The European Commission’s decision to appoint ‘project co-ordinators’ to try to spark movement in four long-stalled cross-border energy projects in the European Union (EU) has drawn widespread cynicism from many in the industry. However, here and there, there is an admission that these high-level trouble-shooters might just get results where so many others have failed. Brussels has four big energy projects in its sights: the high voltage electricity connection between France and Spain; the power connections between Germany, Poland and Lithuania linking the Baltic grid to the continental network; the off-shore wind connections in the Baltic and North Sea areas; and the NABUCCO gas connection between Turkey and Austria through Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary. The four co-ordinators, appointed for a four year term, are political and academic heavyweights that national officials at local or regional level will not be able to ignore or obstruct without trouble. Thus the France-Spain project will be entrusted to Mario Monti president of the Bocconi University in Milan and a former Italian EU Commissioner while the Baltic grid connection will be examined by Wladyslaw Mielczarski, a professor at the University of Lodz in Poland. The wind connections in the Baltic will be overseen by Georg Wilhelm Adamowitsch, until recently the German economics secretary, and the former Dutch foreign secretary. Jozias Johannes van Aartsen will deal with NABUCCO.

A glimpse at the background to the two national interconnectors shows why delicacy and firmness are both needed if the schemes are ever to materialise. The French-Spanish project, dating back to the early 90s, has been adjudged eligible for up to 50% EU financial support under the Trans-European Network (TEN) programme. Authorisations have been sought for the French and Spanish electricity companies, respectively RTE and Red Electrica, to construct a line through the eastern Pyrenees to increase the interconnection capacity from the current level of 1400 MW to 2800 MW but this has run foul of fierce local opposition which has been decisive in blocking the plan for many years. Brussels says that Mr Monti’s job will be to obtain social acceptance of the project – relating in particular to its environmental sustainability – on both sides of the border and to define a common route in both countries.

As to the Baltic States, one problem is that all three are part of the Russian UPS/IPS synchronous system while Poland and Germany are in the UCTE system. Besides technical problems concerning the interconnector, the scheme has been beset by differences between the two sides and environmental concerns. While some progress has been reported, it will be Professor Mielczarski’s job to convince the countries concerned of the need for the project and to support actions to bridge the gap between the different systems in the area at present.

One thing the co-ordinators will not have is more EU money to put into the projects. ‘They are really just facilitators, who will try to identify problems and try to find solutions’ said Ferran Taradellos, the European Commission’s energy spokesman. ‘These are high-level people who are able to speak face-to-face with ministers and heads of companies and attempt to find solutions at an international level when there are so many different points of view’ he told Modern Power Systems. The co-ordinators will be able to call on the Commission’s administrative resources however and will have the services of a “sherpa” – an official from the energy directorate general in Brussels.

Industry reaction

How does industry regard the move? Juho Lipponen, head of energy policy and networks at Eurelectric, the association of EU electricity companies, said there had been little reaction when the initiative was first announced ‘which may reflect the fact that some of these projects have been on the agenda for a very long time and no-one really expected that a co-ordinator would really solve the problems very quickly.’ Project co-ordinators had already been tried and had been unable to resolve the deadlock in the French-Spanish situation so far, he said. But there was now a willingness among companies to ‘chance it and let’s see if it can achieve anything’ he said. Certainly there has been no outright opposition to the idea, he told Modern Power Systems.

In general, he said, the electricity industry is in favour of the co-ordinators and would like to see them given a fair chance to do their job but there was a big question over what resources they would have. This was not about money. ‘I think that putting more money into these projects is not really the main question. The companies have the money to invest. It’s more really a question of getting the permits and procedures and authorisations and that’s a really difficult thing when power lines have to pass from one country to another and maybe into a third country’.

‘You have the local communities, you have the regions, and so on. You have several levels of authority that all have their say and several levels of options for citizens and stakeholders to litigate. All that can pile up to a lot of difficulty and that’s where the presence of a co-ordinator could play a role. They should have the resources, the staff – people that could work with them and help them to get to the core of the problem’ Mr Lipponen said. He agreed however that the profile of the nominated co-ordinators was ‘certainly very good, you could hardly imagine better ones.’

EU electricity mandarin

Separately the European Parliament last month approved a resolution proposed by the Polish MEP Jacek Saryusz-Wolski calling for creation of a post for a ‘High Official of Foreign Energy Policy’, to co-ordinate the EU’s activities in the field. Rafal Trzaskowski, an aide to Mr Saryusz-Wolski, said the EU sometimes had problems negotiating with outside countries because ‘prime ministers or foreign ministers of smaller countries want to talk to someone high up, concerned with foreign policy, they don’t want to talk to energy officials.’ The proposed new EU official would be an interlocutor at that level, he said.

Alan Osborn