Russia can cut our electricity faster than we synchronise with Europe

DELFI / Šarūnas Mažeika

The electricity network adjustment works which would technically allow the Baltic States to detach from the BRELL system will be completed earlier by Russia and Belarus than the Baltic States’ synchronisation with European electricity networks will be done, Lithuanian electricity transfer network Litgrid director general Daivis Virbickas observes. According to him such a blow would yield hundreds of millions of euro in losses. Meanwhile independent analyst Rytas Staselis says that the theoretical possibility for such a slight certainly exists, but in practice it is not large, writes.

President Dalia Grybauskaitė‘s advisor to domestic policy questions Mindaugas Lingė stated at the start of the year that one of the most important tasks this year will be the Baltic States’ electricity network synchronisation with continental Europe. For a time the project had halted due to disagreements in the Baltic States’ visions, it is hoped that it will proceed faster after a political agreement between the Baltics that awaits in June. However Latvia and Estonia’s commitment continues to cause concern. The risk is also rising across the border in Belarus and Russia.

“Russia will disconnect the Baltic States from the energy system already in 2018,” a headline from the Kremlin loudspeaker stated at the end of last year. Though it would appear that the adjustment works in Russia and Belarus can take longer than Russian media claims and would end in late 2020, a theoretical possibility that the Baltic States may be disconnected from BRELL (A Moscow controlled electricity network for Belarus, Russia, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) may appear earlier than the Baltics will be prepared for synchronisation with continental Europe (2025).

Losses in the hundreds of millions

According to D. Virbickas, in case of a blackout occurring the losses would reach tens, if not hundreds of millions.

“Let us consider the situation the country would land in if a blackout occurred: business consumes 70% of electricity, industry is what generates GDP. Every day more than 100 million euro GDP is created, but during a blackout business would grind to a halt. After 2-5 days a system recovery would occur and only then businesses could resume their rhythm.

At the domestic level the situation would appear like this: most citizens would call, some would seek their children in kindergartens or school, everyone would drive out into the streets, the street lights wouldn’t work, chances of getting a call through would be limited because battery lifetimes in the cell towers would only last a few hours,” he said.

According to D. Virbickas, so called blackouts are expensive and painful, it’s a fact, but it is unlikely whether it would be fair to compare its costs with the investment in the infrastructure needed for synchronisation.

“There are countries which did not manage to avoid it. The USA, Italy and Germany have faced it. Thus we are also preparing. The source of the electricity cut may vary. For example in Germany it happened when a ship going down the Elbe River led to too many lines being disconnected at once. In the US there were many power cuts due to heat. It can also happen due to strong winds.

In our case alongside natural phenomena, a geopolitical factor exists – a wide border with Belarus and Russia. And relations in this state development stage are such that from Russian state leaders we hear statements that directives are being sent to Russian energy companies to prepare to disconnect from the BRELL network. We have to prepare for such cases and that we are,” D. Virbickas assured.

Independent analyst R. Staselis says he believes that the risk for such actions by Russia exists, however does not see it as a likely risk.

“Some ten years ago a Russian official said that such an action would be equivalent to the declaration of war. It is not that simple to disconnect electricity networks, it leads to vast losses. However theoretically, keeping in mind who our Eastern neighbours are, I can’t really dismiss such a possibility,” R. Staselis said.

Hoping Latvian and Estonian resolve will remain

In June this year a political agreement between the Baltic States is planned which would open the way for the synchronisation project to be implemented at full pace. Up to mid-December the Latvians and Estonians obstructed the project with their doubts, however contacts believe that the agreement will be signed, albeit are unwilling to uncork victory champagne yet.

“I would really want to say that there are no risks prior to the political agreement in June, that the Latvians or Estonians won’t hesitate, but I cannot. On the other hand as an operator, we mustn’t focus on the political line, the works that Litgrid is responsible for are proceeding on schedule,” D. Virbickas notes.

R. Staselis believes that the agreement should be ratified in June because the European Commission committed to oversee not just what will happen in June, but also the technical and political agenda up to June.

“Certain reference points are assigned where the European Commission will control how the process is going, including political processes.

That said, since the question of synchronisation is political in Estonia since it was seeking synchronisation with the Scandinavian states and the whole Estonian elite worked toward it, they view a different variant as a political loss. It could be that the Estonians will want a compensation of some sort for this, but I believe that their principal position should no longer change. Meanwhile the Latvians do not hold initiative, they always seek certain benefits from countries that do have initiative,” he noted.

D. Virbickas says he cannot explain why the Latvians and Estonians are not overly convinced by the argument of Russian and Belarussian adjustments.

“It is hard to answer, you should ask them, however the Estonians would likely work in isolation, they have such capacities. It would appear that these possibilities are one of the reasons why they view Russian and Belarussian intentions calmly,” the head of Litgrid mused.

R. Staselis notes that an important argument is that synchronisation with continental Europe is the best way to avoid electricity from Astravyets.

Kaliningrad – no longer an issue

When talks began of the Baltic States’ synchronisation with continental Europe and disconnecting from BRELL, the question was raised, how it would influence the electricity supply for Kaliningrad, it is specified as an object for debate between Brussels, Moscow and Minsk.

According to D. Virbickas, Kaliningrad currently requires some 700 mW of electricity, while the exclave produces 900 mW and exports the surplus to Lithuania. There are plans to build another 1000 mW capacities in Kaliningrad – small, flexible power plants which, as the Russians state, are intended for “risk management”.

Meanwhile R. Staselis says that Kaliningrad is no longer the problem of the Baltics or Europe: “When the idea of synchronisation with Europe was raised, the European Commission wanted to link the question with Kaliningrad. The then Rosatom program director Sergey Boyarkin stated that if the Baltics synchronise with continental Europe, Kaliningrad would do too.

Later a scandal arose, Rosatom wanted to deny the position and after a few months Vladimir Putin clearly outlined that Kaliningrad will never be synchronised with continental Europe and would ensure the necessary capacities by itself.”

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