Baltics to cut electric links to Russia, disagree on power trading until then

A dispute over future cross-border electricity purchases, which could soon include power from the Astravyets nuclear power plant in Belarus, has divided the three Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania as they move to break one of the last and very important Soviet-era ties to Russia — their links to the Russian electricity system.

Lithuania, worried about the safety of the soon-to-be completed Astravyets plant — just 50 kilometers from the nation’s capital Vilnius, has passed a law that no electricity will be purchased from the nuclear plant through the Russian network and wants the other Baltic countries to joint its “boycott”. Latvia and Estonia favor keeping open trading electricity with Russia until the final disconnection in 2025, when transmitting electricity across the borders will no longer be possible.

Officials say the differences have have not stopped work on coordinated projects costing hundreds of millions of euro to cut links to the Russian electricity network and join and synchronize with the EU’s electrical grid. However, the disagreement apparently kept Lithuania’s president Gitanas Nauseda from attending a planned meeting with his Latvian and Estonian counterparts — Egils Levits and Kersti Kaljulaid on the Estonia island of Saaremaa at the end of June.

Lithuania wants no part of Belarus’ nuclear electricity

For Estonia and Latvia, it also affects the options both countries have for purchasing and trading electricity with Russia and with each other. If they buy electricity from the Russian network once Astravyets is operating and Latvia then sells surplus power to Lithuania, the Lithuanians could complain they are indirectly supporting the Belarus facility.

“Latvia has a pragmatic approach. As long as we are in a unified zone with Russia, things should go on as they have been,” Edijs Šaicāns, director of the Energy Markets and Infrastructure unit of the Latvian Ministry of Economics told this Medium reporter.

The Astravyets nuclear power plant under construction a few years ago. Photo: Wikipedia

He said that once nuclear-generated electricity enters the Russian network and is sold to the Baltic countries, “it is just electrons along with all the other electrons in the grid.” Šaicāns stressed that “whether one buys electricity from it or not will not affect the safety of the nuclear plant.”

One solution could be to put pressure on Belarus from the EU to certify the safety of the Astravyets facility. Lithuania’s government has asked the European Commission (EC) to raise concerns about the safety of the plant with Minsk. Latvia’s President Levits has told local media he expects the EC to propose a solution acceptable to all three Baltic countries.

Timo Tatar, Deputy Secretary General for Energy at Estonia’s Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications, told Estonia media that “the Commission is offering a solution where the energy ministers would emphasize power plants in the region to be more tightly regulated in terms of safety.” The new proposal also provides guidelines of methods for when a third country power plant is deemed unsafe and does not meet the EU’s requirements.

Connecting and synchronization — the largest energy project in the Baltics

“Connecting the Baltic electricity networks to synchronized integration with the European electricity grid and integrating into the European single electricity market is the largest energy system transformation project in the Baltic states. It dates back to 2007 when discussions started at the political level,” according to Gatis Junghāns, a board member of Augstsprieguma tīkls (AST), Latvia’s high-voltage network operator.

Junghāns said that connecting and synchronizing (maintaining the same 50 hertz/Hz frequency for the power flow) would involve upgrading the existing network equipment and installing new equipment ahead of the change from synchronization with Russia to the EU.

AST Board Member Gatis Junghāns (Photo, AST homepage)

AST plans to invest EUR 175.5 million in two phases of upgrading and installing equipment for synchronization with the EU grid, much of it co-financed with EU funds.

As the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, many links and symbols of ties to what the Baltic peoples saw as an oppressive foreign occupier were quickly broken. National flags of the pre-World War II republics were already in public use (and went unpunished) by the late 1980s. improvised border posts went up within days of the collapse of the August 1991 coup against then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. All three countries quickly replaced the Soviet ruble with their own, revived pre-war currencies to be replaced over a decade later by the euro after the Baltics joined the European Union (EU) in 2004. Foreign trade also shifted away from Russia to the Scandinavia countries and the EU. National security was ensured when Russian forces fully withdrew in the mid-1990s and all three countries with their own defense forces joined NATO in 2004. Cutting the electricity lines to Russia will be the last step in breaking with the Soviet legacy

A freelance journalist based in Riga, Latvia who has covered the country and region for 20 years. Speak native Latvian and English, fluent Swedish and German.

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