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The Heat is On

Can we expect another government to follow Bulgaria's and fall over heating costs? by Martin Ehl 9 April 2013

The Bulgarians were recently so disoriented by the long winter and a change in the way electricity was billed that, with the help of a scapegoat, the Czech company CEZ, they forced the government to step down. Although that is a somewhat simplistic view of the depth of Bulgaria's political and economic difficulties, the long winter, combined with the economic crisis and high heating bills, is sending a worrisome signal to politicians in the post-communist countries of the EU. Who will be next, once someone doesn't like their bill for this extra-long heating season?


Let's therefore present an analysis, which shows how diverse these countries are in the sources of their heat and thus their sensitivity to the prices of raw materials and their import. In other words, what could enrage the inhabitants of individual countries so much that they would follow the Bulgarian example? The source of the data is the European Commission from 2011.


The EU average: 44 percent of heat comes from gas, 30 percent from fossil fuels (coal), 14 percent from renewable resources, 7 percent from petroleum products, and 5 percent from other sources.


Estonia: 51 percent gas, 22 percent renewable resources, 20 percent fossil fuels. The Estonians are absolutely the record-holders in the use of renewables, and they use plenty of domestic resources (oil shale). Some kind of voters' revolt because of heating isn't a threat with that diversity of resources.


Latvia: 81 percent gas, 15 percent renewable resources. Russia controls the gas supply and the only storage tank in the Baltics (right in Latvia), so Moscow can influence the mood of local voters not only through Latvia’s large Russian minority, but also by way of heating.


Lithuania: 57 percent gas, 16 percent renewable energy, 19 percent other, 4 percent nuclear, 4 percent petroleum products. Here also, the Russian gas supplier has a strong say, and Lithuanians pay some of the highest prices for heat in the EU. The planned terminal for liquefied gas would thus suit the entire Baltics, although Russia, which controls regional pipelines, would still have to be reckoned with.


Poland: 85 percent fossil fuels. The Poles aren’t about to give up their coal, not even when they are the only ones in the EU starting up shale gas extraction and planning to build nuclear power plants. As long as coal is relatively cheap, a thermal revolt of Polish voters is not a threat – at least in the next 30 to 60 years.


Czech Republic: 66 percent fossil fuels, 26 percent gas, 3 percent renewable resources. The Czechs, too, love their coal and have again been thinking about breaching the legal limits – adopted for environmental and health reasons – for its extraction.


Slovakia: 54 percent gas, 22 percent fossil fuels, 12 percent petroleum products, 6 percent renewable energy, 5 percent nuclear. The Slovaks are “thermally vulnerable” to disruptions of Russian gas supplies and should therefore be interested in the greatest possible interconnection of networks in Central Europe.


Hungary: 81 percent gas, 7 percent fossil fuels, 6 percent petroleum products, 4 percent renewable resources. Not surprisingly, though a declared anti-communist, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been traveling intensively to Moscow to negotiate. And little wonder that the country recently bought the gas business and tanks from the German E.ON energy company. The Hungarian voter is extremely thermally dependent on a single energy source (and not even a domestic one, at that). 


Slovenia: 60 percent fossil fuels, 28 percent gas, 9 percent renewable energy, 3 percent petroleum products. In the deepening domestic crisis, Slovenian voters will become increasingly thermally sensitive.


Romania: 63 percent gas, 27 percent fossil fuels, 9 percent petroleum products, 1 percent renewable resources. The Romanians protect their domestic supplies, but less-known is the fact that Romania is the fourth largest gas producer in the EU – and recently, after a stormy debate, gave the green light to shale gas exploration. Nevertheless, prices for heat are a sensitive issue among voters because most suppliers of central heating increased their prices by 30 to 50 percent after cuts in government subsidies, or began to go bankrupt. Money hasn't been invested in infrastructure for a long time, and people in this generally poor country cannot pay higher prices.


Bulgaria: 42 percent gas, 42 percent fossil fuels, 11 percent petroleum products. This seemingly diversified thermal portfolio is, however, distorted by the fact that many households are accustomed to “topping up” with cheap electricity produced by the Kozloduy nuclear power plant, which is gradually being disconnected due to obsolescence. And the government doesn’t have the money for the new Belene power plant.


If we based our conclusions on larger trends, politicians would have reason for calm. From 1990 to 2010, the heat consumption of households in the European Union fell. But that trend was less true for the new post-communist members. From the time they entered the EU until the pre-crisis year of 2008, consumption rather increased in those countries before falling in 2009. And in 2010, the Central Europeans began again to heat more.


A continuous increase in household heat consumption can be seen, essentially, only in Bulgaria. So the fall of the government there because of energy prices is actually understandable. But with the so far rather chilly weather of March and April, we'll see whether Bulgarians are an exception.

Martin Ehl
 is the foreign editor of the Czech daily Hospodarske noviny, where this column originally appeared. He tweets at @MartinCZV4EU. He recently won the prestigious Writing for Central Europe journalism prize, awarded by the APA – Austria Press Agency in cooperation with Bank Austria.
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