Lithuania has recently made major strides towards boosting its energy security and independence from Russia, with the two power interconnections inaugurated last week, LitPol Link and NordBalt, the latest additions to a long list of recently finished energy projects.
Lithuania was lauded as one of Europe's energy security leaders at an EU Council meeting last week while US Secretary of State John Kerry also praised the country as a leader and a reliable partner. However, a big challenge still lies ahead, synchronizing Lithuania's power grid with that of Western Europe. That will require an agreement among the three Baltic States and Poland.
An agreement is not yet even on the horizon but there is no time to waste. Political analysts said that 25 years after the Baltic States became independent countries, they cannot be called a region that works together towards common goals.
The NordBalt interconnection with Sweden and LitPol Link with Poland will allow Lithuania to buy electricity from the markets in Scandinavia and Europe, but they do little to advance the Baltics' energy security. Lithuania will still be importing power through current converters, because the Baltic States are still part of the so-called BRELL power network which includes Latvia, Estonia, Belarus and Russia. BRELL is a component part of Russia's energy system and is managed by a board in Moscow.
This is a real liability because Russia has shown on numerous occasions it is not above using energy as a policy tool, said Dr Juozas Augutis, head of the Energy Security Research Centre.
"No one would do it under normal circumstances, but if there is a crisis, not even a war but something close to a conflict, they [Russia] could sanction disturbances in the network or even power cuts," he said.
Moreover, Lithuania's new interconnections will allow Russia to sell its electricity into Europe. Lithuanian politicians have sounded alarm bells about two new nuclear power plants in Kaliningrad and Belarus, which are being constructed in defiance of international safety agreements and are only viable economically if the electricity can be exported to Western Europe.
But even without the new plants, Russia can use Lithuania's interconnections to export cheap power produced by its 11 RBMK nuclear reactors close to the Baltic States.
Russian media reported an accident in the second block of Leningrad Nuclear Power Plant near Saint Petersburg last Friday when, due to a cooling system failure, a cloud of steam was released into the atmosphere. The plant's management denied that the cloud, which was blown towards Estonia and Finland, was radioactive, although all the plant workers were sent home. Russia's notorious disregard for environmental and safety standards could be a firm basis for the European Union not buying Russian power, cheaper or not.
Lithuania's Energy Minister Rokas Masiulis said that there were ways to restrict power imports from Russia, but that would need inter-governmental agreements. "We are talking about taxes and import or export tariffs. However, one country cannot do it alone. All countries need to agree to adopt the same tariffs," he said.
Agreeing among themselves has proven a challenge for the Baltic States even when it comes to crucial regional projects.
Lithuania is seeking to synchronize its grid with the UCTE network which covers most of Europe and Turkey. It could do it via Poland, in which case European switchboard technicians would take over the management of Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian transmission grids.
Two years ago, the European Commission said it would financially assist such a project and, last year, an action plan was put together. Unfortunately, uncertainty about Lithuania's plans to build a new nuclear power plant, which has been in limbo for the last four years, is preventing the Polish government from green-lighting the construction of the second interconnection, LitPol link-2.
Henryk Majchrzak, the head of Poland's transmission system operator PSE, said that his government cannot move ahead with major decisions before the future of the Visaginas Nuclear Power Plant is clear.
"We must know for certain what the future of the Visaginas NPP is because this plant will have a significant impact on our energy system," Majchrzak said.
Energy Minister Masiulis said that without the second interconnection with Poland, synchronization would be difficult to accomplish, whatever the fate of the Visaginas plant.
Lithuania's former energy minister Jaroslav Neverovič said that if Poland agreed to synchronize its power grid with those of the Baltic States, it would have the responsibility of guaranteeing uninterrupted power supply.
There are also plans, proposed by Estonia, to synchronize the Baltic grids with the much smaller Nordic power network NORDEL via Finland. Estonian Prime Minister Taavi Roivas said that there was a study in progress to see which synchronization plan made more sense.
However, former Lithuanian energy minister Neverovič is not convinced. He said that by rejecting the more traditional synchronization via overground interconnections with Poland the Estonians were simply stalling the matter. He said while their offer was innovative, it was as yet untested.
"This might mean that they are not taking the offer [of synchronization via Poland] seriously and are looking for ways to protract the conversation without saying outright that it is not a priority for them," Neverovič said.
Could it be then that the only successful joint project that Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia will have ever managed to agree is the 1989 Baltic Way human chain?
"It is becoming increasingly apparent that Baltic unity over the last 25 years has been a rhetorical statement more than anything else, since what we see in practice is competition, diverging interests and, I'd say, mistrust," said analyst Linas Kojala of the Eastern Europe Studies Centre. "The LNG terminal is just a case in point; initially it was supposed to be a regional project, but eventually Lithuania, probably partly because it was suspicious of Latvia, decided to build it unilaterally. Clearly, there is little substance to the talk of a region with shared goals and cooperation."
Meanwhile the European Commission has urged the Baltic States to arrive at a common solution for the synchronization - be it with UCTE or NORDEL - as soon as possible, before the EU structural fund support for them expires in 2020. It is estimated that leaving the BRELL network and joining any of the continental European systems would cost up to €800 million.
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