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.
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.”
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Soviet Union embedded into the landscape and economies of Central and Eastern Europe a system of technological and resource dependence. Political and social benefit derived from this energy system. Politicians still continue to benefit from this arrangement. This system fails to reflect current political arrangements and technological advances. Failure to build an energy system that is technologically and resource independent of Russia maintains the political and social ties established during Communism.
The centralized system created a continental oil and gas pipeline network to deliver the natural resources of the Russian heartland and Central Asia to the ‘satellite’ countries in Europe. Replication of this networked approach also extended to nuclear power through scientific knowledge and components. To create sufficient political independence a new energy system needs to be built. This includes a new gas networks and new electricity generation technology – all non-Russian sourced. Failure to build an alternative system maintains the historical status quo.
The old- new energy system
The Soviet energy legacy was handed off to the Russian state which posses three key energy resources and technologies: 1) Oil, a global commodity that is easily shipped, and holds limited pricing differences. 2) Gas, relies on transit pipelines, industrial and household infrastructure and is susceptible to supply interruptions and monopolistic pricing, without sufficient storage or alternative supply routes. 3) Nuclear, rests on technological knowledge, spare parts, fuel processing and storage; technological lock-in occurs creating high switching costs.
Breaking the energy dependence network established by the Soviet Union requires Eastern Europe to establish a new regime of energy independence. This is done in two ways: First, alternative supplies of resource are required. This means building alternative delivery systems for resources currently delivered by Russia. New gas transit pipelines bringing non-Russian sourced gas will deleverage the region from energy dependency. Second, alternative technologies offer the ability to reduce long-term dependency. Nuclear power affects two generations of citizens, the high sunk costs prevent present and future political and social independence. Adding more energy alternatives rather than subtracting old infrastructure, over time, brings about greater energy independence.
The cost of energy (in)dependence
Resource independence holds two approaches. Poland pursues and energy independence strategy opposite Hungary and Bulgaria. Both are influenced by the cost of resources. For Poland, domestic and imported coal provide 90% of the countries electricity generation. Imported Russian gas is important for industry and cogeneration of electricity and heat. LNG now provides an alternative source of gas – but at a higher cost. The true cost of coal is not reflected in its market price. Environmental and health costs are not priced into the energy security argument for continuation of coal. Therefore, the cost of resource independence does come at a price.
Hungary and Bulgaria, in contrasts, seeks to maintain and increase their use of Russian gas. Alternative supply routes are sought through interconnectors to Slovakia and Romania. With the expansion of interconnectors, Western European gas can now reach the CEE region and act as a limited bargaining lever for lower prices. Nonetheless, both countries are slow to build and open up existing pipeline capacity to neighboring countries. The limited steps taken for infrastructure and market diversification prolong their resource dependence.
Resource dependence extends to upstream diversification. Both countries see Russian sourced gas, via Turkey as a ‘true’ route of energy diversification. Both countries are heavily dependent on Russian gas and use gas a political measure of their political devotion to Russia. Gas transit fees can help offset politically controlled gas pricing for consumers. The financial losses incurred by Bulgaria’s NEK are equal to the transit payments of Russian gas flowing to Greece. Hungary’s support for South Stream and Turk-Stream only excludes Ukraine, they do not break Russian resource dependency. Annual gas contract negotiations are always framed by the Prime Ministers of Hungary and Bulgaria as diplomatic successes and servility to Russia.
Technological dependence in Hungary and Bulgaria are present in the form of nuclear power. Poland rejected the Soviet offer for nuclear power in the 1980s.
The built facilities in each country provide ‘cheap’ electricity at a price consumers in both countries can afford. The centralized and state owned facilities enable the state to actively manage and influence the energy system in both countries. Low priced electricity can be supplied to households. Bulgaria was in talks with Russia to build another nuclear power plant at Belene (more on this elsewhere) but ultimately backed out of the deal during the financial crisis as demand plummeted. Hungary, after Prime Minister flew in secret to Russia, signed a (secret) deal to expand Paks nuclear power plant. Hungary is now technologically dependent on Russia for another 40 – 50 years.
Hungary’s dependence on Russia, while masked by the technological dependence is also financial. As an interviewee in Bulgaria pointed out, the Russians have the whole package that no other company or country can compete with. They provide the financing, the technology and the fuel – they are the Amazon.com of nuclear power. Competing on these terms is almost impossible for other countries. Thus, if a country is serious about nuclear power, the Russian offer – particularly if you are a cost conscious country – is very appealing. If a country is open to non-centralized generation sources and able to finance its own energy system, then they will probably not choose nuclear power (this is a general statement and needs more support elsewhere).
Concluding Energy Dependence
For our discussion, I discounted the full environmental cost of nuclear and coal (including waste storage and CO2 emissions). Avoiding the environmental discussion (for the moment) enables engagement with the political prioritization of energy security and energy prices. Energy independence is not provided when the energy system is based on the old political-economic order. The Communist system linked the energy resources of Russia and Central Asia to the Communist satellite countries of Central and Eastern Europe. This system is perpetuated in Hungary and Bulgaria.
The overriding cost consciousness of governments and consumers results in continuation of the energy system. Investment continuity, just as private investors demand it, is provided to Russia through political agreements. Continuation of resource and technology dependency ensures Russia stays politically and economically connected to new EU member states. There is an inherent contradiction between neoliberal market requirements of the EU and the secret and centrally controlled monopolistic structure of the Russian energy system. So far, Bulgaria and Hungary accept this contradiction, while Poland strives for self-sufficiency from both systems.
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
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
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.
The role of the state in the energy system in Central Europe is fraught with historical ups and downs. Under Communism the energy system represented progress and equality with the Capitalist West. There is no doubt the energy system from gas transmission to electricity generation and transmission in all the former Soviet Union and its satellites was efficient. The energy system lends itself well to five year plans.
Last week I was in Bulgaria doing research on energy prices and the relaitons between Russia and Bulgaria (I’ll be having a lot more on this topic in future posts). I met with many renowned experts, including Bulgarian Atanas Professor Tassev, who has advised many governments and international organizations, including the World Bank. Atanas Georgiev and I sat in his office while he smoked away at his cigar. There are many old school habits that still persist the further east you go.
Professor Tassev is no doubt one of the leading experts on European energy, even if his spoken English is challenged. So I’m grateful to Professor Georgiev for translating for me. In the discussion over Russia Professor Tassev said, “When geopolitics talks, the politics shut up. And when the politics talks the economy suffers.” With this statement he gets to the heart of the energy debate between the EU and Russia.
The debate over energy is more than just everyday politics, it is about geopolitics which exist in a different realm. Our discussion was in the context of building a new nuclear power plant at Belene, Bulgaria. Russia was meant to build it, but Bulgaria backed out causing high tension between the two states.
Politicians act to influence economic development. The political strategy for the energy sector, whether in America (see my PhD thesis) or in Europe, is to provide electricity at the lowest price. Action will be taken over the choice of technology that fulfills the strongest social goals. In the case of Germany, ‘green’ goals are/were prioritized over upfront costs. In the CEE region, the price of electricity in the short term drives political decision making. Thus political interference in the regulatory pricing process.
Geopolitics is for the long-term. The long-term goals for energy technologies come in the form of nuclear reactors and gas transmission pipelines that span continents. Cheap and competitive electricity and gas today, must be preserved for those politicians that value the most energy costs. Open competitive and transparent markets, as those valued by the EU, provide no assurance on short-term or long-term price. Politicians involved in the economy fiddle with the elements necessary for economic growth. The energy sector is the backbone for any growing or declining economy, so there can be a convergence of domestic politics and international geopolitics in choosing energy technologies.
Russia posses both the technological know-how and natural resources to back up its geopolitical and political aims. These aims coincide with the domestic agenda of CEE politicians. Going forward economic growth in the CEE region is dependent on assurances and predictability in the price of energy. Price is seen by politicians in the CEE region as a competitive advantage against those EU countries with competitive and environmentally aware energy markets.
The Soviet Union modernized the energy infrastructure at a price each country could afford. Integration of these countries occurred through the energy infrastructure. A dependency built up over these years. For countries like Bulgaria and Hungary, turning away from Russia and this historical relationship becomes fraught with an inability of politicians to influence their economies. While a lack of engagement may be good for the economies, it is not good for the politicians. And this is where we have a stalemate between integrating into the EU’s interdependent energy system, and Russia’s dependent energy system.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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 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.
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.
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.
The visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin to Budapest on February 17th, 2015 marks the day the Hungarian government voluntarily returned to the Russian sphere.
The outcome is three-fold: First, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban openly rejected the EU path of energy market transparency and integration. Second, Hungary accepted ‘cheap’ Russian gas in exchange for a Ukraine-like gas arrangements which depend on Orban’s political fortunes at home. Third, Hungary operates its gas network for the benefit Russian geopolitical aims. This arrangement threatens both Europe’s and Hungary’s drive for energy independence, system stability, and European energy security underpinned by interconnection between countries.
The Cost of Cheap Gas
The Hungarian movement into Russia’s embrace was done in the name of ‘cheap’ gas. Reportedly, the price dropped from the oil-indexed price of $440 per thousand cubic meters (tcm) to $260 tcm, against a European gas-on-gas average price of $270 tcm. Bingo! Nonetheless, the drop is significant when you consider this post listing previous 2013 prices in the EU (before our recent oil and gas price decline). Importantly, the deal renegotiated Hungary’s previous long-term contract with Gazprom enabling it to utilize its previous unused gas on the take-or-pay scheme. Although, this supply extension (from a trusted source I’m told) was already agreed to back in 2008 when E.ON owned the import rights. Thus in short, Hungary received very little from Russia for all the political and economic favoritism listed below.
But first let’s put these numbers into a regional perspective. The new price is based on non-oil based pricing, thus hub price. Bulgaria, for example in 2012, renegotiated its long-term contract between Bulgargaz and Gazprom increasing the gas hub based pricing to 20% from 10% previously. While OMV in January of this year, shifted to hub based pricing with Gazprom. Thus Hungary simply follows on this regional shift that began in 2008 and gets a somewhat lower price for being a good customer.
This temporary arrangement, rather than going with a new long-term contract, was done under the reasoning that current volatile gas and oil prices means Hungary may see further price drops in the future (er, or Russia might increase the price?). It is also enough time for Hungary and Russia lay plans for a gas link to Turkey. Importantly, for this article, election years in Hungary may occur in 2018 and 2022. Any change in government after 2018 will need to deal with the Russians at that point. Cooperation on gas and nuclear will need to continue.
Nonetheless, let’s not think in terms of only open market pricing – which Gazprom is not noted for. Particularly, when Putin shows up on your door. Rather let’s consider that Hungary’s European Union membership was openly sold for gas necessary to prop up artificial utility price cuts and for a trip wire gas deal – any shift in the governing party will result in more expensive gas. Cheap gas and political trip wires are key reasons for the past political instability in Ukraine, in other measures Orban is also shifting Hungary to the Ukrainian gas model.
The overall actions of the Hungarian government during Putin’s visit demonstrate Hungarian historical values are neither respected nor honored. Rather, shameful Hungarian historical political tendencies bared themselves by Putin and Orban’s negation of the living memories of Hungarians break from the Soviet sphere in 1956 and 1989. But Hungarian society, the one that I know, is waking up. The Hungarian people reacted to Orban’s governing style, and no doubt Putin’s visit, by taking away his two-thirds majority in Parliament in a local by-election this week, February 23rd. There is no social return to Russia’s barracks.
The Hungarian populace is firmly in the EU. In contrast Orban openly embraces Russia in the pursuit of cheap energy sources, in the form of gas shipments and new nuclear power plant agreement. This pursuit belies a more efficient scenario where Hungary’s EU membership serves as a basis for a more secure and interconnected system that provides sustainable priced electricity and gas. EU presence in negotiations can also boost Hungarian gas deals. Following the EU path both honors Hungary’s European membership and advances national and EU energy independence.
Political reasons are behind Orban’s friendship with Putin. Hungary has cut electricity and gas prices more than 25% since 2012. During the 2014 local elections advertisements existed across the country proclaiming the energy price cuts; in 2013 there was an open government funded PR war against foreign owned utilities – even a petition drive! The price cuts, while good for households in the short term, have significant impacts on the energy system.
These prices are resulting in private gas and electricity companies hemorrhaging cash for residential customers. Eni, the Italian gas and oil company Hungarian gas subsidiary, TIGAZ, is accumulating financial debts nearing its capitalization. The Hungarian government is racing to set up its own for profit service provider in 2015 (although they say it is non-profit, it is registered as for-profit). This is necessary to take over the universal consumer obligation. The private distribution companies, owned by ENI, RWE, E.ON do not need to file again to be universal service providers to supply electricity and gas at a loss on the regulated market to households. Nonetheless, to be fair to the Hungarian government, these and other companies did have years to foster a competitive market for households and they never did. The question though is how to foster a fair market price without bankrupting companies.
The losses on the regulated market can be taken over by the Hungarian state, which has conveniently placed the ‘non-profit’ entity in the Hungarian Development Bank. However, the placement of many energy entities – such as a gas trading entity, into the bank raises red flags. The potential exists for capital injections into the bank, by the government to result in cross-subsidized losses. The bank incurs losses, through its ownership of the service provider, but the government makes up for these losses by capital infusions into the bank. However, under the gas agreement the current 25% cut likely be maintained without losses, thus Putin delivered Orban a golden egg – with Putin keeping the goose.
(In the past few months I have submitted questions on this topic to the Hungarian government and state owned companies but my requests for interviews were all declined. The Hungarian energy regulator did speak to me about the technical reasons for cutting gas off to Ukraine in September 2014 – a contract from Naftogaz was never returned).
The Hungarian energy system now operates under the same politically driven concerns as the bankrupt Bulgarian energy system. As a starter, under Orban and the Fidesz super majority in Parliament, the operating profits of the Hungarian utility sector as a whole flipped from a profit of HUF 224 billion in 2009 to HUF 119 billion loss in 2012. Bulgaria is at least attempting to dig itself out of these past practices, which has placed the Bulgarian state owned energy company, NEK in debt of €767 million in the past four years. (well, it now recognizes these losses, so maybe it will act). Hungary is just lowering the ladder to go down this hole.^ Orban is right, he does need Russian gas to have cheap energy for consumers. The significant losses by utilities and the re-organization of the Hungarian energy market demonstrates this.[For more on information on the similarities of Hungarian and Bulgarian energy systems see this (draft) co-authored article].
Driving further dependence on Russia is Hungary’s reduction of interconnector capacity between Hungary – Austria (HAG), and Hungary – Slovakia. The HAG has 3 bcm, but Hungarian state owned MVM holds a monopoly on the capacity granted by the Hungarian Parliament in 2011 citing energy supply security as justification. Capacity is extremely limited and widespread media coverage given to a partially Russian owned firm, MET, holding a special arrangement with MVM on importing and reselling gas into Hungary through HAG. The other owners are reported in the Hungarian media as being politically connected in Hungary.
The story of the Hungarian-Slovak interconnector is short. Meant to open in January 2015, ‘technical reasons’ keep this 5 BCM pipe closed. In addition, operating rules are delayed while they are being modified. The importance of the SK-HU pipeline is viewed by the fact that German Chancellor Merkel in her February visit with Orban, brought up the use of this interconnector by RWE. As is clear, Putin has Orban’s ear, not Merkel. It remains unknown when this pipe will open.
Constraining Hungarian import and export capacity also constrains volume and price liquidity on the Hungarian market. This would erode MVM’s and Gazprom’s lock on the Hungarian gas market and even allow export to Ukraine. Evidence of this can already be seen in the relatively huge profits booked by MET through its deal with MVM shipping gas from Austria. In 2010, MET had HUF 44 billion revenue in 2010, by 2012, the company had HUF 280 billion in revenue and “paid 60 billion in dividends to its owners, 2.5 times more than the overall dividends paid by the whole group of foreign incumbents in the same year.”* Or as mentioned above, the utility sector as a whole experienced a HUF 119 billion loss in 2012. Other market players receive no such treatment, instead they are burdened by both special sectoral taxes and regulated utility rates. The losses in Hungary may only be comparable to Bulgaria – not a model energy system, plagued by riots and constant court battles between utilities and governments.
In terms of the SK-HU interconnector, RWE would benefit by both exporting to Ukraine and servicing Hungary’s industrial sector, which are stuck with Russian gas. In addition, Orban promised Putin not to re-export Russian gas to Ukraine, further restricting gas that could flow to Ukraine.
Market liquidity enables Hungarian industry to build managed gas portfolios enabling them to leverage a variety of gas trading mechanisms to hedge and play with market pricing. These should be done on a liquid Hungarian gas exchange which is operated by MVM’s CEEGEX. Instead, western European gas is limited in Hungary.
Under current rules, Hungary operates a ‘free trade zone’ for gas in its state owned gas storage facilities. Gas traded between entities is confidentially reported to the Hungarian energy regulator. No tax is paid until withdrawal happens. Thus, Gazprom is able to ship gas to Hungary, the gas can be traded multiple times, and only once it is withdrawn from storage does the price become known. Non-transparency is a friend of Gazprom. Just as huge profits are booked from imports from Austria by the selected MET, who buys and trades with MVM, the stored gas remains opaque. Bi-lateral contracts while legal, should be pushed towards the exchange. Hungary already has CEEGEX where all free-trade zone gas should be openly traded and would serve Hungary and the region well. Orban has a vision to develop Hungary as a gas trading hub. Restricting imports and exports reduces Hungary’s regional potential.
The necessity to increase Russia’s gas storage in Hungary was prevalent last fall when Hungary needed Gazprom to store gas in Hungary because it did not purchase enough over the summer months. After Hungary purchased the storage company from E.ON in 2013, the new owners in their first year were waiting for market participants to fill up the storage. With the Hungarian energy system already running a huge deficit, and the Hungarian government slapping taxes on everything from coffee beans to maintaining its 27% VAT, the country is hard pressed to pay for gas.
One of the key outcomes of the recent Putin-Orban deal was Hungary now only pays for stored Russian gas once it is used. This means Hungary does not need to pay for gas sitting unused in its storage facilities. Security of its gas supply is now handled by the Russians. This is important, as was the case this past year, where Hungary had expensive Russian gas sitting in its storage while the hub price next door in Austria was significantly lower. This may be one reason, the HAG interconnector has a stuffy nose.
This agreement for storage between Putin and Orban also validates my previous argument explaining why Hungary stopped gas shipments to Ukraine and was not able to fill-up its storage during summer. By September 2014, it was clear the Hungarian government needed Moscow’s help. Thus the gas storage deal was struck in September and shipments to Ukraine blocked to make way for the deluge of Russian gas into the Hungarian gas system – or so the official explanation goes. (Coincidentally shipments stopped after Orban met with Gazprom CEU Alexei Miller in September 2014, previously I gave Orban the benefit of the doubt, no longer).
The agreement over flexible storage amounts and timing of payments is also reminiscent of Ukrainian dependency on Russian gas. In the past, Ukraine’s inability to pay for gas placed it under the thumb of Moscow. When Ukrainian political leadership changed, it also meant a significant price increase for the European friendly government. The new flexible agreement with Putin and Orban further opens the way for any post-Orban political era – which the Hungarian people are beginning to contemplate. Future gas negotiations will need to occur in 2019-2020, time enough to check in on Hungary to see how well Paks is progressing (the start of construction), gas price shifts, Hungary’s stance on EU energy integration, and after the 2018 elections.
The impact that Orban’s embrace of Russia is already apparent. Neighboring Slovakia is planning EuStream which seeks to build an interconnector with Romania and routing the gas via Bulgaria to the Southeast market. This avoidance of Hungary goes against Hungary’s historical attempts to unify both the CEE and SEE region into a tightly integrated gas market. In 2007, Hungary’s MOL took the initiative in its New European Transmission System (NETS) to lead the way. I personally sat in one of the first meetings and it was clear while MOL was taking the lead, it was political resistance in the other countries that held back the concept. Now we see Hungary attempting to maintain its political control and influence over the region, with neighboring states planning to avoid Hungary.
The pipelines leading into Hungary from Austria, Slovakia and Ukraine, under current operations, should be viewed as strongly influenced from the strong friendship that exists between Orban and Putin. It is apparent from many of Orban’s public statements that he views Hungary being under the tutelage of Russia. Despite calls that Hungary’s energy sovereignty must be protected at all costs. The cost is a battle with the EU over Hungary’s low energy prices, not with Russian energy dependency.
Quixotically, the result is reliance on Russian gas and nuclear technology. The definition of ‘sovereignty’ in recent history holds its place in the last great international relations era when the Soviet Union existed. Thus for this argument of energy sovereignty to even make sense, it must be defined as energy dependence with political and economic sovereignty at home. Unfortunately, if we look at Ukraine, not only have they lost territorial sovereignty, political sovereignty was violated when Russia increased their gas price as retribution for being EU leaning.
When Orban speaks of sovereignty he speaks of his own political sovereignty – retribution will come for new political leadership not aligned to Russia. Putin’s pipeline’s are no longer just transit pipelines. Hungary maintains energy security restrictions on the HAG, flips on and off the tap to Ukraine, and has technical difficulties with getting its interconnector up and running with Slovakia. All these align with Russia’s aim of restricting regional gas flows. In the past I have usually given Hungarian authorities the benefit of the doubt on these technical matters. Sometimes, it is good to question authority.
The Message: Orban left Europe
The stern and cold messages sent by both Chancellor Merkel (before Putin’s visit), who didn’t know what to make of Orban’s admiration of ‘illiberal democracy’, Polish Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz who held, “honest and difficult talks” with Orban (after Putin’s visit), Slovakia routing neighboring pipelines around Hungary, Romania’s intelligence chief considers Hungary untrustworthy, and Ukraine invites the regional heads of state for a commemoration, but not Hungarian, these all send a clear message: Orban cleaved Hungary from Europe.
The European project founded on energy security and dependency is firmly rejected by the current Hungarian government. All European energy systems are nationally focused, but only those systems most open to corruption and voter manipulation, like the case of Bulgaria or Ukraine, firmly reject integration, transparency, and cooperation with neighboring countries. The European energy system pushes market transparency and integration in the pursuit of prices that sustain and develop the energy system.
In contrast, secret middle of the night nuclear deals, opaque financing of energy utilities, state controlled pricing, coincidental limitations on imported gas, all underpinned by a hotline friendship – with a leader of a country that formerly occupied your own country, and just invaded your neighbor, but who gave you some ‘cheap’ gas, to help your politically controlled energy system, reads like a Russian novel, with things never ending well for the main characters.
On top of our Russian novel, none of Orban’s actions can be labelled as energy sovereignty. Rather, as we can see from Ukraine, energy dependency creates political instability, under investment in the energy system, corruption and the maintenance of a political distance from Europe. Stepping out of Russia’s line results in swift reprisals.
February 17th, 2015, Orban was the lone man out in Europe for opening Hungary to Putin. The pursuit of cheap gas, the rejection of Europe’s new Energy Union and embrace of a former occupier signals Hungary’s political, economic and energy dependence on Russia. This new relation is dependent on Hungary’s nuclear power deal withstanding EU scrutiny, sustained ‘cheap’ Russian gas and Hungary threatening to block EU diversification efforts through the Energy Union. Hungary stands with the opaque political governance model of Russia, not the transparent governance model of the EU.
Nonetheless, as Hungary’s long history shows, the Hungarian people do kick the Russians out. The price Orban got for gas is already too much for most Hungarians.
^LaBelle, Michael, and Atanas Georgiev. “The Socio-Political Capture of Utilities: The Expense of Low Energy Prices in Bulgaria and Hungary.” University of Eastern Finland, Joensuu, Finland, 2015.
*Felsmann, Balazs. “Winners and Losers on the Liberalized Energy Sector in Hungary: A Co-Evolutionary Approach.” Budapest, 2014.
The Governor of New York just banned hydraulic fracturing for extracting shale gas. Here’s my very brief reaction from the NYT editorial. I don’t think any of this should be based on the idea that this was done based on ‘only’ scientific information – or even partially. The wider issues are:
Headlines: Shale gas is no longer the story, shale oil is.
Economics: The US is flushed with ‘fracked’ oil and gas. Impacting global prices and geopolitics.
Economics: The fall in oil and gas prices pumps up the US economy and punishes non-democratic states (um, excluding Norway). This has a profound impact – see the Russian Ruble (or is it rubble?) and even the cancellation of South Stream gas pipeline and possible cancellation/delay of expansion of Hungary’s Paks nuclear power plan
Political: Banning extraction of shale gas at this point – with low oil and gas prices, probably doesn’t do much for the US industry as a whole since investments are being cut. I’m sure there are some figures, but lots of gas now comes from shale oil fields – as secondary extraction.
Political: NYC drinking water comes from much of the region proposed for hydraulic fracturing.
Social: Society gets clean water, they have cheap energy (see above) so all is well for the time being.
So in the end, by banning shale gas extraction, at a time with low or no investment in this sector, due to low domestic and global prices, combined with strong social opposition – that would take years to resolve in courts, I don’t see the downsides to the industry, markets or people. A win-win for all. Well, at least at this point. The impact of shale gas and oil extraction on the US and global economy is significant enough to propel a domestic and international energy agenda forward. So I don’t think we have seen the end or the beginning of the end to shale gas and oil.
We have a date. January 1, 2015 when the gas can start to flow from Hungary to Ukraine. This according to reports from a meeting held between Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel. Hungary needs until then to keep pumping gas from Russia, through Ukraine into Hungary – thus it can’t do any reverse flow to help the Ukrainian’s out.
I think I was too charitable on a piece I published a few weeks ago about Hungary suspending gas to Ukraine. I said this would only take a few weeks – this assumption was from earlier reports stating this was the time needed to ship gas to Hungary. Magically, that’s not the case. I always try to take the conservative view and be generous to the Hungarian position, but I see this may result in under emphasizing Hungary’s dependency on Russia.
The gas that will be shipped to Ukraine in January 2015 will come via the new pipeline with Slovakia – which Orban emphasized will need to be non-Russian gas. Although, it remains a question of why the current (artificial) arrangement of gas coming from Austria being shipped to Ukraine does not work. Mind you, it is hard to separate gas molecules, so it becomes a technical (or even a slight-of-hand) question of who’s gas ends up in Ukraine. If Hungary is stopping reverse flows to Ukraine for this long of a duration, to accept Russian gas, then the capacity used should be reduced in order to facilitate west-east reverse flows. But apparently, this was not part of the deal between the Russians and Hungarians. This longer duration amplifies my earlier comments of Hungary being constrained by the Russians.
The question remaining unresolved is whether Hungary is punishing Ukraine on purpose, or the Russians forced Hungary to stop assistance to Ukraine. Since my last article I’ve had conversations with people that brings up this dilemma, but my original analysis still stands. In either case, significant explanations must be given – beyond putting Hungary first, as claimed by Orban, as to why Hungary does not assist Ukraine.
If my assumption in my first article on Hungary still stands, a financially weak Hungary is dependent on Russian good will, then the EU must shape its internal policies to account for Hungary being in the Russian camp.
I recently was asked by a Hungarian official why everyone thought Hungary was doing what Russia wanted in the EU. He simply refused to accept this and viewed Russia as a threat to Hungary. I have no doubt his comments and belief were genuine. However, there are two levels of cooperation with the Russians. The first is ‘positive’ in building an energy system. This includes South Stream and expanding Paks – both highly promoted by the Orban government. The second level is ‘negative’ and actively works against EU positions. This means punishing an enemy of Russia (Ukraine), in both of its support against sanctions on Russia and cutting gas off to Ukraine. Since this is the case, it is fair to ask how Hungary is meeting its EU commitments. Because at the end of the day – the Hungarian people still view the EU as a more positive partner than Russia. Thus it is the Hungarian government that pursues, for its own agenda, alignment with Russia.
But even if we consider there is a grey area in Hungary cutting off gas to Ukraine, the main question is whether Hungary was forced into this position, so Russia could advance its position in an EU member state, or does Hungary have another agenda in using its gas and its interconnector pipelines for political and economic ends? In either case, the position Hungary has taken projects weakness and not strength which Orban constantly promotes. A weak Hungary is a danger for both the EU and its neighbors. Its now time for Hungary to get back in line with the EU energy security policy and not be the outlier. And here is why:
If Hungary is forced/willing to use its geographic position in east-west gas transit for political and economic means what other components of CEE/SEE energy security apparatus will Hungary use to project its power? At CEU we recently had Radu Dudau from Bucharest University give a lecture of energy in the Black Sea region. He pointed out that the Hungarian government with its large holding in MOL, and its ownership stake in Croatia INA provides a leverage point the Russians can play. Thus, if Russia can pressure and/or Hungary willingly blocks gas to Ukraine, how will other energy projects be treated by Budapest.
I think this Moscow-Budapest-MOL-INA connection was a great point. Because as Professor Dudau stated, if Russia has influence through Hungary and MOL, then any LNG terminal in Croatia, whether INA or MOL owned, becomes operationally dependent on Moscow and Budapest deals. Thus Russia indirectly controls the gas market in the Southeast and in Eastern Europe. Any efforts to build gas independency from Russia is thwarted because Moscow has leverage in Budapest which is willing/forced to accept how the network and the Croatian LNG terminal operate. Russia has been actively seeking to secure control in Croatia’s energy sector for years, and now it may have a willing partner.
It may be more profitable for the Hungarians to be reimbursed by Russia for any LNG losses (or preventing it being built). The huge debt Hungary is taking on to expand Paks nuclear plant with the Russian loan, already places Hungary into a weaker position. Russia can leverage this over Croatian LNG. In addition, the constant drive for lower electricity and gas prices in Hungary only feeds the country’s vulnerability to Russian influence. Hungary is dependent on cheaper and cheaper gas to keep consumer rates low. To get lower rates, it becomes more servile towards Russia to get it. Not the strong and proud Hungary Orban claims is being built. The emerging energy and economic weakness of Hungary undermines attempts to increase energy security and independence from Russian gas. All of the southeast and eastern Europe are exposed to Russian influence through Hungary – if Hungary chooses to support Russian policies in the region. The gas wars can spread beyond the Russian/Ukraine border and enter the EU. I believe this has already happened. Hungary needs to resume gas exports to Ukraine, and stop supporting Russia’s position.
As a concluding note (because this is very cool), I’ve written this in Lesvos, Greece while at the University of the Aegean. I’m looking right now across the Aegean Sea to Turkey. I can see it on the horizon. A revised Nabucco is essential for breaking the Russian grip. The EU needs to be very clear in sinking South Stream and building alternatives to Russian gas. Both Turkey and Greece are essential in making this happen. But more importantly, a strong and independent Hungary is the most important. It should be made very clear to the Hungarian government, just as my Hungarian acquaintance told me, that Hungary does not serve Russia. It is up to the Hungarian government leadership to ensure its independence and alignment with EU policies. Being a good neighbor would be a good first step to rectify poor policy choices. Let the gas flow to Ukraine!