Oil-shale paradoxes & rationalities

26.10.2014 at 11:23

Jani Lukkarinen

Last year, it was reported that Estonia became the first country to reach European Union's 2020 targets for renewable energy. In the case of Estonia this means 15 % share for renewables of total energy production. The share of renewable energy had doubled in three years, which happened largely because of political ambition to full-fill the EU’s obligations.

However, still 90 % of electricity produced in Estonia comes from oil-shale power-plants of Russian border-town Narva. The attractiveness of oil-shale is in the high caloric value of energy, but there are few very alarming down-sides. Oil-shale – one of the most polluting fossil fuels – produces worse Co2 emissions than burning coal as well as the huge piles of alkaline ash and other hazardous wastes, while the oil-shale mining has been causing environmental degradation of wide areas. In 2012 in was announced that French-company Alstom would build two new 300 MW oil-shale power-plants as well as modernize four existing 200 MW units. The order of second unit was cancelled later, but the first will be operational in 2016.

This is hardly the dusk of fossil era in Estonia. The paradox lies in the rationality behind the energy sector in Estonia. Rather than imagining renewable energy sources as a potential substitute for polluting oil-shale business, it has become politically and economically popular to present oil-shale as means to increase also renewable energy production. The new power units could utilize up to 50 % of biomass instead of 10 % in the previous plants, thus giving a possibility for a fast increase in renewable energy, if desired. The Estonian energy – a state-owned energy company also running oil-shale business – has been also the greatest investor in wind-mill parks in Estonia. With three parks already running and several under planning there will be hundreds of megawatts of Baltic wind provided to Scandinavian energy grid in coming years.

Behind the paradox there several time-scales and geographical settings in play, which need to be given more detailed attention. Here are some suggestions:

1. Oil-shale mentality: In our interviews in Tallinn and Tarto two years ago, it became evident that oil-shale has a deeper role in the minds of Estonian people than just the main building-block of national energy system. It has been utilized for hundred years and thus being one of the key-projects of nation-building already before the Soviet times. More recently the mining and energy production have provided steady energy markets and well-paid jobs that have been important in the hadships of post-Soviet transitions.

2. Oil-shale economics: The Soviet economic system after World War II favored heavily the economics of scale and thus also the Narva’s oil-shale plants in the hinterlands of Leningrad gained important role. The large scale of production also ties several actors from different sectors of economy and consumption providing a landscape that cannot be easily transformed.

3. Oil-shale modernization: The transformation of existing power-plants together with the plant under construction has been referred to as a new generation of oil-shale energy. The main driver of overhaul is EU’s directive on air-pollution, which enforces higher standards for desulphurization of fossil industries. As a side effect of substituting the units built in 1950s provides also relative carbon savings.

Whether being purely economic calculation or a environmental sleight of hand the oil-shale has been given a privileged role in Estonian energy system for also decades to come, which also affects the leeway of energy policy on technological and environmental sides of the thinking. There is currently a strong social support that may change fast, if the carbon trading or other international climate-economy translators start to function properly and raise prices of Co2 catastrophes like oil-shale. In the near future the technological lock-in caused by the oil-shale rationality may turn against itself.



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Jani Lukkarinen

Jani Lukkarinen


Jani is writing his PhD on different uses of knowledge in emerging bioenergy governance. His special interest is in the interpretations, translations and contestations of scientific, economic, environmental and political knowledges.

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