Engineer of the year: Green turn pace utopian

Chairman of the energy council of the Estonian Academy of Sciences, Engineer of the Year 2021 Arvi Hamburg. PHOTO: Madis Veltman

Chairman of the energy council of the Estonian Academy of Sciences, Engineer of the Year 2021 Arvi Hamburg says in an interview that Estonia and Europe have gotten ahead of themselves when it comes to the green turn and suggests it cannot be done without relying on nuclear power.

What would you say if you had to evaluate Estonia’s energy supply security?

I would say it is fragile. Meaning that the country does not have enough production capacity to cover peak consumption.

Please elaborate. The Narva Power Plant is working…

… and we also have the Auvere plant, while it is not generating power today. Let us say we might not have enough capacity this winter. The reason is simple. The decision to stop oil shale power generation means no thorough maintenance or repairs have been carried out in power plants. This has hurt the reliability of existing energy blocks. If we look at existing production capacity at the Narva Power Plant and other combined plants and estimate peak consumption at 1,550 (up to 1,580) MW, it seems we have enough. However, what if some of those blocks fail to fire up? For example, we know that the plant at Auvere is idle because of unscheduled maintenance. Therefore, I will say again that Estonia does not have enough production capacity to cover peak consumption in winter.

We have energy links to European producers. In difficult moments…

They would cover our deficit? We have two cables to Finland, are linked to Sweden through Lithuania and still have Russian links, even though we don’t buy electricity from there. They are sufficient. The problem is that only Russia, currently also Norway and Sweden, have anything left over to sell. All others have their own energy deficits. Which is to say that no one might be selling at a truly critical moment.

There are two cables between Estonia and Finland?

Precisely. Their combined throughput is 1,000 MW, while our peak winter consumption is 1,550 MW.

To what extent would a third cable between Estonia and Finland be feasible?

The Nordics are not as flush with energy as we have perhaps thought. They have a solid power structure, many different ways to generate power… However, they are increasingly short on capacity because consumption is growing rapidly.

Will they still be short after Finland opens its new nuclear power plant?

The Olkiluoto Nuclear Power Plant is set to be launched early next year and should be enough for Finland to cover domestic demand. The Finns are buying 1,000 MW from the Russians through Vyborg every day as things stand. Olkiluoto would cover their domestic energy needs, but because consumption is estimated to spike in both Finland and Sweden… The latter has said in no uncertain terms that power consumption will grow by 50 percent in the north of the country in the next 15 years. Therefore, whatever I might say here, the fact that Finland is actively preparing to build another nuclear plant proves that power consumption is forecast to skyrocket. The deficit is mounting.

The cable you mentioned has been discussed, while we cannot build our supply security on it because nothing could be coming through it.

What would be the volume of the investment and how long would it take to build the third link?

Based on recent experience, I would say it would not take longer than five years after the decisions is made. The planning phase is the most time-consuming. Making the physical cable would take a year at most. The investment volume would be approximately €150 million.

The climate policy position is that our oil shale plants need to be shut down for good at some point. The situation today rather suggests we should not be in such a hurry.

I say that the decision from a few years ago to require the Narva plants to maintain 1,000 MW of usable capacity was necessary. We will need it even more once we disconnect from the Russian grid in 2026. We need that capacity.

My logic is simple in suggesting that we will always need adjustable capacity. No matter how many offshore or other kinds of wind farms we have. I believe oil shale energy needs to be retained – it is our own resource, know-how, equipment. While the European Union policy aims for zero CO2 emissions that would not allow for the burning of fossil fuels in any form, I believe modern technology makes it possible to remove dreaded carbon from the atmosphere. Carbon capture and storage is both technically possible and economically feasible. While the technologies are not fit for the market today, I believe they will be inside the next three years. We need to make and sell the world products made using CO2.

Please give an example.

From food technologies to all manner of refrigeration equipment. Next will come synthetic fuels… The options are myriad.

What you’re saying sounds backwards, considering the prevailing trends. Do you really believe we should keep oil shale energy alive?

Of course! We have over a century’s worth of experience when it comes to mining oil shale, 70-80 years of research…

Let us look at the logic of Eesti Energia according to which we will generate less power from oil shale while manufacturing shale oil. It might make sense based on current regulations to export the CO2 emissions to another country… But it is a rather naive tactic if the aim is to improve the world.

How much faith do you have in nuclear power?

I am fully in favor of nuclear plants. And it is a long-time conviction. People threatened to shoot me, have me eliminated when we started working on the first national nuclear energy plan in 1990.

The reason is that I see no other way of achieving carbon neutral energy generation in Europe. I am also convinced that nuclear power will be discussed as part of the green turn eventually as it simply isn’t happening any other way.

Talk of a dominant renewable turn does not convince you?

There are a number of technical issues that would need to be solved first. We have no technology today with which to ensure supply security. The pace at which we have rushed into the green turn has been utopian. And what is paramount is that all these turns are paid for by the consumer.

We all want a cleaner environment and all. In the end, new technology helps the environment. But we seem to be merrily closing nuclear, coal and oil shale plants without having a serious alternative. The thing with new technologies is that they take time. I agree that crises speed up technological development, but we cannot jump over our own shadow everywhere.

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