Tag Archives: Poland

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.

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

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

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.

Inter-European Gas Wars: Europe’s pursuit of Energy-cide

Also published on Natural Gas Europe.

There is a gas race in Europe. This rivals the well reported US – Europe gas price difference, due to cheap US shale gas and high European imported gas prices. In an attempt to compete against the US European industry just got handed a price break in the form of lower support payments for the renewable energy sector. However, European countries also compete against each other over the price of electricity, a race to the bottom, or rather Energy-cide: the destruction of sovereignty in the pursuit of lower energy prices.

This price war also forces countries to develop strategies to keep electricity prices low. An example is Hungary’s deal with the Russians for a ‘low’ cost nuclear power plant. This inter-European energy price war holds significant long-term political and economic costs, which can hobble Europe’s competitiveness and political independence.


The result of this inter-European price war is Russia captures the Crimean prize by understanding how the game is played. The limp EU financial sanctions to hold Russia in-check are framed as the EU punishing Russia. But this is Europe, the ‘unified’ EU action mask the inter-country price wars raging between member states. In each region this plays out differently, for those in the west of Europe (old member states) it is the result of the high initial cost of shifting towards renewable energy and the impact on industry; for those in the east (new member states), it is reliance on Russian gas and householders proportionally high utility bills.

The impact of this price war can be seen playing out in Berlin and Brussels in April, 2014. First the German government approved amendments to its renewable energy law, lowering the cost of German industry financing for renewable energy. Second, the European Commission voted to reduce payments energy intensive industry make to fund the renewable energy shift. The pressure is now intense in Western Europe to reign in energy prices and the real and potential threat of industry flight to the United States. The US, and its cheap shale gas, is held up as a magnet sucking European jobs. Europe feels the coming climate change apocalypse, just as much as a faltering economy, Russian tanks in the Crimea are simply less threatening. But this is a Brussels’ view of the world, in the east the people and politicians feel the heat from Russia.

The Hungarian government continuously lobbies against sanctions on Russia for the violation of Ukrainian sovereignty. With Hungary dependent on Russia for gas and nuclear power, its current charade of low energy prices can only be maintained by the wishes of Russia. The Hungarian government secretly inked an agreement with Russia to take a 10 billion euro loan to build two new reactors. Despite no social or political debate, the overriding excuse for such a deal by Hungary’s Prime Minister was lower energy prices – even if the numbers show a doubling of electricity prices. He envisions to have Europe’s most competitive electricity cost for industry and be more competitive than the Czech Republic or Germany. Hungary will be a manufacturing powerhouse fuelled by cheap Russian nuclear power. In return, the Russian’s hold over Hungary a huge mountain of debt which they’ll use to manipulate Hungary’s foreign and domestic policies.

Other countries in Eastern Europe are the same, Bulgaria has been plagued with violent riots over electricity and gas bills. The country’s seven member energy and water regulatory commission had 17 different members and six different chairman in 2013. Poland has lost an environmental minister due to bungling the country’s shale gas ‘revolution’ – it still awaits a commercially viable well. Each country in Eastern Europe has the stated aim of having the cheapest gas and electricity and literally being a regional powerhouse. Each country wants to compete and attract industry from Western Europe. Poland wants chemical manufactures from Germany. Hungary wants auto manufacturers to set up shop. It is a continental race to the bottom.

Russia benefits in spades from intra-European conflict over energy prices while the continent as a whole attempts, by any means, to close the price gap with the US. In 2012, the German border price for gas was four times higher than the US Henry Hub price (even if this is a flawed comparison, it is often made as an excuse for needing lower EU energy prices). To close the price gap, somehow the solution is more Russian gas. Russia’s South Stream pipeline project will avoid Ukraine and deliver the same gas to Europe, without Ukrainian interference. The pipe will traverses the Black Sea, landing in Bulgaria and connecting Serbia, Hungary and Austria. When the going got tough over a year ago for South Stream’s competitor, Nabucco, which would bring non-Russian gas to these same countries, both the United States and the EU failed to step up to ensure its success. The project offered to diversify Eastern Europe’s gas supply. Instead the EU accepted another gas pipeline to Italy – a long running ally of Russia and thus acceptable to both those in Brussels and in Moscow.

nabucco and gazprom v4

The evolving gas map keeps the east boxed in: South Stream and Nord Stream. There is almost zero western support for diversification, the result is high prices and Russian dependency with low security of supply.  But is this paranoia? Not when the German partner of South Stream remarks over EU blocked talks with Russia, “If anything, the approval procedures should be accelerated, not delayed,” said Rainer Seele the Chief Executive of Wintershall.

Should the only means of leverage Ukraine holds over Russia be sped up? Just so Ukraine can be eaten faster by Russia? Hungary’s Orban signs secret deals with Russians because he knows he needs to compete against the west on price, Berlin or Paris aren’t going to send cheaper electricity or gas to the east.

The true price masters are the Russians. They see this intra-EU country price competition. They see political leaders hanging by economic-popularity threads, industry bent over a Russian pipeline – sucking gas, Bulgarians protesting over prices and burning utilities’ cars, while Viktor Orban proclaims an energy price war against Brussels while furtively flying off to Moscow. Even the ‘green’ German consumer demands cheaper electricity. Industry perception of the energy system as a whole matters, even if Russian gas is marginal in Western Europe. The closure of German nuclear was perceived as a blow against German industry, another blow is unwelcomed.

The Russians hear from European industrial and political leaders, “take the Crimea, but just help us compete against our European neighbors and America.” Energy-cide, the destruction of sovereignty in the pursuit of lower energy prices. Russia is the cat and Europe is the mouse. Russia eats part of Ukraine, while Russia also politically binds the Bulgarians, Hungarians and Germans over gas prices. Unless Europe stops its Walmart-like energy price race to the bottom, and shores up energy diversification routes for Eastern Europe, Russia will continue to be the top consumer.

The Russian Rock: Re-landscaping CEE energy (in)Dependence

The recent ‘war of independence’ against Western European owned utilities in Central Eastern Europe (CEE) and South East Europe (SEE) sets the stage for re-integration into Russia’s energy sphere – and dependence. A war against electricity, gas and water prices has been raging in Hungary since 2012 while SEE countries have a longer history. The firm rejection throughout the region of privately owned utilities managed by independent regulatory institutions limits capital inflow to upgrade and diversify the region’s energy infrastructure.

Omul de tinichea transfagarashan

Benefiting from the ‘war’ against Western capital is Russia. State owned Gazprom remains the dominant and stable supplier of gas to the region’s state owned firms and centralized energy systems. The CEE (including Poland) and SEE regions reject complex market structures with competition and diversified generation technologies pushed by the EU. Full independence from Russia is no longer sought, rather a ‘safety’ margin to weather a Russian gas storm provides a low cost diversification option. Three historical periods are discussed, with the third marking the re-integration into the Russian fold.

  • Stage one, fully dependent on Russian resources and technology;
  • Stage two, building an energy system semi-independent of Russia;
  • Stage three, ‘(in)Dependence’ on Russia’s energy wealth, the recognition of benefits gained from dependence coinciding with diversification of energy sources.

The CEE and the SEE regions see energy dependence as strategic while allowing for new infrastructure, such as gas interconnectors, shale gas and LNG terminals to rebalance the energy landscape and provide space for energy independence, rebalancing the historical Russian dependence. The term, ‘(in)Dependence’ provides a encapsulating expression of how Russia remains firmly positioned in the CEE/SEE regions’ energy landscape. It is the rock in the region that despite the best efforts of multiple countries, governments and international organizations, Russia remains firmly positioned in the CEE/SEE energy landscape.


The Central Eastern European Region, including the Southeast of Europe, is heavily dependent on Russia’s energy resources. This includes gas, oil and nuclear technology. The ability to cement through physical infrastructure and human capital during Communist period established a robust connected system of resources and expertise between the region’s countries and Russia. The headlines hold that gas security is the most contentious issue. But finding a solution to this dependency requires a complex and stable energy investment climate. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall and 2004 and 2007 eastward expansion of the EU, diversification away from Russia for CEE countries was the overall most important headline issue. Despite concerted efforts the region has failed to find alternative sources for Russian gas and remained wedded to Russia. The era of Russian energy dependence can be seen to have evolved over decades under the technical capabilities of the Soviet Union.

We see the impact that this uncoordinated, but regional consistent energy strategy has on the CEE region: Complete reliance on Russian gas and oil imports. After the political winds shifted in 1998 and the region shifted towards Western Europe for political and economic integration these energy links were viewed as high risk entrapping the region into an almost single sided relationship where the terms are dictated from Moscow. The region may have gotten democracy and removed overt economic and political control but the energy infrastructure is a strong reminder that continues the previous political-economic relationship.


The launching of the energy independence period, away from Russia, began in the mid-1990s.  Privatization of energy assets and the establishment of energy regulators brought private capital into the energy system, transforming the role of the state. Market considerations would help guide and fund development of the national energy system. Technocratic independent regulatory institutions would oversee the region’s energy system.

Privatizations of energy companies, mainly electricity and distributions companies were never very popular, but the politicians making these decisions were aware the state was incapable of funding a renewed energy system able to operate efficiently. Bloated inefficient companies, were typical and unable – or unwilling due to political pressure, to collect from large and small consumers. In Macedonia at the time of privatization there were 500,000 individual court cases filed over fee collection. Large state owned factories paid little or nothing. Other countries mirrored this systemic inefficiency resulting in underfunded and crumbling energy systems. The entire CEE and SEE region made the hard decision to bring in mainly Western European energy companies to fund the renewal of power generation and electricity and gas distribution systems. These important energy assets were privatized, in some countries more than others, but each country, usually with strong encouragement from international organizations, did privatize. Enough to place the energy sector on a market footing.

By the mid-2000s sufficiently robust national and regional markets in electricity and gas were well under development in the CEE and SEE region. Strong market and regulatory elements were integrated into the system. Authority of the energy system typically, on a technical level, transferred from an energy minister to an ‘independent’ energy regulator, who set prices and technical standards. This technocratic system was established to ensure the long-term commitment and investments by private energy companies were secured and the system as a whole was managed to ensure its continual long-term development.

Since the onset of the 2008 financial crisis already strained relations between private energy companies and governments escalated. The underlining truth to the ‘Utility Rebellion’ of the CEE and SEE region is politicians had a hard time letting go.  From price setting, control or influence over cross-border electricity and gas interconnectors politicians have a hard time coming to terms with allowing the energy sector to operate like an open, but regulated, market. Repeated attempts to establish a transparent and unified electricity system in the Southeast of Europe has failed, despite consistent support (and pressure) from international organizations and institutions. In 2013, the tension has spilled over into outright social and political rebellion against private owners. This includes (but not limited to) some headline cases:

  • Albania: In January 2013 the energy regulator took away the license of Czech power company preventing it from operating in the country.
  • Macedonia: Disputes between Austria’s EVN and the Macedonia government over debts and investments are on-going since privatization in 2006.
  • Bulgaria: After years of building tensions, including court cases, between private investors (CEZ, EON, EVN), the spring of 2013 saw public street protests erupt over electricity and gas prices resulting in new elections, along with investigations and regulatory changes in Bulgaria’s energy sector. Although the fury is equally directed at state owned companies as well as privately owned ones.
  • Hungary: What was once a success story of privatization and equal risk levels to Western Europe, changed after the 2010 elections with the new Fidesz government.  Extra taxes on energy companies were introduced after which the energy regulator was sidelined and forced legislated price cuts above 20% in 2013, compounded by a proposed law to be passed before the 2014 elections of utilities becoming non-profit entities. Many privately owned utilities are making losses since 2011 and have slashed investments.


Markets and independence

The focus on market transformation contributed to two false assumptions: First, from a Western European perspective, overall EU gas supplies were not significantly exposed to Russian gas interruptions – if they were to occur at all. Russia was a stable supplier not willing to use gas as a political weapon and the governments of the CEE and SEE regions could diversify themselves; second, over time alternative sources could be secured from Europe’s ‘near abroad’. During this age of attempted energy independence, the pro-market perspective and activity created an assumption that the market would induce greater supply security, investments by Western European firms would contribute to greater energy security. However, these assumptions came to a head at the start of 2009.

Supply disruptions, between Russia and the Ukraine, were already regular seasonal events, but in 2009 the crisis cascaded into disruption to EU Member States. This disruption showed, what was already known in the region, diversification away from Russia was important for the energy security and security of supply for the region. It was not the overall EU level of dependence that matter, but the regional dependence. EU institutions woke up, but not until after they coordinated a technical response of sending gas to dried up systems in Bulgaria, Hungary and Serbia. Afterwards, the EU threw greater effort and coordination into helping the region diversify and open up alternative routes of supply for the region. These include interconnectors, expanding gas storage, ensuring reverse flow in pipelines and instituting new procedures and guidelines to ensure a timely coordinated action in case of emergencies. However, much of this diversification is funded by national governments. Key diversification projects include:

  • Polish LNG
  • Poland’s push into shale gas
  • Hungary’s oil and gas group MOL upgraded an oil pipeline to the Adriatic, tying the region into global oil supplies.
  • Bulgaria signed an agreement to import gas from Azerbaijan starting in 2019, completely avoiding Russia by transporting the gas through Turkey and Greece.
  • Bulgaria will build interconnectors with Turkey and Greece.
  • Upgrading gas interconnectors between Hungary and neighboring countries, particularly a new Hungary-Slovak interconnector that begins to establish a north-south gas corridor to Poland.
  • Gas storage investments in Hungary and Austria
  • Western interconnectors to Austria and Germany with reverse flow capability are being built or upgraded.

Missing from these ongoing or completed projects, is the most symbolic project of all, Nabucco. The failed bid to transport Azeri gas to the SEE and CEE regions may turn out to be more politically significant than functionally significant. Existing Soviet era transport pipelines to Russia remain the only large supply route of gas into the region. Regardless of boosted interconnectors, regional LNG access or gas storage, Russia will remain the dominate gas supplier to the entire region, all the additional projects provide a boosted level of energy security and improve security of supply in times of emergency. Nonetheless, if the goal is to ensure operations through a cold winter when the gas is cut off from Russia then the region can weather a Russian storm.

The failure of Nabucco to launch prevents the region from adding the significant alternative capacity, which combined with on-going diversification projects, could reduce further Russian reliance. Nabucco, backed by a consortium of CEE, SEE and Western European companies represented the most symbolic effort for energy independence. It was the battle between competing gas pipelines through Europe’s southern gas corridor: Russia supported South Stream vs. Nabucco. The EU backed Nabucco, had the political-economic edge to deliver more gas while increasing energy security. In the end, the pure commercial decision was taken by the upstream consortium to deliver gas into the Italian market through a competitor private pipeline to Nabucco. The downstream activities in the CEE and SEE region prove themselves just as important as the upstream transit routing decisions, which together influence large scale investments into the region.

Building the Nabucco pipeline through the CEE/SEE region would require decades of commitments from all upstream extraction parties tying them into downstream distribution partners. As outlined above, past relations between the region’s governments and foreign energy investors is turbulent. If Nabucco went ahead the upstream suppliers, extracting in Azerbaijan, would be tied to the political whims in the CEE and SEE region. If the original point is to play Nabucco against the Russians, then the tables could be turned to threaten the extra capacity from the older Russian pipelines to drive prices lower once Nabucco pipes are in the ground. Fixed assets and fixed prices are only as fixed as the political winds.

Current actions of governments throughout the CEE and SEE region demonstrate independent energy regulators are used for window dressing to meet EU requirements. Energy regulators were meant to ensure the long-term investments by energy companies were protected. This has turned out to be false. Under current conditions, the forced price reductions, revoking – or the threat of revoking – licenses and continued disputes over the prices of electricity and gas creates a significant challenge to maintain necessary investment levels, upgrade or prevent a company from financial losses. It is hard to imagine the political rhetoric and actions stopping for upstream suppliers physically locked into the region and with alternative sources of gas for governments to buy.

The original energy newcomers to the region, described above, are now withdrawing – or literally being squeezed out, like in Hungary. In short, the energy investment environment has turned negative, price pressures dominate, and political along with social demands result in an unpredictable market. Despite gas being a global commodity, politically mandated cuts in electricity and gas prices force losses onto distribution companies. Building a multi-billion Euro pipeline through the region begins to weaken under the current domestic and regional conditions energy providers are met with.

The loss of Nabucco should send a clear message, and the politicians of the CEE/SEE should hear it: Market fundamentals, are the basis for investments, not political considerations. Politicians can fight downstream electricity and gas companies for lower prices, argue with Russia over contracted prices, but unless governments are prepared to pay a market price for commodities – thus subsidizing their consumers, energy companies will go elsewhere. Private capital doesn’t finance displays of populism and energy independence that in the long-term undermine both security of supply and energy security.


Today, 2013, we have a new era, of energy (in)Dependence. It represents the limits of infrastructure development, alternative import routes and politically induced market risks. Constant political warfare with private energy companies, in most of the CEE and SEE countries, has resulted in depressed incentives for infrastructure upgrades and price instability. Building a non-Russian transit pipeline into a region of significant market instability requires incentives outweighing these negatives. Each country in the region is proclaiming energy independence, which then (laughably) increases their reliance on Russian gas and increases security of supply risks. Resiliency within national systems is less than in regionally integrated systems. Faltering now on regional integration or preventing foreign capital from entering only underfunds alternative energy solutions which displace Russian gas.

The region’s largest gas projects moving ahead mainly rely on government efforts and financing. Gas storage in Hungary, network interconnectors, Polish LNG terminal and shale gas. While these efforts are able to move the ball down the court towards greater energy security, they do not provide substantial regional upstream diversification. The original intent of privatization of energy companies was to infuse capital into the regions’ energy systems to modernize the infrastructure, governments lacked the money to redevelop the basis of their economies. The question must be asked, does this trend continue, or has energy capital taken flight?

CEE and SEE governments cannot finance a new energy system that excludes market based elements and players. EU institutions are pushing for great market transparency, elimination of state aid, stronger energy regulators, stability in prices for private energy investors, and the interlinking of national and regional markets, thus reducing the room for political interference in energy markets.

There are now a number of attraction for CEE/SEE governments to deal with Russia and maintain its dominate position in the region, and in fact, moving away from Russia now appears more dangerous as the original – and justifiable reasons for energy independence fade. Russia remains a single supplier who is ‘simple’ to deal with. The terms of gas supply are clear, ‘You buy it we deliver it.’ Not the Brussels motto of, ‘If you buy it then here are the competitive conditions that have to be fulfilled, here is the transparency that is expected, and we expect the energy regulator to make well-reasoned opinions based on professional decision making process.’ Politically, that EU garbage only works in Western Europe.

Politically for CEE countries, Moscow can now act as a counterweight against Brussels. Whether this is just symbolic or not, the political elite in the CEE region is learning to balance energy relations between the old foe and the new foe. Finding a common cooperative topic with Russia is also beneficial for on-going relations, if not energy than what? Agriculture or software? There’s nothing that says a serious relationship than building long-term energy ties with Russia. Satisfying the strong neighbor, financially and commercially on energy issues distracts them from other issues.

A cooperative relation also demonstrates that CEE countries can stand by themselves with Russia. The rules of the energy sector may be dominated by Brussels and Western European companies, but the national governments of the CEE region still have an important role to play in their national gas markets and pricing. Bilateral relations are fostered and maintained with energy. While Russian gas, in the age of independence, was viewed as a necessity, in the age of (in)dependence, negotiations demonstrate politicians are in control of their country’s energy assets and a solid relationship exists between old foes/friends. This is contrasted against the assumed friendly relations with Brussels and the EU’s demands for an independent and transparent energy sector with complex rules and limited room for political grandstanding and influence. Russia and Gazprom are more than happy to lend to the showmanship, with the price of gas possibly linked to the temperature of relations between countries. Energy (in)Dependence provides security, simplicity, political capital and limits the need for a more complex energy market to replace Russian sourced gas.

The intertwined concepts of finance and market complexity, for alternatives to Russian gas, provide another reason for energy dependence on Russia. Despite alternative gas supplies, like LNG and shale gas, becoming more available, they will only make a small dent into the domestic or regional gas market. Any alternative to Russian gas requires considerable investments into developing a functioning gas market, including a nationwide network with gas power plants. Failure to incentivize private companies to invest in alternatives to Russian sourced gas (such as shale gas) ensures continued Russian dominance, for example in Poland’s gas market. Poland values energy independence, but not even concerted investments into LNG, shale gas and interconnectors can reduce its heavy reliance on Gazprom. The same applies to all the other countries in the CEE and SEE regions.


The political and economic hurdles for energy independence are too high for the CEE and SEE regions: Building a new energy system, funded by private capital, requires competition and complex market structures with limited political involvement.  Extending dependence on Russia energy resources provides the opportunity to maintain centralized energy systems and using Russia as a counter weight to Brussels non-political energy market schemes.

The collapse of Nabucco represented the failure of an energy independence strategy. A high priced, visionary project that was politically supported but without the political or economic stability required for its long term success. The debate over Nabucco overshadowed the on-the-ground work of building and expanding interconnector capacities, LNG terminals, domestic gas deposits and an overall beefing up of security of supply components. Enough so that supply disruptions, from Russia or transit countries, would have a limited impact. Energy independence can be gained by small hedges against Russian agitation and action. Therefore, (in)Dependence provides a lower cost, economically and politically hedged energy strategy that balances the local politics of the CEE/SEE region and the competing demands of Brussels and Moscow. A classic Central European strategy.


Wherefore art thou Polish Shale Gas?

O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name;
Or if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love
And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.


I went in search of Polish shale gas a few weeks ago. I spent some time looking under rocks in Warsaw and Lublin, asking a few people if they had seen this shale gas revolution. I went to a few offices, met people in cafes and even explored a few bars in search of revolutionaries that were upending the country by drilling holes and fracking the ground apart. This was my fourth trip back to Poland in a year. On this trip I focused on those ‘pesky’ environmentalists everyone blames for slowing shale gas extraction down.

In this blog post I’ll just list a few general impressions and hold the more exact details for some articles. But I met with national and local green people. The great thing about meeting with these people is that they didn’t know where the revolution, or even the start of a shale gas industry, could be found. It even turned out that not only did they not really oppose shale gas in Poland but they were waiting just like the companies for the Polish government to figure out what it wants to do. My statements may be sweeping here, but when it comes down to it, the Polish green organizations could point to why they may oppose shale gas extraction, but they were more articulate describing how and for whom shale gas should be extracted. That is, shale gas should be used within a more localized gas distribution system benefiting those communities that allow extraction to occur. Thus total denial for using fracking technology is not embraced by all, or even many, green Polish organizations. The issue is much more nuanced than widely reported.

Polish Shale Gas Love

The building of a shale gas industry came across as highly theoretical as the members of the organizations themselves were not really convinced that much would come of shale gas in Poland. I was expecting a much stronger reaction against shale gas and a push back against the current exploratory wells being drilled. But the people I spoke to seemed really laid back about any threat. It seemed to me that they have come to the realization  there really won’t be any large, or even medium, scale shale gas ‘revolution’ in Poland. Three companies have recently pulled out of Poland – while various reasons are cited, it most likely is a collection of things, but what is now emerging as the incompetence of the Polish state to effectively manage and build an administrative system that incentivizes exploration and extraction.

It is hard to nail down specific reasons for the revolution not taking off in Poland, but I am certainly more of the opinion that the revolutionary wind has been sucked out. From an institutional perspective, state institutions are good at building up and deploying a technology – but don’t expect that this occurs overnight in a revolutionary zeal. Combine this assumption with administrative procedures and  the inherent tendency to dot every ‘I’ then the momentum that was propelling companies to drill has just run out. One lessons for the US that can be applied is the speed and scaling up of fracking technology that occured – this will not happen in Poland or Europe.

But asking a state administration to deny its own internal procedures – brings us back to our Romeo and Juliet quote at the beginning. It is not just a question of “wherefore art thou”, but can the Polish state deny its bureaucratic legacy to make shale gas extraction licensing lean and mean – at the bureaucratic speed of Canada and the US? Instead of looking for the answer to this, maybe it is just best to assume the shale gas industry in Poland will be asleep for a very long time. Thus, Polish environmentalists know it is best to sit back and let the Polish state trip over itself. And that is an impression I’ve gotten from everyone on all sides of the debate now. Polish shale gas will be as successful as Polish wind power. Somewhere it will be there, but it will be hard to see where.

Future speaking engagements on post-carbon EU energy transition

August has emerged as an important month to charge my batteries and get my thoughts straight on  a number of energy related topics. This is essential as I’ve been asked to speak at two big events in September.

Outta of this world energy


The organizers from the Eastern Partnership have been kind enough to invite me to their high level gathering, the 21st Economic Forum in Krynica Zdroj, Poland, from September 7 -9, 2011. Previously, the organizers at the Eastern Partnership invited me to speak and moderate at their Energy Forum that occurred last November. In September, I’ll be on the panel discussion about the post-Fukushima era in the Central European region. At this point, I think I will concentrate on assessing the investment/political risk environment in the CEE region and how this will influence the roll-out of the next generation of large scale energy systems. The root of my talk lies in two studies. One, the assessment of the post-privatization of electricity distribution companies in three countries and, two, an article on the identification of contractual

risks and risk regimes that influence short and long term energy investments in the EU during the push for a post-carbon world. This is based on an EU FP7 research project that is now being completed.

The other engagement, that I’m equally humbled to accept, is the ”EU-US Summit on Science, Technology and Sustainable Economic Growth.’ I’ll be one of two keynote speakers. This will be September 29th, in Brussels and hosted by the European Commission. The background to the summit, and the events surrounding it, can be found here. As the page for the 2010 launch of the program explains,

With support from the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, and the European Commission, the Howard Baker Center for Public Policy, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory are coordinating a year-long dialogue between the U.S. and the EU on science, technology, innovation, and sustainable economic growth (STISEG). The purpose is to enhance our understanding of the ways in which science, technology, and innovation affect sustainable economic growth, to identify impediments to the flow of science from the “bench” to applications; and to explore policy options that might enhance the impact of science on economic activity and societal needs.

This is really a surprise and honor, as it comes out of the EU FP7 PACT project that I’ve been working on for a few years now. I’ll be presenting the results from the portion of the project that asked stakeholders how to make the transition happen. Some of this is incorporated into my article for Energy Policy (still in progress). My presentation will draw on how the transition process is perceived to be taking place in the EU and the risk governance structure.

So, if you are in town for either of these events, stop in, not to just to see  me, but to see some really fine speakers and a high level of engaging dialogue about the future of the EU’s (and US) transition to a more sustainable and integrated energy system.

Impressions of the 5th Energy Forum

The difficult transition to a low carbon energy sector is strikingly apparent when looking at the Polish market. However, as the participants at the 5th Energy Forum, held this year in Sopot, Poland, displayed – some market actors are more willing to make this transition than others.

Michael LaBelle, Limax Energy, moderating panel discussion on the Modernization of the Energy Sector in Central Europe

The reason that I mention Poland as a challenging place to make this transition is the country’s almost total reliance on coal. Over 90%. The advantage of traveling to another country for a conference is that you can learn a lot about that country’s energy sector. And not just by the statistics, but by talking to the different officials from government agencies and companies. What I took away, whether correct or not, is a strong resistance from established companies and some government institutions about the purpose of moving towards a low carbon economy. In a way, for Poland, under the present energy mix, reductions may seem pointless. That is moving from 94% dependency to 60%, is like switching from a vodka martini to vodka and orange juice. Are you really going to feel the difference in the morning?

I would argue yes, the short term health benefits from the additional orange juice, can lead to further reduction in alcohol over the long term. If you don’t start at some point, then you’ll never make it.

On another note, the organizers of the conference were not only kind enough to invite me but also to have me moderate the session on the Modernization of the Energy Sector in Central Europe. They arranged a great, and diverse panel, which proved really successful in assessing some of the key aspects of the market developments in the CEE region and how some of these aspects can be applied to the Ukraine and Russia. Interestingly for me, Mr. Khotey from the State Property Fund of the Ukraine outlined how the country was preparing to privatize some of its energy companies, and notably distribution companies. I previously did on a study on this topic for USAID examining the efforts in Bulgaria, Romania and Macedonia.

Michael LaBelle, Limax Energy (L) moderating panel discussion on Modernisation of the Energy Sector in Central Europe; Panel members: Igor Khotey, Deputy Head, State Property Fund of Ukraine, Heimo Stauchner, Director, Co–Head Energy, Erste Group Bank AG, Austria, Franz Scheiber, Head of Business Unit Market Central Europe North, Alpiq AG, Switzerland, Vladimir Knyaginin, Director, “Center for Strategic Research North–West” Foundation, Russia

It was also mentioned by one of the speakers that role of the energy regulator was to ensure the interest of the consumer, which for him, is connected to low prices. On this point, I would also have to take issue, as not only is it in the interest of the consumers to pay a fair price, but also ensure that the energy system is transformed over the long term. While there are different regulatory philosophies, ensuring that consumers benefit from low(er) carbon energy sources is essential.

Energy prices and coal are interlinked for Poland. There is no doubt that renewable energy when priced against coal, with no carbon pricing, is more expensive. However, if  CCS technology is priced in with the cost of coal, then the opposite is true – coal becomes more expensive than renewable energy. So if Poland is waiting for CCS technology, in order to ensure the place of coal in the country’s generation mix, and to maintain cheap generation, the consumers will be footing an even higher bill in the future. Therefore, as distasteful as it is in the short term, switching to vodka and orange juice, will not only improve your health, but save you money as well.