The three Baltic republics want to switch their electricity grid from a Russian to a European system, but Moscow fears the move will cut off power to the country’s isolated and heavily armed Kaliningrad district.
The system switch will happen in a decade or so, but the region is already pushing hard to cut its power dependency on Russia.
Two electricity interconnectors linking Lithuania with Poland and Sweden will start functioning in a couple of months, allowing the Baltics to boost its links to the EU’s grid.
Those new connections will have to use expensive converters to switch to the Soviet-era system running the power grids in the Baltic countries. That’s something the three nations want to end.
Although the issue appears to be a technical one of voltages and frequencies, it is deeply political — part of a long-running desire to minimize the remaining ties that still bind the three countries to their old imperial master.
“We don’t want to be part of Russia in any way. If we are part of the European Union, we are part of the European Union,” said Estonian MEP Kaja Kallas.
The power grids of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia currently work synchronically with that of Russia and Belarus, meaning that all five countries’ transmission system operators function under the same electricity frequency and voltage and have the same backup rules in case of a power failure. Kaliningrad, the Russian exclave sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania along the Baltic Sea, is included in this system.
The system, called IPS/UPS, was created during the Soviet times and is largely managed centrally by Moscow. The rules are set up under the so-called BRELL agreement, signed in 2001, before the Baltic countries joined the EU in 2004. Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia made the jump to the EU’s Continental Synchronous Area in 1995.
The Baltic states say shifting systems will end their isolation from the EU’s grid and help with the integration of European power markets, part of the European Commission’s energy union project.
Meanwhile, Moscow complains that its interests are being disregarded. A Russian diplomat told POLITICO that Moscow fears the Baltic electrical emancipation would cut off Kaliningrad, home to Russia’s Baltic fleet.
Russia “is concerned about the energy security of Kaliningrad should the Baltic states leave the … agreement and desynchronize,” the Russian diplomat said. “Now it is working, but in case of desynchronization, Kaliningrad would be in a different situation than today.”
Kaliningrad is currently a net energy exporter, selling power to Lithuania, among others. But a disruption to the wider system would also throw into question the operations of Kaliningrad’s electricity system and solutions would have to be found to ensure it remains secure in terms of power supplies and balancing of the grid.
A 2013 study by Swedish consultancy company Gothia Power looked into three scenarios: Kaliningrad could also joint the EU system (a move which Russia would have to approve), it could stand on its own as a self-sufficient energy island under the Russian system, or the Baltic countries could continue under the Russian system. The report also found that the cost of changing systems is high “compared to the market benefits.”
“We should very clearly define what will be the future operation of the Kaliningrad region,” said Henryk Majchrzak, president of the management board of the Polish transmission system operator PSE, speaking at an energy conference at the European Parliament. “This is very, very important.”
Brussels and several nations — Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Denmark, Poland, Finland, Sweden and Germany — are already discussing the desynchronization issue in a special working group.
Moscow feels that the Baltic trio haven’t done enough to keep it informed of their energy plans.
“It is not our idea to desynchronize, so if they do it to get more security of supply, they need to think about our security, too,” the diplomat said. He added that besides oral statements about the countries’ intentions, Russia has not received any documents outlining steps being taken.
“We feel there is a lack of contact on this issue,” he said.
The BRELL agreement does not prohibit parties from quitting, but it does require them not to leave the other members in a worse-off situation.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has questioned the Baltic states’ determination to leave the power system. In a June interview with Italian newspaper Il Corriere della Sera, he said there were no energy supply problems under the current arrangement. He also estimated that the Baltic states’ realignment with the European continental power system would cost Russia about €2-2.5 billion.
The money would go on extra transmission lines and generation capacity to ensure the system works without Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. There would also be a need for convertors at the borders of Russia and the Baltic states to ensure electricity could keep flowing across the region despite a change in system.
Russian officials also point out that BRELL is only a technical agreement and nothing prevents the Baltic states from trading electricity with other EU neighbors. That’s something all three are already doing with Nordic countries. Finland is linked up with Estonia and Estonia with Latvia. There are special converters installed at the borders to ensure the power can be switched from one system to the other.
But for the Baltic states, the issue is about much more than physical infrastructure.
“Probably we all agree that we cannot have a resilient energy union built on energy security if parts of it are dependent on Russia,” Vidmantas Macevičius, Lithuania’s deputy energy minister, said at the European Parliament. “To be fully part of the EU we will need to achieve not only infrastructure integration but also system integration.”
A Commission official said the goal is to complete the process by 2020 or 2025 at the latest.
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