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Estonia's streamlined state agencies unable to respond to crises quickly enough

Power lines covered in snow.
Power lines covered in snow. Source: Margus Muld/ERR

Back-to-back power outages in Southeast Estonia show that while the locals are well-prepared, the problem lies with Estonia's stripped-down state agencies that are unable to react to crises quickly enough.

"The problem is that we've been without power for over a week," Rebasemõisa villager Tiia Morfin told "Aktuaalne kaamera" news on December 4.

Tarvo Arumäe from Koobassaare said on the same program that villagers have had power during just one out of 12 days.

By then, the area had been without electricity for over ten days, while neither the local government not Estonia's distribution system operator Elektrilvi were on the case.

"Elektrilevi tells us to check the Maru website. But how are we supposed to do that without electricity? What good will that do?" said Evi Veerme, social worker for Valga Municipality.

A Valga Municipality crisis meeting on December 6 got things moving. Elektrilevi responded with more crews, power was rerouted and restored to a part of households. However, this only lasted for five days. More snow that arrived last week caused new failures, leaving around 10,000 consumers without power by midweek.

Lehte Piir from the village of Tiitsa said there is no water at home, no heating, and that the temperature has dropped to 12 degrees. "I have a 94-year-old stuck in bed at home. And I'm the only one who cares, running around, being 80 years young myself," she said, adding that her pension is not enough to buy a generator.

In Karula, people have been putting up with power coming and going, which has ruined light bulbs, laptop power bricks and other devices.

Olivia Till, who runs the Hallimäe Farm, said that the situation has cost the family €700 in new computers, chargers and other devices, and right before Christmas to boot.

Fallen trees have made getting around in Karula National Park difficult. Locals have had to spend hours sawing their way out to get to work or the shops. The local school bus service has also been disrupted.

At the government press conference, ministers concluded that people who live surrounded by nature need to improve their ability to cope independently.

"I would say that we do cope. All the sheep are alive, the cows are alive, and so are the children, alive and fed. But the coping of locals requires a measure of cooperation. We need the correct information. If I'm told that the Hallimäe Farm will be cut off for a week, that is what I will plan for. But if Eesti Energia tells me that power will be restored in three hours, I will expect it to return after that much time," farmer Mats Meriste said.

He has a lot of sheep and operates a slaughterhouse. The period leading up to the holidays is usually his busiest time to earn an income, but the service cannot be offered without electricity. Meriste said that while he does not expect Estonia to move all powerlines underground immediately, it would help if it took agencies under two weeks to realize the gravity of the situation.

"Decisions are made far away and through indirect interpretations, and the question is how long it takes the eventual decision-maker to realize that things are bad," Meriste said. He added that a crew arrived to fix up the powerline and remove dangerous trees four days ago. "And this was two weeks after the power first went out. It is a little slow," Meriste remarked.

Janar Taal, head of the southern branch of the Transport Administration's road maintenance service, said that, like other agencies, the administration has been streamlined to the point of only having the bare minimum capacity. That is why it took the agency a week to understand the problem and another week to react and find contractors to clear roads and roadsides of dangerous trees.

DSO Elektrilevi has also been cutting back over the years. Its operations center is located in Tallinn and the agency has just one brigade for the three counties that make up Northeast Estonia.

"We used to have 30,000 annual power failures and have now arrived at 11,000-12,000 outages for the whole year – that is one reason we need fewer people on a daily basis," Elektrilevi board member Rasmus Armas said, adding that this also means it takes longer to fix a lot of simultaneous outages caused by storms.

More than 25 percent of powerlines in Estonia are over 40 years old and the current transmission system fee is not enough to build new lines or keep the existing ones in good working order.

Armas said that more robust powerlines would require an annual investment of at least €114 million.

"This would translate into an annual fee hike of 1.8 percent," he added.

The situation also reveals that cities and rural municipalities sport very different levels of preparedness.

"The municipality government lacks an overview of the situation on the roads and electricity supply. The role of the local government in our lives is increasingly unclear. The administrative reform has left the local authority even more remote. With every new outage, the locals rather rely on chainsaws and generators than someone restoring power to them," Mats Meriste said.

Work to repair power lines. Source: Margus Muld/ERR


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Editor: Merili Nael, Marcus Turovski

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