EU leaders scramble to maintain their energy supplies as the continent faces a deepening energy crisis. The Balkans and Central Europe are some of the most affected regions. Their sensitivity to the energy crisis results from heavy dependence on outdated energy sources, lack of diversification, and record high energy imports.
Energy Sources in the Balkans and Central Europe
Coal-fired power plants account for as much as two-thirds of the electricity supplied in at least five Balkan countries and further investments in these plants continue to be made. However, the current relatively low cost of this energy source is expected to increase as EU candidate countries in the Balkans are required to introduce a system of higher tariffs for heavy carbon emission facilities.
Coal dependence is also a major challenge in Central European countries. For instance, Poland produces about 36% of its primary energy and about 70% of its electricity from this resource. More than 7 million tons of coal are imported annually, 85% of which comes from Russia. Most of this goes to individually heated homes in small towns and villages, but power plants are also reducing operations to save coal for the winter.
Natural gas is another critical energy source. Yet, geo-political tensions with Russia, Europe’s principal gas supplier, have resulted in plans to diversify gas sources to increase energy security. Alternatives include gas supply networks to the Caspian Basin, Central Asia, the Middle East, and the Eastern Mediterranean, as well as American Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG).
Balkan and Central European countries are also facing a crisis in the oil market. The largest Central European refineries are located on the route of oil pipelines running from Russia to the west and were therefore adapted to process Russian Urals’ oil. However, as most countries in this region have imposed sanctions following the Ukraine conflict, they are now looking to replace Russian oil.
There is high potential for energy production from renewable energy sources (RES) in the Balkans and Central Europe. The primary sources arewind, solar and hydropower energy, while some lesser used include geothermal and biomass. However, although some progress has been made in this regard, the deployment of new renewable energy sources has remained modest, especially in the Balkans. In 2018, the share of renewable energy sources (excluding large hydropower) in the electricity sector in the West Balkan countries was only 6%.
The Impact of War on the Energy Crisis
Russia’s war with Ukraine has shaken the geopolitical map of Europe and the world to the core and weakened already fragile energy security. The Balkan region is particularly vulnerable. Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and North Macedonia heavily depend on Russian gas. Although most Balkan countries, except Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia, have imposed sanctions against Russia, the Russian administration did not retaliate by cutting off the energy resources of these countries, as it did with the EU member states. Although not directly affected by increasing gas prices, the Western Balkans will still suffer from the high cost of imported electricity.
How Can We Survive the Winter?
Surviving the coming winter is the immediate concern for Balkan and Central European countries, as well as the rest of the continent. In the short term, governments will focus on protective emergency measures, aimed primarily at mitigating the effects of the crisis on the most vulnerable groups, and on securing energy supplies. These include turning on coal-fired power plants, freezing energy prices for residential customers, and introducing windfall taxes.
However, the energy crisis will likely be with us for the next two or three years, so the long-term goal is energy security. For Balkan countries this means pivoting to the EU and adhering to their regulations, especially in renewable energy. They should also diversify their energy supply chains and work with the EU to formulate innovative, country-specific approaches to the green transition.
Central European countries should use the energy crises to strengthen their resilience – economically, climatically and politically. Some of the possible measures to focus on are:
- Investing in new supply routes for the conventional fuels they need to import. This way they would decrease their dependence on energy carriers as an instrument of political pressure.
- Moving towards non-reliance on fossil fuels. The best way to achieve this is to speed up the transition towards climate neutrality, thus increasing energy efficiency, developing RES or new technologies such as hydrogen and micro-nuclear generation.
- Reducing energy consumption. This means that they need to review their economies in terms of energy efficiency and insulation.
Balkan and Central European countries can use the current energy crisis as an opportunity.
The momentum towards EU membership can be used to tap into an enormous natural potential and offer a clear perspective for an inclusive low-carbon energy transition in the Balkans.
On the other hand, Central European countries can strengthen their systems and economies and accelerate their march towards zero-carbon.
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