"The Baltic states should have given up Russian gas sooner"

If Russian gas had already been turned down in 2014 after the annexation of Crimea, the Baltic states would by now have adapted to the new conditions and would be an energy-independent region, argues Jānis Irbe, Chairman of the Board of the Latvian Renewable Energy Federation.

The complete reliance on long-term cooperation with such an unstable partner as Russia was a very big mistake, according to Irbe, and that dependence on Russian gas should have been gradually reduced a long time ago. Already in 2014, Russia showed its true face by annexing Crimea and this should have been a good reason to take action and reduce the dependence of the Baltic states on the aggressor state, Irbe believes.

He thinks that if we had focused on a targeted development of renewable energy resources (RES) at that time, we would be in a completely different situation now. Both the required heat and electricity could be produced locally in the Baltics, concludes the Chairman of the Board of the Latvian Renewable Energy Federation.

How do you assess the development of renewable energy resources (RES) in the Baltic states in general?
If we are talking about development, I would say that Lithuania and Estonia have fared significantly better than Latvia in recent years. Although Latvia does not look bad in general, as it produces a fairly large amount of energy from RES, it is not progressing as fast as its neighbours with the installation of new capacities. By now Lithuania has a total installed wind power generation capacity of 671 megawatts (MW), while Estonia has 326 MW, and Latvia only 87 MW. A similar situation can be observed in solar generation, where Latvia is significantly behind. I am sure that the sun does not shine brighter and the wind does not blow stronger in Lithuania and Estonia, so there is no excuse for this situation. Of course, Latvia is a big step ahead of its neighbours in terms of installed hydropower capacity, but this has nothing to do with development, because hydroelectric power plants are a legacy of the Soviet Union and are not a purposefully developed infrastructure.

Another aspect that should be mentioned in my opinion is that Latvia is the only country in the Baltics that has continued to increase natural gas capacity in recent years. The increase is not grandiose, but it is significant because natural gas capacities are currently decreasing in Lithuania and Estonia. I think that this situation clearly shows the political position of the countries and, in my opinion, it has not been favourable to RES in Latvia. We have not been far-sighted and have not assessed the risks of how the situation in the energy market could develop. Meanwhile, Lithuanians and Estonians did the complete opposite – they created new forms of support and developed RES. Right now, they continue to do so while we stand still again.


Which RES are currently most used in the Baltics?
There are regional differences in resource use. In Latvia, hydropower dominates with the installed capacity of 1588 MW. Lithuania uses wind, while in Estonia the use of both solar and wind is almost equally well developed. If we look at the Baltics as a single region, the majority of renewable energy is produced using hydro resources, followed by wind and solar.


Which RES have the greatest potential in the Baltic region in your opinion?
In the short term, the biggest potential is for the sun because the installation of new solar capacities is a relatively fast process in which private individuals can also get involved. Of course, we must remember that we live in a region where the sun only shines for about nine months a year, but despite this, we can still use this resource very successfully. However, in the long term, wind has the greatest potential, but the construction of wind farms is more complicated and project implementation takes longer.

We must not forget about wood either, because all three Baltic countries are rich in forests. The only question that remains relevant is how to use this wood better. And finally we can also certainly talk about hydropower, which is the most stable and long-term profitable form of production. In any case, we have plenty of RES in the Baltics and we should use them.


Currently, there is much talk about giving up Russian gas. Don’t you think this decision comes too late?
I would say that the biggest mistake of many countries was the complete reliance on long-term cooperation with such an unstable partner as Russia. For example, Latvia based its energy security on the resources of a foreign country for years, and this is unacceptable. It doesn’t even matter whether it’s Russia or another country, because the principle itself is fundamentally wrong. Dependence on Russian gas should have been gradually reduced a long time ago. Already in 2014, Russia showed its true face by annexing Crimea. This should have been a good reason to take action and reduce the dependence of the Baltic states on the aggressor state.

If the Baltic states had started turning down Russian gas in 2014, the region would have adapted to the new market conditions by now and could be energy independent. Even the biggest RES projects can be implemented within eight years – the main thing required is political will. 2014 was the time when we should have focused on the targeted development of RES, and we would be in a completely different situation now. The necessary heat and electricity could be produced by themselves. I think we would have a lot of installed RES capacity. Looking back now, it is clear that the decision to give up Russian gas should have been taken back then. At the same time, it should be understood that such a decision would not have been financially beneficial in those days, as natural gas was very cheap and no one wanted to increase energy costs.


How independent can the Baltic region be at present?
Currently, we can only be independent in the short term, as in the long term it is practically impossible to work only with the capacities currently available to us and to be completely self-sufficient in energy. I admit that technically we can supply ourselves with energy if we use absolutely everything we have, but in this case the issue of resources becomes relevant again. For example, we can’t really count on natural gas stations, because we don’t have our own natural gas, but if we refuse gas, the question of independence becomes impossible again because there is a lack of capacity.

If we look at each country separately, Estonia is currently the most independent. They have their own oil shale, which can be used to generate heat and electricity, as well as large solar capacities. For example, already in this summer during the daytime, Estonians have been able to produce practically all the necessary electricity using the sun. Latvia and Lithuania have not yet reached such a level of independence.


How do you see the upcoming winter – what should we expect?
I await the winter with great anxiety. I think it will be very challenging and difficult. I expect that there will be problems both with the availability of resources and with the ability of society and entrepreneurs to pay for them. I believe that in May 2023, many of the decisions made this year will not seem right to us. I hope that we will survive this winter and be able to adapt to the new reality, where RES have and will play an important role. To do this, we will have to change a lot, but it looks like some countries, including Latvia, will only realize this after a hard winter.

This feature is reproduced by kind permission of the German-Baltic Chamber of Commerce in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania . You can see the official website and find out more about the Baltic Business Quarterly magazine herehttps://www.ahk-balt.org/lv/publikacijas/zurnals

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