Žygimantas Vaičiūnas has been a part of the Ministry of energy since 2009, in various roles, and appointed as Minister of Energy in 2016. Among others, he was Head of Strategic Planning Division at the Ministry of Energy and represented Lithuania to the EU as Energy Attache.
The Ministry of Energy itself was set up after Lithuania regained independence in 1990. Later in 1997, the Ministry was abolished and all its functions were transferred to the Ministry of Economy. The Ministry of Energy was restored later in 2009, after the reform of the Ministry of Economy.
Lithuania has consistently delivered above the EU targets in terms of RES. Looking at the 2020 target for instance, you reached and also exceeded the expected 23% as early as 2014. What made this possible?
Indeed, we were aiming for 23% renewable energy in our final energy consumption and we are now at over 25%. I would like to point out that Lithuania was also the first EU country to sign a statistical transfer agreement, with Luxembourg, proofing that such theoretical instruments are really working. Moreover, last week Lithuania and Luxembourg signed memorandum of understanding and agreed to cooperate not only in field of RES statistical transfers, but in offshore wind projects as well.
The success story is very much related to our heating sector which now relies mostly on biomass. On one hand we had the necessary resources available, but more importantly we created the biomass market exchange, an instrument that became very popular across the entire region, from Latvia to Estonia, Finland or Sweden. We made it possible this way to ensure very competitive prices for consumers. Another factor was the development of RES in our electricity sector. We created a competitive system for RES development onshore and transparent system for market participants. And we are now moving forward with offshore wind as well.
In June this year our government has decided on the location in the Baltic Sea where the offshore wind capacities will be installed - as a first step we plan to develop 700 MW by 2030, but the overall potential is as high as 3,5 GW.
We are now gearing our efforts towards designing the law to ensure that the first open and competitive auction for offshore wind will be published in the beginning of 2023.
Lithuania is among top 5 countries in the EU regarding our ambitions in RES development. This ambitious strategy requires us to create appropriate instruments to achieve targets timely and successfully.
Other countries are struggling to meet their targets, where does Lithuania pull its motivation from?
As I see it progress depends not just on the market, but also on the motivation - and we had plenty of it because of our circumstances. In 2010 we ended electricity production from Ignalina nuclear power plant which was a major source of electricity for us - overnight we essentially moved from an exporter, to one of the biggest importers of electricity in the EU.
Secondly, from a political and strategic point of view we thought that it would be important that our consumers become part of this development, to feel the ownership. So we turned our attention to small scale generation and created a really friendly system for those who wish to install PVs on their homes: firsttly, no permissions are necessary for individuals to go ahead with the installation, and secondly we put together a financial support system, approximately 30% of the installation costs are supported by the state using EU structural funds.
In 2020 the number of prosumers increased three-fold - truly a revolution in our state, one that I hope will continue.
You have expressed serious concerns regarding the nuclear power plant in Belarus. To start off, can you explain what are your views on nuclear energy broadly speaking?
Every country is responsible for its own energy mix so naturally we will witness diverging points of view. In principle this government has decided that renewable energy is our path, although historically Lithuania has relied on nuclear energy and we do recognize it as an option for other countries. But we insist that it has to be managed with great care and responbility. In Belarus we see exactly the opposite.
Belarus developing their first nuclear power plant and are doing so without respecting and ignoring key international nuclear safety standards. We see it as a threat to our national security because the plant it is located just 40 km from our capital city Vilnius. This situation had a negative influence not just on our relation with Belarus, but also on the perception of the society which now sees nuclear energy as not safe.
Can you expand on why you see it as a national security threat for Lithuania?
Firstly the location of the nuclear power plant was not selected properly and was done by breaching international agreements. This was recognized by more than 30 ESPOO convention members. Secondly, the building process itself was not safe, there have been serious accidents and people even died.
Thirdly, as it was mentioned before, this is the first power plant in Belarus - traditionally the responsibility lies in the hands of the nuclear regulator, but we have a lot of doubt about the independence of the Belarusian regulator. For instance we witnessed changes in licensing rules just days before the nuclear fuel was loaded. All this raises many questions regarding safety of this power plant and confirms the concerns about serious problems accompanying the project.
Rush and political processes are dictating the course of implementation of the nuclear plower plant in Belarus, disregarding the recommendations of international missions and independent experts.
EU experts submitted 29 recommendations, some very serious and linked to nuclear safety, yet none of them were implemented. Our position is clear, that Belarusian nuclear power plant should not be commissioned before implementation of all nuclear safety requirements. That is our principle position and we have support among the majority of EU countries.
A consequence of this was the fact that the Baltic Countries have an agreement in place to not import electricity from this nuclear power from Belarus - how else do you expect the relation between your country and Belarus to be affected?
Yes, and we congratulate the recent decision made by the Latvian government, we see it as a joint victory of the Baltic States and a sign of solidarity in front of this issue. Now we are working intensively on technical details of how to implement this principle decision. We have really good cooperation between the regulators and transmission operators in the Baltic States, so I trust all technical decisions will be made in a timely manner. Very important step was made last week – Baltic transmission system operators have submmited the joint methodology for ending electricity trading with Belarus after the launch of Belarusian nuclear power plant.
With Belarus there are serious matters not just in the energy sector but on the political side as well. There are serious doubts about the result of the recent presidential election, and the demonstrations that we have seen show that society takes this situation seriously. It reminds me of our fight for independence in the 1990s - their society is active and Lithuania supports their fight.
What is the end goal of your actions, what are you hoping to achieve?
The main goal would be to prevent the start of the project, but if it does kick off the question becomes when it can be closed.
The main question we need to answer, however, concerns the legal and political instruments that can have a real impact. As it is, all power resides in the hands of their national regulator which first and foremost must be independent in decision-making process. It is a pity that on the global scale organizations such as the International Atomic Energy Agency can only make recommendations for the improvement of nuclear safety, but do not have any decision power.
We have been saying clearly that Lithuania and the rest of the region is prepared to help Belarus reduce its energy dependence on Russia. This nuclear power plant which is built with Russian technology, Russian financing, Russian implementation and for the long term Russian nuclear fuel, will in fact increase the dependence of Belarus for decades to come.
You have also made efforts to move away from your collaboration with Russia in recent years. Who do you see as reliable partners for your country moving forward?
Our key partner in this matter is Poland, for sure. Poland is our technical and even political window to EU energy markets. To give you an example, we are presently implementing a gas interconnection project between Lithuania and Poland. On the Lithuanian side the project is 50% done, really good progress given that the technical works started in the beginning of this year. We plan to finalize the project by end of 2021. Apart from Poland, we have really good relationships with our peers from the Baltic States and also the Nordics. Lithuania has integrated its electricity and gas infrastructure and this has ensures our energy independence from Russia.
We are still in the midst of a global pandemic - how is Lithuania feeling and did the crisis change your plans in any way?
You may be surprised to hear but the crisis ended up having a positive impact on the development of our energy sector. It strengthened our ambition to increase RES and energy efficiency, and we are looking at ways to develop our projects earlier, and on a bigger scale. We have a budget of about EUR 1bn, dedicated to pursuing a climate neutral economy. This financing was really mobilized as a consequence of this economic crisis.
In parallel we are looking towards the EU recovery fund which in our case is EUR 2,4bn, and most of the financing from this fund will be used to support our energy plans. I trust we can manage this crisis wisely and make our economy stronger and more sustainable.
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