countries are marked by a reassertion of their older technologies. Renewable energy technologies are kept to the minimum EU requirement which is below 20%, and little or no government financial incentives. Instead, these countries are clearly reliant on extending and expanding their current energy technologies. Poland will maintain a high mix of coal in electricity generation, currently this is near 90%. The overall 2050 energy mix is projected to have 60% from coal, 20% from gas and 20% from renewables. Thus a rough projection can see electricity generation from coal being around 70%, while boosting gas and renewables in electricity generation.

Hungary is set to increase nuclear power to over 70%, by expanding its nuclear plant. If life extensions are done for current reactors, then by 2050, this 70% ratio could remain in place. Electricity generation from coal and gas and some renewables will remain. Thus, Poland and Hungary pursue a 70% mark for their electricity systems based on previous technologies. This percentage, when combined with gas, effectively locks out renewable energy to any meaningful degree.

Poland’s Electricity Generation Mix

Source: European Commission Country Report 2014 - Poland
Source: European Commission Country Report 2014 – Poland

The energy mix of Bulgaria, from the outside, is diverse. It is a net exporter of electricity and has hydro, nuclear and renewable energy (wind and solar). However, as I will explore elsewhere on this blog, there are systemically high costs associated with Bulgaria’s solar feed-in tariffs, expensive long term contracts for coal-fired power plants, and the general overcapacity of nuclear power, which means even this ‘cheap’ source of energy either needs to be exported or (at times) taken off line due to the oversupply from solar and coal. The future of the Bulgarian energy system, while on the face of it, appears nuclear and centralized, consistent mismanagement may result in technologies with shorter payback periods dominating the energy mix, such as gas and renewable technologies.

Bulgarian Electricity Generation Mix

Source: European Commission Country Report 2014 - Bulgaria
Source: European Commission Country Report 2014 – Bulgaria

Technology and Resource Dependency

The choice of Poland and Hungary to maintain their future energy mix at 70% based on technologies from the previous energy era are directly connected to the perceived final price of electricity, gas and energy supply security. Bulgaria continues to debate and engage with reliance on Russian nuclear technology and gas pipelines – on the same level as Hungary. Bulgaria lacks the momentum to diversify away from Russian resources and technologies. All three countries are affected in their choice of energy systems by Russian control of resources and technologies. New investments fall into one or both of the categories of resource in/dependency and technology in/dependence.

The future energy systems in these countries are based on the previous Communist energy technologies and resources. This is not a trajectory that moves these energy systems towards being both sustainable and secure. Rather, ‘cheap coal’ and ‘cheap nuclear’ are perceived to provide the affordable energy that the citizens of these countries accept. The competitive advantage deriving from ‘cheap’ resources and technologies rests on the previous Communist energy complex. Today, these facilities are built under considerably different market conditions than what we have today or in the future.

It is the difference between the old political-economic regime and the one that exists in the EU that is a source of friction today. Financing of the expansion of Hungary’s Paks NPP is now provided by Russia. Russia attempts to influence the future energy choices of the region by extending the previous political-economic system of resource and technology dependency. This will be discussed in the  next blog post.

European Commission energy report identifies progress and set backs in Hungary

Giving Hungary’s energy regulatory authority greater political independence and improving investment certainty are recommendations recently published by the European Commission’s report on Hungary’s energy sector. Identified in the report are Hungary’s regional integration and consumer dissatisfaction with gas suppliers.

Contributors to the report, including analysis on Hungary, are Michael LaBelle, an Assistant Professor at Central European University, CEU Business School and Department of Environmental Sciences and Policy, and Andras Deak, Research Fellow at the Institute of World Economics of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Working with energy consultancy AF for the European Commission, the overall report provides a snapshot and recommendation for each EU member state.

Electricity price change by component 2008 – 2012 (source: Eurostat, energy statistics)
Electricity price change by component 2008 – 2012 (source: Eurostat, energy statistics)

The 2014 report found overall improvement in the EU’s energy infrastructure and market. Consumers in some markets have more choices for electricity and gas suppliers, cross-border trading increased and wholesale electricity prices declined by one-third and gas prices were stable between 2008 and 2012. Suggestions included more substantial regional cooperation, use of smart meters and linking more closely wholesale and retail pricing – so lower wholesale prices translate into lower retail prices.

The report on Hungary included the progress made linking Hungary’s electricity market to the Czech Republic and Slovakia. This increased the amount of electricity available on all these markets creating regional price convergence. The report also noted that Hungarian gas consumers are the least satisfied in the EU.

Deterioration in the regulatory environment and notably the powers of Hungarian Energy and Public Utility Regulatory Authority were identified as problematic areas. Actions by the Hungarian government during the reports timeline of 2012- to early 2014 noted the removal important independent functions of the energy regulatory of network tariff setting authority. These political actions resulted in the reduction of energy prices by 20% (subsequently more since the completion of the report). The appeals process against the authorities decisions was also altered removing Hungary’s courts from providing sector oversight. Overall, the report identifies actions by the Hungarian state of increasing its ownership while investor owned utilities lost money and were dissuaded from investing in the sector.

The full report can be found here, and the report on Hungary can be found here.

 

Energy Expedition Summary: Nuclear Power and the Danube

Buda to Baja: Leg 1 of the  South & Central European Energy Expedition (#SCEEE). Post 1 of 2.

The Danube river proves to be an essential element to the energy system of Eastern Europe. The Danube integrated Eastern European Communist countries with the Soviet Union, facilitating economic cooperation through COMECON, the counterpoint to the Western OECD. To gain a unique and new perspective on energy technologies and relations I am biking down the Danube river from Budapest to the Black Sea and in a shale gas region in Poland. Here is a summary of the first Hungarian leg from Budapest to Baja.

I traveled by bike from Budapest to Baja, from May 21st to May 24th. On Friday May 22nd, I stopped at the Paks Nuclear Power Plant to meet with representatives of Paks and a local Paks politician. Honestly, after biking 140 km in the rain, over two days, their genuine hospitality and patience was outstanding. In another post, I’ll dive into the history of Paks and my visit, because first it is important to connect with the Danube river and its emerging meaning for me in the energy system of the whole Eastern European region.

Budapest to Baja: Basic route I took on bike - but there are some exceptions.
Budapest to Baja: Basic route I took on bike – but there are some exceptions.

Biking down the Danube began as a separate personal goal. It merged with my idea for a book and a research project when I realized nuclear power plants were located along the Danube. I wanted a method to connect with the average citizen to understand their perspective on regional energy politics and technologies. What I learned by this four day bike trip is the Danube serves as an essential conduit for the region’s energy infrastructure and facilitates political economic aims for integration of the region. It is a silent player in regional integration, but one which I hope to highlight through my research.

Reflecting on my trip (in a dry room back in Budapest) the perspective, I gained by riding a bike along and through the countryside surrounding the Danube, connected me to the land and water. This connection is essential when we consider the energy resources and technologies.

The natural beauty and history along the channelized Danube is striking. Contrasting these with the most technologically advanced and dangerous energy technology humans have created is profound. It is also this nature that cools and enables the technology to function. The contrast with farms, vineyards, and Roman ruins provides the historical context to frame how humans existed without electricity to the means we now use to generate electricity.

The building of Paks also relied on the Danube to transport materials: creating a regional supply chain of nuclear power plant components. For example, the reactors were made in Czechoslovakia and transported on the Danube.In addition the turbines were made in Germany, while the steam generators are Hungarian made by Ganz. The use of the Danube and the sourcing of the parts underscores the effort the Soviet Union went to create a regional involvement of countries in building a nuclear power industry – they embedded nuclear power in the region through knowledge and commercial networks.

I made it to Paks
I made it to Paks

Importantly, the building of the nuclear industry was based around COMECON (Council for Mutual Economic Assistance). COMECON served an important role in integrating the national economies of Communist states with the Soviet Union. This offered an economic and political framework to build NPPs in Czechoslovakia, Romania and Bulgaria. Poland, after giving the go-ahead, later opted out. In all these countries similar physical integration of parts networks and sourcing was done. Rather than the technological components emanating from Russia (as we think today), the parts suppliers drew on COMECON countries. We can now view the Danube as facilitating this relationship and construction of NPPs.

Finally, it is important to reflect on the special view biking provides in connecting the Danube to energy infrastructure. Honestly, biking in the rain for over 160 km out of about 216 km wasn’t the most enjoyable (seriously, a little pity is earned). But I really gained a new perspective. From the bike I was able to reflect on and experience Hungary, which is dramatically different from what I (and most people) experience in Budapest. Hungary has four of the poorest regions out of 20 in the EU. Placing this poverty and the people within the broader energy debate enables a better contextualization of either justifying, or not, the pursuit of certain energy technologies and policies. I look forward over the next few months to provide this perspective more for Hungary and the region.

Some experimental videos made on the way

The Pull of the Communist Energy System

The role of the state in the energy system in Central Europe is fraught with historical ups and downs. Under Communism the energy system represented progress and equality with the Capitalist West. There is no doubt the energy system from gas transmission to electricity generation and transmission in all the former Soviet Union and its satellites was efficient. The energy system lends itself well to five year plans.

Last week I was in Bulgaria doing research on energy prices and the relaitons between Russia and Bulgaria (I’ll be having a lot more on this topic in future posts). I met with many renowned experts, including Bulgarian Atanas Professor Tassev, who has advised many governments and international organizations, including the World Bank. Atanas Georgiev and I sat in his office while he smoked away at his cigar. There are many old school habits that still persist the further east you go.

Professor Tassev is no doubt one of the leading experts on European energy, even if his spoken English is challenged. So I’m grateful to Professor Georgiev for translating for me. In the discussion over Russia Professor Tassev said, “When geopolitics talks, the politics shut up. And when the politics talks the economy suffers.” With this statement he gets to the heart of the energy debate between the EU and Russia.

The debate over energy is more than just everyday politics, it is about geopolitics which exist in a different realm. Our discussion was in the context of building a new nuclear power plant at Belene, Bulgaria. Russia was meant to build it, but Bulgaria backed out causing high tension between the two states.

Politicians act to influence economic development. The political strategy for the energy sector, whether in America (see my PhD thesis) or in Europe, is to provide electricity at the lowest price. Action will be taken over the choice of technology that fulfills the strongest social goals. In the case of Germany, ‘green’ goals are/were prioritized over upfront costs. In the CEE region, the price of electricity in the short term drives political decision making. Thus political interference in the regulatory pricing process.

Geopolitics is for the long-term. The long-term goals for energy technologies come in the form of nuclear reactors and gas transmission pipelines that span continents. Cheap and competitive electricity and gas today, must be preserved for those politicians that value the most energy costs. Open competitive and transparent markets, as those valued by the EU, provide no assurance on short-term or long-term price. Politicians involved in the economy fiddle with the elements necessary for economic growth. The energy sector is the backbone for any growing or declining economy, so there can be a convergence of domestic politics and international geopolitics in choosing energy technologies.

Russia posses both the technological know-how and natural resources to back up its geopolitical and political aims. These aims coincide with the domestic agenda of CEE politicians. Going forward economic growth in the CEE region is dependent on assurances and predictability in the price of energy. Price is seen by politicians in the CEE region as a competitive advantage against those EU countries with competitive and environmentally aware energy markets.

The Soviet Union modernized the energy infrastructure at a price each country could afford. Integration of these countries occurred through the energy infrastructure. A dependency built up over these years. For countries like Bulgaria and Hungary, turning away from Russia and this historical relationship becomes fraught with an inability of politicians to influence their economies. While a lack of engagement may be good for the economies, it is not good for the politicians. And this is where we have a stalemate between integrating into the EU’s interdependent energy system, and Russia’s dependent energy system.

Russia and Mackinder’s reach into CEE Gas Markets

The Magyar came next, and by incessant raiding from his steppe base in Hungary increased the significance of the Austrian outpost, so drawing the political focus of Germany eastward to the margin of the realm.

H.J.Mackinder 1904

Projecting Power from the Gas Heartland
What provides the best strategic advantage: Mobility upon the ocean or mobility across the stepped lands of Eurasia? The question was examined by Joseph MacKinder in 1904 before the calamities of the 20th century. Applying MacKinder’s treaties to Europe’s energy landscape of today provides important insights into sphere’s of influence. Today, we can draw on MacKinder and apply the sea vs. land argument for control and influence in Central and Southeast Europe.

In this post I will update a single key underpinnings of Mackinder’s consideration of spheres of influence, drawing from the concept of controlling the resources of the Euroasian landmass (Russia) compared to European counties with access (and control) of the seas. I do not address the historical role and influence of Mackinder’s writings. Reflecting on MacKinder is important because it serves as an important vehicle to understand current debates around Russia’s involvement in Central and Southeast Europe. By updating and re-positioning gas within Mackinder’s framework an assessment of the position of countries between Russia and Western European countries demonstrates important political and economic considerations in the price of gas. In this analysis I’m largely referring to EU member states Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria.

Historical Reflection

Thus marginal ocean-fed commerce… form[s] a zone of penetration round the continents, whose inner limit is roughly marked by the line along which the cost of four handlings, the oceanic freight, and the railway freight from the neighbouring coast, is equivalent to the cost of two handlings and the continental railway freight.

–H.J.Mackinder 1904

If we update this cost of handling – not freight – but natural resources, such as natural gas, oil and even nuclear fuelrods, we begin to see that the past price of freight is still relevant for our discussion. The zone of penetration of ocean freight benefits those countries in Western Europe. While the countries in Central Eastern Europe receive lower priced gas piped across the continent from Russia. While countries in Northern Europe benefit from the piped gas from the North Sea – acting as a ‘land’ source for their energy needs – however, bringing that same gas to much of Central Eastern Europe is constrained by continental infrastructure and increased cost competition for network access in mainland Europe.

Price Differences

The price differentials are first evident in the border prices for networked gas between markets. Hungary’s estimated Russian border price for gas imports for June – August 2014 are at 22.18 Euro/MWh, while the better interconnected network of Germany has a hub price of 18.33 Euro/MWh. While Bulgaria shells out 28.12 Euro/MWh for almost total reliance on Russian gas.

Source: Market Observatory for Energy DG Energy, https://ec.europa.eu/energy/sites/ener/files/documents/quarterly-gas_q3_2014_final_0.pdf, pg 26
Source: Market Observatory for Energy DG Energy, https://ec.europa.eu/energy/sites/ener/files/documents/quarterly-gas_q3_2014_final_0.pdf, pg 26

LNG is the seabased routing of natural resources. LNG cannot compete against European and Russian sourced gas for Central Eastern Europe. And here I’ll keep my analysis at a pan-European level to demonstrate even with liquid Western European markets, Russia hold significant competitive advantage. In a direct comparison against global gas prices, Russian gas prices historically come out competitive. In the chart below, the main lines to observe are the Europe Oil Indexed Contracts [after concessions (BAFA)] these include Russian contracted gas, NBP which is a basket of gas prices (including Norwegian gas). Even US exported gas, represented by the Henry Hub price, needs to be doubled for US LNG export.

Source: “Reducing European Depedence on Russian Gas: Distinguishing Natural Gas Security from Geopolitics.” The Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, October 2014. [http://www.oxfordenergy.org/wpcms/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/NG-92.pdf.] pg 31
Source: “Reducing European Depedence on Russian Gas: Distinguishing Natural Gas Security from Geopolitics.” The Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, October 2014. [http://www.oxfordenergy.org/wpcms/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/NG-92.pdf.] pg 31
The regional price for cooperative regimes, we see that deals can be struck. In February 2015, on a to Hungary Putin gave the cooperative Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban a discount for his friendly attitude towards Russia. In renegotiating a gas import contract Budapest achieved a price of $260 tcm (thousand cubic meters) as compared to a European average of $270 tcm. Similar price adjustments, reflecting changes in international gas and oil prices, were also achieved for Austria earlier in 2015 and Bulgaria in 2012. The takeaway is Russia is competitive and willing to adjust to international shifts in gas and oil prices.

Adjusting wholesale gas prices is essential for influencing the political landscape in Central Europe. Household gas prices are politically important in the region. I discussed above the competitive wholesale market prices in Europe, but divergence is strongly apparent at the household level. Politically, this is where results are achieved for politicians.

The map below shows the price difference for households. Ultimately, as discussed elsewhere on this blog and in other writings by myself, it is the consumer price that helps direct political control and strategy in the energy sector. In the pricing map we have a clear division between those countries reliant on Russian piped gas for consumer prices and those reliant on sea based sources – even underwater pipelines from the North Sea and from Russia (Nord Stream).

Source: Market Observatory for Energy DG Energy, https://ec.europa.eu/energy/sites/ener/files/documents/quarterly-gas_q3_2014_final_0.pdf, pg 30
Source: Market Observatory for Energy DG Energy, https://ec.europa.eu/energy/sites/ener/files/documents/quarterly-gas_q3_2014_final_0.pdf, pg 30

When we draw in this information, and the map (above) represents a clear division between how energy markets and geopolitical influence can be exerted. The household price of gas is significantly different in Central Eastern Europe and proportionally lower than the wholesale price difference. In this ‘flash’ analysis I won’t average out the household price difference between the two regions, but eyeballing it there is a clear difference – particularly if the information on the higher wholesale price, European averaged gas price are contrasted with the lower household price. In my opinion there is a significant story of why these price differences exist.

Nonetheless, for our discussion here this gets to the heart of our MacKinder hypothesis. That control of the heartland – the pivot region (Euroasia), the “vast area of Euro-Asia which is inaccessable to ships… and is to-today about to be covered with a network of railways….[with conditions of] mobility of military and economic power…” lends itself to a comparison of gas pipelines, LNG, market structures and geopolitical influence. Events in Ukraine underscore the military might, while differential in household gas pricing underscore the economic might of today’s Russia.

Objections

Objections to both a MacKinder view and regional pricing differential views, I believe would have two points. First, they would say that the underdeveloped interconnector network lends itself to isolated markets. A Gazprom position, is that Central European isolated markets consume less gas and therefore are more costly to service, price adjustments just represent market trends. Second, both the break-up of the Soviet Union and the loss of Ukraine of Russia actually weakens the application of MacKinder and the Pivot region. My response to both of these arguments is that if gas prices are non-political then household gas prices would reflect the wholesale market price. However, the dramatic difference between EU household prices indicates elements of political and manipulated economic interests.

Conclusion

Pricing differences between EU member states falls along an important geopolitical fault line. Control of the Eurasian continental heartland and the natural resources, delivered via pipeline, provides a competitive pricing advantage over LNG and even delivery from more volatile regions like North Africa or from politically contentious and higher priced technologies like hydraulic fracturing. Continued reliance and even promotion of options to increase Russian gas into the SEE and CEE regions underscore the political importance Russia holds in securing and dominating these gas markets. As long as household energy prices are a dominant political issue, Russia will continue to hold sway in the regions’ energy markets by projecting its power through political leverage.

Key Sources:
Mackinder, H. J. “The Geographical Pivot of History (1904).” Geographical Journal 170, no. 4 (December 2004): 298–321. doi:10.1111/j.0016-7398.2004.00132.x.

Market Observatory for Energy DG Energy. Quarterly Report on European Gas Markets. European Commission, Directorate-General for Energy, 2014. [https://ec.europa.eu/energy/sites/ener/files/documents/quarterly-gas_q3_2014_final_0.pdf.]

“Reducing European Depedence on Russian Gas: Distinguishing Natural Gas Security from Geopolitics.” The Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, October 2014. [http://www.oxfordenergy.org/wpcms/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/NG-92.pdf.]

New York bans fracking – but so what?

The Governor of New York just banned hydraulic fracturing for extracting shale gas. Here’s my very brief reaction from the NYT editorial. I don’t think any of this should be based on the idea that this was done based on ‘only’ scientific information – or even partially. The wider issues are:

  • Headlines: Shale gas is no longer the story, shale oil is.
  • Economics: The US is flushed with ‘fracked’ oil and gas. Impacting global prices and geopolitics.
  • Economics: The fall in oil and gas prices pumps up the US economy and punishes non-democratic states (um, excluding Norway). This has a profound impact – see the Russian Ruble (or is it rubble?) and even the cancellation of South Stream gas pipeline and possible cancellation/delay of expansion of Hungary’s Paks nuclear power plan
  • Political: Banning extraction of shale gas at this point – with low oil and gas prices, probably doesn’t do much for the US industry as a whole since investments are being cut. I’m sure there are some figures, but lots of gas now comes from shale oil fields – as secondary extraction.
  • Political: NYC drinking water comes from much of the region proposed for hydraulic fracturing.
  • Social: Society gets clean water, they have cheap energy (see above) so all is well for the time being.

So in the end, by banning shale gas extraction, at a time with low or no investment in this sector, due to low domestic and global prices, combined with strong social opposition – that would take years to resolve in courts, I don’t see the downsides to the industry, markets or people. A win-win for all. Well, at least at this point. The impact of shale gas and oil extraction on the US and global economy is significant enough to propel a domestic and international energy agenda forward. So I don’t think we have seen the end or the beginning of the end to shale gas and oil.