If we put a magic wand in a child’s hand, he would most likely wish for a room full of toys. Many of us construct our happiness through the word “more”: more fashionable clothes, more exotic travel, a more spacious home, a more powerful car, writes Kęstutis Kupšys, a Member of the European Economic and Social Committee and the Vice-President of the Lithuanian Consumers Alliance.
Until now, consumers, as the word itself shows, have been understood as a part of the economic system that is necessary for the consumption of goods and services produced by the industry or the service sector.
Any limits on consumption, such as “what” “how much” “when” “which one”, were not considered, as it was understood by default that consumption was needed as much as possible, and high consumption was (still is?) synonymous with a good life.
And right now, as the world changes, we are gradually realising that it is not the volume of consumption that is most important. Paradoxically, real prosperity can only come under one condition – we need to be able to limit consumption itself. Now, both consumers and their advocacy organisations are beginning to recognise that it is no longer possible to consume in the same way and at the same rate as before because the Earth’s natural limit has been reached and exceeded.
We already need different models of society based on the need to limit ourselves to what we have and to be able to use nature’s resources and man-made production more wisely.
A plan for a journey into a green future
The new Lithuanian Government’s recent set of plans and measures, presenting its actions over the next four years, gives hope that we are moving in the right direction at least in a few areas. This means that we already know how society will change and how that unlimited consumption will be driven to become different, smarter.
The role of the Government as a collector and distributor of resources is to look to the future. Notably, this Government is already beginning to think about what will happen in 10-15, maybe even 20-30 years, and not just about how to win the next election. This is evident from the fact that it is guiding part of the money to “greener” directions, and the Government and its various departments are already realising that society also needs to be oriented differently.
Need proof? Until recently, it seemed that any effort to introduce a tax to limit the purchase of polluting cars was doomed to fail. A few years ago, I was ridiculed at an event when I advocated for just taxation, with my opponents proclaiming that “we live in Lithuania, the land of diesel cars”.
However, in 2021, we are considering that the current limited extent registration tax is no longer sufficient and stronger measures are required to clean up the vehicle fleet.
The changes are noticeable even in the form of small things. This year, with the Ministry of Justice allocating funds (albeit absurdly small) to consumer organisations, money has emerged for a project to combat ‘green-washing’! That’s fantastic! Such a gesture from the Ministry of Justice is a unique step, which is significant for consumer organisations’ contribution to a different construction of the future. (Important disclosure note: I’m not talking about the project funding won by Lithuanian Consumers Alliance, which I represent, but about our other non-affiliated colleagues working in the same field.)
Looking at the Government Program Implementation Plan, which draws its commitment for allocating resources in 2021-2024, we noticed a few interesting things. Firstly, there seems to be a definitive shift from polluting to non-polluting technologies, and from fossil to renewable energy sources. Secondly, we see the Government’s ambition (perhaps using the EU’s RRF – Recovery and Resilience Facility – funds) to build energy storage facilities with a capacity of 200 MW (megawatt) and 200 MWh (megawatt-hours), worth about EUR 100 million.
(Need a comparison? A typical electric car battery has 40 kWh capacity; so, a 200 MWh mega-battery would correspond to the total capacity of 5000 Nissan Leaf or similar car batteries).
The battery park is a very important initiative, because when the system has excess energy, it can be stored, and if necessary, it can be transferred from the mega-battery to the system and smooth out fluctuations. Such an additional flexibility will allow integrating much more renewable energy sources (RES) into the Lithuanian energy system. The larger battery park we have, the better.
Experts say the 4 MW energy storage facilities will allow for the additional installation of about 100 MW of power from renewable energy sources (such as solar power rooftop installations or large megawatt-scale solar parks). It is estimated that a 200 MW electricity storage facility would allow to integrate between 2500 MW (in case of electricity system need to balance RES “up” and “down”) and 5000 MW (in case of electricity system need to balance RES only “up” or only “down”) renewable energy generation capacity. Such services are not currently provided in our energy system – and without storage there are no prospects to significantly increase the share of solar or wind power in the Lithuanian energy system.
Apparently, fears about Kruonis Pump Storage Plant must be put aside. If we say we are building the fifth unit, why not think about all eight? Kruonis is a unique object, an artificial hydroelectric power plant with pumps that lift the water up, and lets it flow down to generate electricity.
We do not have mountain rivers in Lithuania, but we have the elevated Kruonis basin, with which we can produce energy ourselves when it is needed, and when there is a surplus produced by RES in the system, we can raise the water and keep it ready for start-up. It works like a pure money machine, especially when we have this power station tied to cheap solar or wind energy.
A country of strong people needs higher ambition
Therefore, we ask the Government: if there is room for a 200 MW “battery” in the Lithuanian energy system, why can’t there be room for 400 MW? Yes, that means an additional EUR 100 million or a higher investment, but it is necessary to consider whether such an investment would be extremely visionary. Or maybe it is better to put RRFs millions into melioration? Would the latter case ensure we are a step closer to the Paris climate goals?
It is important particularly regarding the fact that there are already projects in the world where old depleted electric car batteries are taken to remote areas, combined and turned into battery parks. They no longer meet the needs of demanding users for fast charging but can still serve for many years in a less intensive operation.
If there are projects in the world on how to resurrect old batteries, adapt them to store electricity in the grid, then why wouldn’t Lithuania take a similar R&D project and commercialise it in the next four years?
After all, solving the problem of energy storage would open up more opportunities to produce it ourselves rather than import it. Lithuania has an energy deficit, which is now being solved by importing electricity from the surrounding countries. Instead, we shouldn’t be afraid to build even more solar and wind farms.
A truly ambitious Government’s project would be a National Solar Park: state-owned but funded by people through Green Retail Savings Bonds programme, for example.
Lithuania is not considering solar energy to such a scale yet, but it could – I’m talking about 1 GW (gigawatt). This solar park could be located in different regions of Lithuania in order not to create too much load in one area, but it is very important that the management of such parks is centralized.
Such an object cannot be “scattered” among individual owners, as the advantages of centralized energy system management must be used. Although major state projects have been criticized (as being inefficient by “default”), energy is an exceptional area.
Lithuania has been developing a great collection of solar industry competencies for many years. Our creative people can design, build and successfully operate a solar park of any size.
Put together the National Solar Park and 200 thousand electric cars, which may appear in Lithuania in the next 15 years – the effect is incredible. At this rate, we could have a day when Lithuania will be fully self-sufficient in energy.
And I am not painting castles in the air here. Solar electricity has long been considered one of the cheapest. In case you missed it, the prices of photovoltaic cells went down about 12 times in the last decade. And how much “cheaper” is everyone’s “favourite” diesel if we compare 2011 and 2021?
Broad electrification as a solution
Lithuania is dependent on energy produced abroad. This is a very serious risk. If we use internal combustion engines, heat our homes with the help of diesel, use it in our agriculture sector intensively, we depend on the producers of liquid fuels and the prices they offer.
It is possible to do tricks, mix something with something (rapeseed additives, or worse – biofuels from palm oil), run on liquefied natural or liquefied petroleum gas, but a significant change will happen when we are able to produce and save energy in a clean and inexpensive way for transport, heating and food production.
All three of these insecurity points for the consumer are solved by using one simple word – electricity. The drive to mass electrification is already a common thing in the EU, but in Lithuania, we are still moving relatively slowly towards the widespread use of electricity and replacement of other kinds of energy. The problem – a lack of local electricity production.
For example, we have heard that if we replace the old electricity meters with smart ones for all Lithuanian families in one go, we would need additional EUR 70 million. Everyone will probably not feel the benefits of such a change on the first day. But if your meter were smart and showed instantaneous consumption (at the interval of least 15 minutes), it would be interesting to look at the electricity consumption curve at least occasionally, wouldn’t it?
Meet demand response scheme, as it is called. First, our domestic electricity tariff will depend on spot prices. Then, we would really start to change our consumption habits very quickly. After all, it’s that simple – postpone turning on the washing machine for the night rather than washing here and now at the most expensive evening tariff, right? We could start electrification by replacing electricity meters with smart ones, and that would be a very effective means of educating consumers.
Turning visions into a reality
The measures set out in the energy part of the Government Program Implementation Plan create the image of a sufficiently autonomous and clean energy-producing Lithuania.
This means that cars with fossil fuels and internal combustion engines will be replaced by electric vehicles, and the electricity itself will be produced in a green way. There will be another factor involved: by reducing air pollution, we will save financial and human resources, which are now wasted to deal with pollution-related diseases. In the EU, the amount of financial loss due to air pollution per year was calculated (before the pandemic) above the 80 billion EUR mark!
If we ensure better health for our citizens through access to clean energy and clean transport, we still have to take care of sustainable housing.
Sustainable housing means that it is heated (or cooled) using clean energy, renovated or newly and efficiently built. That is why we support “wooden renovation”.
Although there is still little information about this initiative, it seems that such a sustainable renovation is a measured, smart and world-fashionable way of renovation, following a nature-friendly path. There are no talks about deforestation – if there is less cement, it requires less energy and raw material costs to produce that cement. You probably didn’t know that cement production is responsible for 8 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions – now you know. If the cement industry were a country, it would be in third place in terms of emissions, after China and the United States.
If the combination of clean energy, clean mobility and “wooden renovation” helped people solve the problem of energy poverty, it could be said that the Government, led by PM Ingrida Šimonytė and Minister for Energy Dainius Kreivys led (yes, because energy is a key area!), is laying the foundations for a significant transformation of economic and social life over the next 10-15 years.
The scale of those changes may not be evident to everyone here and now, but they certainly won’t become a reality if we don’t try. And if we start doing something today, it is likely that in 10-15 years Lithuania can expect to live safer and quieter than before. But, please, let it be without immersing in excessive consumption.
Kęstutis Kupšys is a Member of the European Economic and Social Committee and the Vice-President of the Lithuanian Consumers Alliance.