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East-West: Electricity Industry Buzzing About Massive Linkup, But Not Everyone Sees The Light

Electricity producers are developing far-reaching plans to interconnect the electricity grids of Eastern and Western Europe, Russia and Central Asia -- from Lisbon on the Atlantic to Vladivostok on the Pacific. The plans have been crystallized at a conference of producers in Brussels, organized by the Eurelectric umbrella organization and the electricity association of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). But not everyone thinks the project is a good idea.

Prague, 12 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Work is pressing ahead on an ambitious scheme to link the electrical power grids of Western Europe, Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and Russia into a gigantic network.

Eurelectric is a Brussels-based association that brings together electricity producers from the 25 states of the enlarging European Union, plus Turkey. It says feasibility studies on the project should be ready by 2007.

Eurelectric spokesman Chris Boothby says serious technical issues must be examined before it is clear whether the Western European and CIS grids can be connected.

Fresh impetus for the giant energy project came from a conference co-hosted by Eurelectric and held in Brussels last month. That meeting brought together some 180 electrical industry officials and representatives from the entire region.

Boothby explains that such a massive integration will require major changes: "It is not simply a matter of linking up two systems. There will even have to be changes in the way power plants are run on the system to cope with some of the heavy [electricity] flows there will be. The whole technical question in this area is very complicated."

The eventual aim of the project is to integrate energy markets across the entire continent, to achieve reliability of supply and market economies of scale.

The plan also includes closer integration with the Muslim countries of North Africa, which would be linked to Europe through more undersea cables. There are already undersea cables carrying electricity between Spain and Algeria and Morocco.

Boothby says, "Economically, there are enormous advantages of integrating the markets, but for us, it has to be a two-way thing. Electricity is delivered instantaneously, and this is not all about Russian electricity just being sold in the Western countries. There should be equal opportunities for Western power companies to supply eastwards when there is a need."

Of course, economics is not the only issue. The Western producers also want to see sound environmental practices in the East, or -- as Boothby puts it -- "an equivalent environmental framework" in the Russian Federation and the CIS. That means unsafe nuclear reactors and heavily polluting conventional power plants would have to be closed.

Two working groups aimed at improving market structures and providing a common environmental framework have been formed.

The electricity linkup is part of a larger "energy dialogue" developing between the EU and its eastern neighbors, bearing in mind that Russia will become a "near neighbor" of the bloc once it expands next year.

"There is a whole policy framework towards setting up with Russia an economic space, not quite at the level of the common market of the European Union, but having an economic space in which there is agreement on market structures, and which will integrate Russia more and more." Boothby says, "Now, energy dialogue is a very important part of that."

Environmentalists, however, are not so enthusiastic about the scheme. Despite Eurelectric's assurances, they worry about the length of time it will take to shut old Soviet-designed nuclear reactors. They say these should be scrapped immediately.

Jan van der Putte, a nuclear power expert with the Greenpeace organization, says, "This is of high concern to us because Europe is in this way stimulating the upgrading and continued use of very high risk nuclear reactors in both Central Europe and in the CIS. If Russia and the CIS get full access to the European electricity system, then extension of the lifetime of these high-risk reactors becomes economically extremely beneficial for the CIS electricity utilities."

Van der Putte says it will then be harder to close down reactors that are not really needed for national electricity supplies because they could be used to "flood" the European Union with what he calls "high-risk" electricity.

He describes this as a double ecological disadvantage. The plan would provide CIS countries with a reason to keep dangerous reactors open, while complicating the task of marketing renewable energy sources in Western Europe in the face of cheap energy supplies from the East.

What's required, he says, is a program for quickly closing the 20 or so Soviet-designed reactors spread around the CIS.

"The first thing to do -- and this goes not only for the CIS but also for the EU accession countries -- is a clear agenda for the closure of these high-risk reactors. As such, electricity trade and exchange is not a bad thing. It could also, for instance, be used for renewable energy sources, but at this stage it will have serious disadvantages for the development of renewable energy," van der Putte says.

He recalls that in the reunification of Germany a decade ago, five reactors in eastern Germany that were considered dangerous were closed overnight -- without supply disruptions. He says there should be "solidarity" between EU members and the accession states for similar action now.

On the business side, van der Putte says importing electricity that is artificially cheap because it is subsidized, or because factors like safety are not counted in the cost, will discourage investment in the modernization of the Western electricity sector.

Further, he says, Western business people should be aware that there are opportunities to be had not only in the conventional scenario of electricity trading, but in the alternative ones, as well -- such as in selling and installing solar and wind power equipment to the CIS countries and Central Europe.