Tag Archives: Hungary

Bringing Energy Innovation and Benefits of Energy Union to the CEE Region

The Energy Union is taking on many forms. Most popular is the idea that market integration will drive forward more energy security within the European Union. There also remains an elusive attempt to connect EU efforts at market integration with the citizens of Member States to demonstrate prices are dropping because of the common market. The Energy Union is now being used as a tool to collect efforts in innovation and new energy technologies to hoist under the joint Energy Union banner.

The release of the report, “Scaling up Innovation in the Energy Union to Meet New Climate, Competitiveness and Societal Goals,” does a good job of outlining this direction. The report is written by the consultants at Capgemini Consulting – and with a foreword by Pascal Lamy former Director of the World Trade Organization and Sir Philip Lowe, Former Director-General of the European Commission’s DG Energy and DG Competition. The focus in this report is on how to join up and ensure Europe innovates in the energy sector. The suggestions and insight are very good and it is worth a read.

I’m going to reframe the study in the context of Central Eastern Europe. And this is called for because the study holds a strong bias towards Western Europe and high achieving countries in the area of energy innovation. The bias of the study exists in the selection of the participants in the organized workshops (Appendix I), in the quantification of innovation (page 19) and in the case studies (Sweden, Denmark, USA) all meant to exemplify innovation in the EU’s energy sector. But since the Energy Union is meant to encompass all EU Member States, then this approach fails to appreciate the diversity and challenges to transition towards a more sustainable energy system.

In short, the study of innovation in the EU rests on prime examples from countries like Denmark, Germany and France. There is a failure to examine other Member States – particularly those in Eastern Europe, who not-so-coincidentally rank low on innovation scoreboards (below). Innovation is rooted in a countries institutional settings where private firms and public bodies (like education, energy and health care) interact to foster or prevent innovative technologies to be tried, revised and rolled-out. When ‘innovation’ is studied, it represents much deeper state relations and processes (one of the reasons I really like to study it).

(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

In the report, there are four megatrends identified that are transforming the energy sector: A) Sustainability; B) Digital; C) Local Empowerment; and D) Integrated Services. The elements of these can be seen in the diagram below. Each of these areas represents transformation in the energy sector and even the democratization of power production, centralized systems – with centralized control, will no longer exists. Households will be ‘prosumers’ driving a radical systemic change within our energy system because of their technological choices and demands for different types of services and ‘smart’ homes able to interact in with the electrical grid. The internet will no longer be used only by humans. I don’t argue that this won’t occur in the CEE region, but I question both the pace of it and the affordability of the transformation.

Hegemonic trends that will drive change in the energy sector - Decentralization and rise of the Prosumer (Source: Reinaud, Julia, Nicolas Clinckx, Katia Ronzeau, and Paul Faraggi. “Scaling up Innovation in the Energy Union to Meet New Climate, Competitiveness and Societal Goals.” Capgemini Consulting, May 26, 2016.)
Hegemonic trends that will drive change in the energy sector – Decentralization and rise of the Prosumer (Source: Reinaud, Julia, Nicolas Clinckx, Katia Ronzeau, and Paul Faraggi. “Scaling up Innovation in the Energy Union to Meet New Climate, Competitiveness and Societal Goals.” Capgemini Consulting, May 26, 2016. http://i2-4c.eu/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/i24c_EURICS_final.pdf)

There are two regional trends (as opposed to mega-trends) in the CEE region that fall under the first category of ‘sustainability’. The transformation to a clean energy ‘hegemony’. In the CEE region, there is a lack of support to encourage the roll-out of small scale solar, or rather the development of a class of prosumers. Both Poland and Hungary view inhibiting renewables as good policy. Hungary has a tax on solar cells and Poland’s energy minister – says solar systems destabilize the system. Poland will also launch a new scheme where the electricity generated by small scale solar are divided between the system operator (or the state) and the homeowner – rather than the owner receiving all the credit or electricity for the production (I’ll ignore the proposed re-licensing procedure for wind-farms, which includes jail terms). While these policies don’t stop the deployment of solar, they certainly don’t encourage it. But consumers in these countries are buying solar even without government support. In my experience speaking with people in different countries, there is growth in this area. Poland holds sufficient healthy numbers that future projections are hard to compute because of the growth of solar. And in Hungary, business is unexpectedly high for sellers of solar systems.

The ‘C’ category of local empowerment is also important to consider. Both Hungary and Poland, perceive large scale deployment of renewables as disruptive for the political plans to renew their centralized systems. Hungary plans to expand Paks – and to such a scale that exporting electricity will be necessary, as production will exceed domestic demand for at least 10 years, while Paks I operates along side Paks II – with a near capacity of 4,000 MW. Renewables will further erode the cost assumptions of the Russian nuclear reactors. Poland, plans a wholesale renewal of its coal fired power plants. The efficiency of coal can be increased, according to the energy minister, by preventing renewables and their variable output, from entering the system. I’ll refrain from commenting on the state of democracy in Hungary – but decentralization is not an option for any topic – there is a only a trend towards centralization in the Prime Minister’s Office for everything.

According to this hiker Hungary's ruling party, Fidesz, does like to make money from cutting down trees. I took this picture in a very remote location in the Vertes hills. Only accessible by foot or on mountain bike. Unfortunately, a visit to this region, only indicates the low priority that environmental protection has in Hungary.
According to this hiker Hungary’s ruling party, Fidesz, does like to make money from cutting down trees. I took this picture in a very remote location in the Vertes hills. Only accessible by foot or on mountain bike. Unfortunately, a visit to this region, only indicates the low priority that environmental protection – or environmental sustainability – has in Hungary. Money appears to come before environmental protection – this is true in the case of bidding for gas and oil concessions in Hungary – where 140 points are awarded for financial royalties to the state, out of a total of 300. Previously, environmental protection held the most points. 

The final two areas that change is most apparent is in the area of (B) Digitalization and (D) Integrated services. When it comes to dominant utilities, both Poland’s and Hungary’s state owned utilities can play a large role in maintaining their dominance and allowing certain technologies that can enhance synergies between utilities, like gas and electricity. In these companies like Hungary’s and Poland’s electricity distribution companies, management in firms like ENKSZ, E.ON, RWE, have a strong awareness for the potential in smart metering technologies and a smarter grid. While the executives of these companies are fully aware the financial investment into these new technologies must be recouped from rate payers – that is permission from the energy regulators must be given. And from this stand point, we enter the political efforts to keep costs low. So while the technology can change, there has to be a political allowance to invest in new technologies to continue to reduce the cost of energy services. Permission at this stage is marginal.

The authors of the study are not wrong to look to Western Europe for examples of innovation. The problem comes when innovation for the Energy Union is defined along these developed systemic lines in only a handful of countries. Innovation in the energy sector is diverse and reliant on the individual selection and social and political arrangements within each country. This doesn’t mean that Poland rejects the prosumers, it is apparent the technology and those consumers wealthy enough are opting for solar systems. But more study needs to be done on how countries ranked low on these innovation indices can participate in the vision established by the Energy Union. How can the centralized and government controlled systems of Bulgaria, Hungary or Poland become more innovative? That is the question that still needs answering.

Russian foreign minister visits Budapest and ‘sells’ expensive nuclear

In the history of this blog, under the Orban government, I have never been able to take seriously the official relationship between Hungary and Russia . This is despite both countries having significant areas for economic relationships, particularly in energy and other areas. The reason for my jilted attitude stems from the passing off of the relationship of one of equals that engage in mutually beneficial energy projects. When Hungary discusses energy with Russia it only means greater dependence on a country that plays politics with energy resources. So when it comes to official visits between the two countries, instead of just discussing Hungarian exports of salami and apples to Russia, we engage in this charade of energy equals.

Good friends, with expensive energy taste (source: MTI, http://dailynewshungary.com/russian-foreign-minister-hold-talks-in-budapest-photos/)

Today Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov is in Budapest to meet with his counterpart and with Prime Minister Viktor Orban. The expansion of Paks Nuclear Power Plant is on the agenda and how Budapest is spinning its ‘non-state’ aid and ‘transparency’ argument with the European Commission. There already is a very good study on the non-viability of Paks II, so my comments will focus more on the increasing disparity between government projections of the price of nuclear power and the decreasing cost of alternative energy technologies.

In the world of renewable technology, particularly in the area of solar and wind power, the set rate of the feed-in tariff is now out of fashion. Instead an auction based system is now in place. This provides the chance for project developers to line up their financing and bid on how much their project will cost in comparison to other projects along the same parameters. This gives us a good idea of what the cost is for particular projects and their associated technologies. And the latest projects (albeit in sunny locations) drives the price of Paks II into the ground. Particularly when the life span of Paks 2, from 2026 to 2085 is taken into consideration.

The cost of solar power fell 50% in the past 16 months. It is now at USD 3 cents per kWh in sunny Dubai for 800 MW of solar power, and with favorable financing from Abu Dhabi. In comparison, Paks II will have the capacity of 2400 MW at a cost of USD 9 – 12 cents per kilowatt hour (kWh) for the first 21 year period – when the loan to Russia will need to be paid, and with a cost of USD 3 – 4 cents per kWh afterwards (at today’s HUF/USD exchange rate). And this is with a ‘favorable’ Russian loan.

In the opinion of Attila Aszódi et al., power prices of HUF 28.74-35.56/kWh, depending on the various scenarios, would have to be attained in the 21-year period of the repayment of the Russian loan taken out in relation to the investment, for the power plant to be able to cope without any further financial support. The authors firmly believe, on the other hand, that the project might be a good investment despite the above as, after repayment of the loan, the power plant would generate power at a price of HUF 8.05-11.09/kWh, which will result in a good average price over its entire lifetime (Source: Felsmann, Balazs, 2015).

If we look at the US, then we can see that the price of 5 cents per kWh is achievable now without government subsidies. No doubt the price for solar will continue to drop, so much so, that in ~2026 when Paks II (if it is ever built) will open in a electricity market, which takes no stretch of the imagination, will have the cost of solar even lower than the price of nuclear (Southern Hungary is actually pretty sunny). According to the author of the chart below, southern an central Europe will have solar prices at 6.5 cents/kWh by 2020/2021. Even Steven Chu, the former US energy secretary and supporter of nuclear power stated, “Clean energy is actually getting much cheaper than even I, as a perennial technical optimist, thought it was going to be.”

Even if we put Hungary in the ‘average solar’ category, Paks II electricity will be more expensive. (Source: http://rameznaam.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/Future-Solar-Cost-Projections-PPA-LCOE.jpg)

Some might say I’m comparing apples and oranges, that is baseload power to ‘unreliable’ variable solar power. But when we take into account the developments in energy storage technology and other renewable energy sources, combined with the longer term operation of Paks I (with near 2000 MW), then it can be confidently stated that by 2026 – in just 10 years, storage technology, that is already being deployed around the world, will be even more competitive.

In addition, solar should be seen as a ‘bridging’ fuel in Hungary’s nuclear transition. That is, as Paks I units are decommissioned, solar and other renewables can begin to replace them from (earliest) 2036 and onwards. That is right, the current plant and all its units operates until 2036. It is projected between 2024/2026 and 2036 the output of Paks will be over 4000 MW – Hungary will need to dump this electricity outside of its own borders.  Solar can easily be a cost effective source of bridging while either newer nuclear power technology is developed or alternative sources are integrated. In any case, the cost will need to be less than the current Russian offering.

Paks NPP 1 and 2 capacity by year (source: Aszodi, Attila. “A Paks2 projekt energiapolitikai értékelése és a szakember utánpótlás kérdései.” Budapest, March 20, 2014. http://nuklearis.hu/sites/default/files/docs/Aszodi_MNT_20140320.pdf.)
Paks NPP 1 and 2 capacity by year (source: Aszodi, Attila. “A Paks2 projekt energiapolitikai értékelése és a szakember utánpótlás kérdései.” Budapest, March 20, 2014. http://nuklearis.hu/sites/default/files/docs/Aszodi_MNT_20140320.pdf.)

Hungary’s energy relations with Russia is not one of equals. The country is being saddled with an outdated and expensive technology that even today (the day when Russia’s foreign minister is in the country), that is more expensive than alternative technologies. This summer Budapest takes delivery of the refurbished Soviet era metro carriages from Russia (as part of the Paks II deal, us citizens of Budapest had to accept these outdated models), let’s hope that Paks II is not delivered on the citizens of Hungary, the bill is already too high, in 2026 it will be astronomical.

Sources:

“MVM Hungarowind Invests HUF 4.9 Bln in Solar Power Plant | The Budapest Business Journal on the Web | Bbj.hu.” Accessed May 25, 2016. http://bbj.hu/business/mvm-hungarowind-invests-huf-49-bln-in-solar-power-plant_112171.

Naam, Ramez. “How Cheap Can Solar Get? Very Cheap Indeed.” Ramez Naam, August 10, 2015. http://rameznaam.com/2015/08/10/how-cheap-can-solar-get-very-cheap-indeed/.

“Russian Foreign Minister: Hungary ‘important, Reliable Partner’ | The Budapest Business Journal on the Web | Bbj.hu.” Accessed May 25, 2016. http://bbj.hu/politics/russian-foreign-minister-hungary-important-reliable-partner_116608.

Naam, Ramez. “How Cheap Can Solar Get? Very Cheap Indeed.” Ramez Naam, August 10, 2015. http://rameznaam.com/2015/08/10/how-cheap-can-solar-get-very-cheap-indeed/.

“Steven Chu: Mexico’s Energy Auction Reveals True Price Of U.S. Renewables – Forbes.” Accessed May 25, 2016. http://www.forbes.com/sites/jeffmcmahon/2016/05/08/steven-chu-mexicos-energy-auction-reveals-true-price-of-u-s-renewables/#1a94bf3575d2.

“The Price of Solar Power Just Fell 50% in 16 Months – Dubai at $.0299/kWh! | Electrek.” Accessed May 25, 2016. http://electrek.co/2016/05/02/price-solar-power-fell-50-16-months-dubai-0299kwh/.

Felsmann, Balazs. “Can the Paks-2 Nuclear Power Plant Operate without State Aid? A Business Economics Analysis.” Energiaklub, June 23, 2015. http://www.energiaklub.hu/sites/default/files/study_can_paks-2_operate_without_state_aid_energiaklub_2015.pdf.

Aszodi, Attila. “A Paks2 projekt energiapolitikai értékelése és a szakember utánpótlás kérdései.” Budapest, March 20, 2014. http://nuklearis.hu/sites/default/files/docs/Aszodi_MNT_20140320.pdf.

 

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.

I’m a Dirty Immigrant: The Hungary I know and love

On this blog I’ve stopped commenting on the policies of Viktor Orban and his insane bunch. There are many other ways to influence the world. Like co-writing the energy benchmarking report on Hungary for the European Commission or biking to Paks Nuclear Power Plant (and the rest of the Danube) to understand Hungary’s and the region’s energy policies.

[update: I finally found a fresh poster. Further down is a poster my neighbors tore down - but because I got up early for my morning one, I found this one intact. ]
[update: I finally found a fresh poster. Further down this row of billboards is a poster my neighbors tore down – but because I got up early for my morning one, I found this one intact. ]
Of course, having said that I want to spend just 15 minutes reflecting on the anti-immigration rants and policies Hungary’s government is pushing. Because, well… I’m an immigrant in Hungary. I think overall my ‘assimilation’ as Orban pointed out is what good immigrants do, is progressing well. I have developed an appetite for fish soup (usually made from carp) and Hungarian pastries (can anyone do poppyseed ‘mak’ better than the Hungarians!? – I think not).

Field Research: Me eating fish soup at a restaurant in Paks
Field Research: Me eating fish soup at a restaurant in Paks after biking 140 km from Budapest to Paks.

Nonetheless, the current anti-immigration billboard campaign the government has launched is particularly stupid. The thing is – in my 10 solid years of living in Hungary and my frequent visits since 1998, I have never been treated in a rude way because I’m a foreigner. If I’ve been ripped off or cheated it was because I am human. Those people cheating me also cheat Hungarians (kind of like the political class of Hungary). Once I even survived a train trip in the biking car of a train to Balaton with a member of Jobbik. We had a great conversation – in Hungarian.

A few months ago, just as the hate campaign by the government was beginning I was getting ice cream with our children (dual citizens of America and Hungary) and I met a mother from my son’s ovi (nursery). I was giving her my impressions of Hungary and how I like it. But then it felt weird, because Orban was just coming out with his hate campaign against foreigners. I told her that I really felt the government no longer represents the people of Hungary. Because from my experience Hungarians are really open to me, my kids and to the other foreigners I know. They are also strongly aware how other countries treated Hungarians fleeing the Communist regime in 1956. Countries like Germany, UK and the US took them in.

Thus the ‘counter’revolution to Orban’s current billboard campaign against Hungarians is the true Hungary I know. The ground swell to deface and tear down the anti-immigrant billboards is the Hungary that I know and love. These are true Hungarians that are open, hospitable and want their country to be part of Europe. The Orban government is an anomaly that does not represent the best, or even average, of what Hungary is.  Hungarian’s accept a lot of shit, but just like Turkey’s Erdogan just lost his election because he did not accept or align with the majority of Turks (which I also know well), Hungarians know that Orban represents the same political and economic regime that they sought to get ride of before 1989.

The thing is, my Hungarian is far from perfect, I can figure most things out, but I can’t even understand what is written on these billboards. Sometimes I’m such as stupid immigrant. Looks, like I need to keep studying Hungarian to understand what I should do to please Orban and stay in Hungary. To understand the posters better I’ll have my daughter and son help me with the translation. But then I’ll have to explain to them how their father is not a burden on Hungarian society and that maybe I should just go back to America. But then I wouldn’t be able to write about Hungarian and European energy policy. Looks like I’ll be staying here, paying taxes and putting up with my ‘burden’ status.

In pursuit of Danube fish soup this past weekend. At the Danube bend, Visegrad in the background.
In pursuit of Danube fish soup this past weekend. At the Danube bend, Visegrad in the background.

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.

 

Present and Historical Benefits of Nuclear Power for Hungary and the Soviets

Buda to Baja: Leg 1 of the South & Central European Energy Expedition (#SCEEE), post 2 of 2. Post 1, can be found here.

“Energy is ideology,” stated a Bulgarian energy expert in relation to Russia’s use of energy as a projection of power. But, he continued, the age of energy as a weapon is over, the options are now plentiful. While there are more options today, it is important to frame Soviet and Russian technology as a form of influence corresponding with particular ideologies and forms of governance. This is an emerging theme from my interviews and conversations on the historical role of the energy system in former Communist countries.

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. Displayed at the Paks NPP Visitor Center.

Ideology is often perceived to be a function of governments. That is, it is a top down process – similar to building up the idea of nation. But we can also see that ideology – like market ideology in the EU – also works in the form of governance. And here I change from the use of ‘government’ to the use of ‘governance’. Because in academic literature (including mine) we perceive governance as a technocratic rule making process. This is invoked for the regulatory systems propagated by the EU. But even within the EU (and discussed elsewhere in this blog and in this project) we have the propagation of neoliberal market ideology.

The connection I want to make to nuclear power in Hungary and in former Communist countries, is the Soviet Union was able to use ‘governance’ to instill and propagate its own ideology of societal goals through technology, including scientific expertise and processes. Nuclear power was one element of the energy system used to integrate and build grand projects that modernized the economies of COMECON countries (see my previous post).

Looking at the history of Paks (and nuclear power in the region) integration of the eastern satellites into the Soviet Union was facilitated by the energy infrastructure, such as gas pipelines and nuclear facilities. This integration lends itself to political integration and resource dependency through fulfilling social contracts for the built up expectation the state will provide low cost energy – and not payed from the salaries of citizens.

Continuity of Investments

Recent Russian efforts to foster integration by building new nuclear power plants and gas pipelines in the region represents building on past investments. Continuity of investments, is an areas I’ve examined in the past for companies like E.ON and RWE entering new EU Member States, but I (and others) have overlooked and failed to perceive the sunk costs of the Russians/Soviets into the Eastern Members states’ energy infrastructure and knowledge networks. Previous rounds of investments are represented in the Paks power plant itself, built in the 1980s. There is considerable knowledge capacity (including the extensive training given to each worker) built up since the early 1980s.

Brief video of the Soviet Memorial at Dunafoldvar where I spent one night on my bike trip to Paks.

Shifting of the governance system – and also the accepted ideology – away from a centrally planned economy to one emphasizing market forces, building and operating the energy infrastructure, undercuts and devalues the previous round of investments (under the previous regime). This observation is extremely important in my later examination of the current expansion of Paks NPP. Paks therefore is not just a component of Hungary’s and the region’s energy system, but an ingrained technological, political and social element of the previous and current economic system (including the guiding ideology). Renewable energy may make market sense, due to its smaller scale and shorter payback periods, but in political and social systems operating in a governance system of centralized energy systems, nuclear power fulfills multiple five-year plans.

Nuclear power works within this centralized governance system on multiple levels, in the respective order: 1) physical; 2) knowledge; 3) economic; 4) geopolitical; and 5) social.

Physical integration into the environment
The physical location of Paks Nuclear Power plant on the bank of the Danube is as much of a technical requirement as it was for assembling the structure. Cooling towers are not necessary, as river water is used for cooling and steam generation. In addition, production of the nuclear power plant components was a regional endeavor, enabling key components to be shipped on the Danube. For example, the reactors were made in Czechoslovakia at transported on the Danube. The use of the Danube and the sourcing of the parts underscores the regional dimension and participation in nuclear power.

In my future bike trips on the Danube I will be visiting the other nuclear power plant facilities, documenting the role of the Danube in tying together both the nuclear facilities and the economies of the region.

Knowledge integration
Operating the nuclear power station required students and employees to travel to Russia and the German Democratic Republic (DDR). This extensive education and travel results in the acculturation of experts into nuclear science and operational cultures. Education and training was also done at the Technical University of Budapest, this is where the Hungarian nuclear experts formed the basis of their careers.

Interestingly, during the early years of operation at Paks, the shift of workers were duplicated. There was a Hungarian team and a Russian team of operators performing the same functions. This enabled training and assisted in double checking that everything was done according to procedures.

Economic and competitiveness
The focus here is on the role of nuclear power in laying the groundwork for lower energy prices. But let’s not lose sight that the slogan ‘too cheap to meter’ is also an American expression to demonstrate the projected prowess of nuclear power. Currently, over 50% of Hungarian electricity consumption is supplied by Paks NPP. The working assumption (by some experts) is the full cost of nuclear power is reflected in the market price. I’m currently researching the construction costs and how these were paid. But the working assumption by some Hungarian experts and politicians is the full cost of nuclear is reflected in the current electricity price. From their perspective future nuclear power is perceived to offer this price advantage over renewable or coal power. The dominant paradigm in Hungary, Bulgaria and Russia is nuclear is cost competitive, resulting in a competitive economy.

Geopolitical
The extensive physical and knowledge integration into the Communist economic system enables a legacy of Russia to remain embedded into the nuclear power industry. This extends the technical hand of Russia and keeps the former satellites close. Thus the current raging debate over expanding Paks and how this ties Hungary to Russia for another two generations. The debate is not only technological (nuclear or not) but an issue of sovereignty and political alignment. Does Hungary want to cut off a highly symbolic and historical tie that offers Hungary economic and social strength, and go with a more short-term neoliberal market based energy system? Under the current Orban government this is simply not an option – the centralized energy system remains reflecting the political governing style.

In a region that placed science in the highest regard, and energy infrastructure development as an expression of ideology along with a symbol of economic might, moving away from large scale energy projects goes against the grain. More deeply, the embedded physical assets, the developed knowledge and supply networks contribute to a legacy system that locks-in technology, engineering choices and geopolitical influence. Shutting down the nuclear power industry in these countries is akin to shutting down German solar or closing the coal mines. In a region and country with high support for nuclear power, it is unlikely that Hungary or Bulgaria will give up nuclear power. It is essential to consider these aspects and the embeddedness of energy technology into broader political-economic and social networks.

Social integration
Politically the choice to remain with nuclear is a continued expression of national might and scientific prowess. Solar and wind energy represent – not just a decentralized system, but technology owned and developed by Western firms that also control and profit from selling this. Giving up on ‘Russian’ nuclear technology undercuts CEE politicians own political and social standings. The fond recollection by workers of how Paks was built and the role of KISZ (the young Communist party), holds a strong legacy throughout the country. The 1980s were a time of prosperity for Hungarians, Goulash Communism worked. So much so, that by the time reactors 3 and 4 were being built new Hungarian companies were supplying the technologies for these, rather than Russian ones. Entrepreneurship was alive in Hungary in the 1980s. (I’m concentrating on the nuclear up-sides of Communism, not the significant downsides of the political-social regime)

In the present day, the town of Paks thrives off the largess bestowed upon it by the power plant. The cultural life is said to be equal with cities much larger, sport and cultural clubs are prominent. It is probably the only ‘factory’ town from the 1980s still surviving in Hungary today (although maybe Gyor could be considered as well). The country as a whole is viewed benefiting from Paks. MVM (the state owned company and owner of Paks) holds significant sponsorship throughout the country of cultural events. Tangible benefits are perceived from nuclear power in Hungary. In a sense, in a political-economic climate dominated by corruption, the only law that still works is the law of physics, and the role of science (maybe things were not perceived so differently under Communism). Corrupting or swaying this scientific knowledge can only result in a disaster. At least some social faith can be placed in physics of the atom.

Conclusion
The term ‘governance’ has a much more modern connotation to it. Often this is expressed in reference to EU expansion and technical rule making. In relation to Soviet nuclear technology, the spread of technical knowledge and exchange of ideas among experts can also be viewed as a form of governance. Hungary’s decision to remain nuclear is set within these historical and broader networked elements that hold centralized systems essential for the political system. Socially, it is still expected government will assist in price support. Providing continuity to past investments – of a centralized system – attempts to fulfill political and social expectations. Whether this is financially sound, considering broader technological trajectories, remains to be examined.

Launching of an Energy Expedition: #SCEEE

Today I’m launching the South & Central European Energy Expedition (#SCEEE). This project stems from my interests in the energy infrastructure in the Central Eastern European region. I also have a great interest in bike riding – particularly in Hungary. I established a goal this summer to bike from Budapest to the Black Sea. Combining the two interest seemed a natural fit that align with current research into efforts to keep energy prices low in Bulgaria, Hungary and Poland. These efforts are examined withing the broader context of the region’s market alignment to the European Union and its infrastructure alignment with Russia.

I am breaking the expedition into two legs. First from Budapest to Apatin, Serbia (where my great grandparents come from). This will only be about 4 days. In August, I’ll be biking then from Apatin to the Black Sea, passing through Bulgaria and Romania. Overall, I will be biking more than 1500 km and passing many of the regions nuclear power plants, hydroelectric facilities, thermal power plants and many, many farms.

The objective of this bike expedition is to observe firsthand and document both the centralized and decentralized energy infrastructure. The formal takes the shape in facilities like nuclear power plants, gas fields, district heating systems and damns. The informal are homeowners, farmers and communities using different energy sources like wood, coal, solar, wind, biomass for energy production. I also plan on interviewing and interacting with a range of stakeholders in these communities. Interviews are scheduled ahead of time and are also ad-hoc.

Picture from a bike trip around Lake Balaton in 2014. In front of a poster proclaiming the Hungarian governments slashing of utility prices.
Picture from a bike trip around Lake Balaton in 2014. In front of a poster proclaiming the Hungarian governments slashing of utility prices.

My aims are to establish from local officials, workers and ‘ordinary’ people how energy prices and energy technologies influence their everyday lives. In particular I want to contrast this everyday perspective with the those of policy makers, industry officials and representatives of organizations. The latter are often represented in a disproportionate way in my (and other academics) research on energy policy.

This back to basic approach is meant to infuse historical field practices often used in the discipline of Geography (I’m a Geographer by training). Much of this training I received as an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota Duluth under the influential Geographers of Professors Matti Kaups and Larry Knopp. In contrast, my MSc and PhD studies at the University of Bristol emphasized the theoretical approach – or at least the academic contribution stemmed more from the theoretical expression of the world, rather than expression of the world while using theory.

A final aim of the #SCEEE is to disseminate and educate to a wider audience what infrastructure exists and how local people interact with it. I will be blogging, tweeting (#SCEEE) and producing videos documenting these interactions. This real time data collection method and spot analysis will feed into more in depth research I am conducting with national level stakeholders and document analysis. Publications will be in the form of journal articles and a book on the pursuit of cheap energy prices and the social and geopolitical ramifications (and yes, I still need to find a book publisher – so offers are welcomed).

Finally, all expeditions are not launched solely in the interest of science. There is a personal interest that drives a person to explore and engage in a familiar or unfamiliar environment. This innate curiosity is what makes social science so much fun: The ability to break down larger social and environmental processes into categories that highlight systemic weaknesses or evolutionary trends (to name just a few themes). So I launch this expedition with the expectation of serendipity and chance to provide information to whet both my exploratory appetite and to inform the larger research project. My personal interest of energy and biking converge to propel both interests (literally) further down the road.

Nonetheless, looking out at the grey morning sky, I just hope my new tent repels the water that sinks many expeditions.

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.]