Minister: Permanent Narva dam threat solution ideally in place next winter

Riina Sikkut
Riina Sikkut Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

In an interview with ERR, Minister of Economic Affairs and Infrastructure Riina Sikkut (SDE) explained, that if Russia decides to drain the Narva reservoir, Eesti Energia will try to retain whatever water is available in the cooling channels. Sikkut explained, that it is not yet possible to say how many blocks will be able to continue producing electricity, should current back-up plans, be required.

What will happen if Russia decides to open the locks on the Narva River dam tomorrow and release the water contained in the reservoir into the sea?

We have been aware of this risk for 30 years. Until now, the likelihood of it actually happening was considered to be low. But after February 24, and especially now, in a situation where Ukraine is progressing well (in the war), Nord Stream 1 has already been rolled back to square one, and (countries in) the Baltic region have imposed restrictions on tourist visas, if Russia needs tools to influence us, this is undoubtedly one of them.

So, the risk assessment has changed. And that is why we are working much more than before on a long-term solution, because Russia is not, and will not be, a reliable partner in the future, but (we are also working on plans for) crisis resolution. We don't know when Putin will decide to give that order, and so we have to be ready for that day.

But what happens if Russia decides tomorrow to open the locks on the Narva River dam and release the reservoir into the sea?

Eesti Energia has a crisis plan, (so), we will implement this short-term crisis plan. To put it very simply, the open cooling system will become a closed system, with which we will temporarily keep some of the Narva (power) stations in operation. In the longer term, we need a system which provides cooling water to the Narva stations and does not depend on Russia's decision to open or close the locks.

Along with the Mustajõe River, one canal circuit cools the Eesti Elektrijaam and the Auvere power plant, and the other cools the Balti soojuselektrijaam (Baltic thermal electricity station). Does this conversion to a closed system mean that soil at the ends of both circuits on the Narva side will be pushed downstream? So that they do not empty the Narva River?

Yes, at the moment water flows in and out of those canals. But then we need to keep that water circulating there temporarily. In the long term, in order to have enough capacity and also cooling water, the construction of a dam and a weir is needed there in any case.

When I think of the cooling system for the Balti power station, the inlet and outlet are quite far apart. How do you disconnect them to create a single circuit?

If you look at the diagrams, that connection point is pretty short. The  crisis managers have a plan, but, as is the case with desynchronization, we are discussing the best engineering solutions. Something that, on paper, seems to work. Unfortunately, these scenarios are ones that, so far, we have not been fortunate enough to try out for real. And that is why we are talking about crisis solutions, which have to be in place and which also involve their own risks.

These cooling ducts are about 30-40 meters wide.

And 3-4 meters deep.

Riina Sikkut Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

How will they be closed off quickly if the levels of the Narva River and the reservoir start to drop, so that our great hope doesn't just run out of water?

If we are talking about desynchronization, it is really something that Russia can do with the push of a button. But, even the sluices were opened to maximum capacity, the water is not going to go out instantaneously. We still have tens of hours to implement a temporary back-up plan.

Does this mean that, at the inlets and outlets of the two sewer systems, excavators will need to be on standby at all times?

That is something you would have to ask those who have drafted these contingency plans: who starts where and what they push, lift or pull. For my part, I can assure you that this plan exists on paper and that it is aimed at ensuring some of the Narva stations remain in operation.

Will the plan on paper be feasible (if implementation is required) tomorrow morning?

Eesti Energia has to consider it feasible (to put into action) tomorrow morning.

Does the government have confirmation of this?

One thing (that can happen), is more money being put in, better equipment being bought and the solution being fine-tuned. So, if it doesn't happen tomorrow morning, we will certainly be better prepared (for it) in a week's time and better prepared still a month from then. But, because we have no control over when it might happen, yes, we have to be ready all the time.

What will be done in those weeks and months to be better prepared?

These are details that Eesti Energia can actually share. The government has indeed discussed this and will continue to do so. But, in concrete terms, it also depends on the weather conditions, whether the ground is frozen or not, and to what extent, in what way the sluices are opened, how quickly the water level drops. All this will have an impact on the solution (required).

How many blocks will remain in operation during the temporary solution?

It really depends on how fast the water level drops and what the solution to the crisis is. This has not been tested out. Undoubtedly, not all the blocks in Narva will be able to keep working. There is a need for a minimum amount and that is what is being worked on, in order to attain some capacity from there.

What is the interval at which the capacity of 1300 megawatts would remain intact? This is important in order to calculate the system's stability in the event of desynchronization.

The more power we can get from the Narva stations, the better, because we need that inertia to maintain the frequency itself. But, in the case of the desynchronization period, we are talking about 6-12 hours, after which we will be connected to the Continental European grid.

If the locks are opened at the same time as our disconnection, this is undoubtedly a higher risk scenario. When it comes to a back-up plan, we are not talking about the Narva stations covering peak capacity in Estonia. We (just) need to get some capacity from there, and that is what the back-up plan is trying to achieve.

Riina Sikkut Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

If the Narva locks are opened at the same time as desynchronization occurs, and we have to adopt this temporary cooling solution, will energy consumers feel the difference in any way?

All three Baltic states have been preparing for years (for this), so, ideally, desynchronization from Russia and synchronization with continental Europe should be undetectable to the consumer. If this has to happen in parallel to the opening of the Narva locks, it is indeed possible that there will be temporary blackouts. However, we are talking about a low-probability event over a short period of time.

So, does this mean, that if there is no desynchronization but the Narva locks are opened, nothing will happen that will have an impact on consumers?

It is already the case, that there will be a shortage of capacity in the Baltic region, especially in the cold winter, and we would need Narva. Undoubtedly, it will be painful. It will be painful in terms of price if we have less capacity, because then the energy on the market will be more and more expensive and we will all feel it with our wallets. Then it becomes more a question of compensation, and how that would work.

The long-term solution is much more complicated. What is Eesti Energia currently saying to the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications about how long it will take?

Initially, the plan was (that it would take) one and a half to two years to come up with a permanent solution. The government recently provided Eesti Energia with guidelines regarding both temporary and permanent solutions (to the issue). But, why are we even talking about both opening the locks and disconnecting from the Russian electricity system at the moment? (Because), we are in a state of war and the risk assessment has changed. We are talking about this because, it may be the case that, in a coming together of unfortunate circumstances, there really are temporary power cuts and so people should be prepared (for that eventuality). As a society, we ought to be better prepared for this kind of crisis and the occurrence of unexpected situations.

Are these one and a half to two years still one and a half to two years, or have they somehow become shorter now that the government has issued its guidelines?

I think it's clear to all parties now that it would be very good to have certainty by next winter. I know that ground studies are going on, and a permanent solution is being designed, so maybe in a few weeks Eesti Energia will be able to provide an answer to the question of what the end date is.

The permanent solution would be to use pumps and dams to make the water flow uphill, is that correct?

Well, uphill, but that cooling water to meet Eesti Energia's generation capacity would come from the Narva River, regardless of (what happens with) the locks. So, we would be using the same river and the same water, but the system will be under our own control.

How much will it cost to prepare the temporary and permanent solutions?

For the temporary solution, I can't give you a figure. For a long-term solution we are still talking about tens of millions of euros.

Before you, Estonia has had 21 economic ministers since the restoration of independence. Why is it that you did not inherit a ready-made solution (for the issue) from your predecessors, even though we constantly boast that we have been the most outspoken country in Europe about the Russian threat?

It is actually very human, and somehow understandable. We did not have the personal protection equipment to be ready for Covid. We have not invested in risk scenarios for the energy crisis. We have always prioritized the needs of today and tomorrow over low-probability eventualities.

The same is true in fact, for defense investment. Despite telling Western Europe all along about the Russian threat and being aware of it ourselves, we were also not able to make these investments (in defense) until the war. There is nothing to regret here or any reason to point fingers at (those in) the past.

Riina Sikkut Source: Ken Mürk/ERR


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Editor: Michael Cole

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