Baltic and Polish MPs Visit Estonia's Oil Shale Industry
When a group of Baltic States and Polish representatives met to discuss energy security in Estonia's Russian-speaking northeast recently, they did so in an unusual way.
Instead of gathering behind closed doors, the group got a hands-on crash course on the Estonian oil shale industry, one of that country's most important, and controversial industries. Though not without environmental challenges, it makes the Baltic nation self-sufficient in electricity production, something many ex-Soviet region dependent on Russian gas would like to have.
Unlike shale oil, the liquid obtained by hydraulic fracturing (fracking) miles underground, Estonia's oil shale is a sedimentary rock containing kerogen found close to the earth surface that can be crushed and burned to produce power or further processed into oil. Estonia is the only country in the world whose energy sector depends on oil shale to such a large extent. In fact, it generates enough electricity for the country's 1.3 million inhabitants and exports more and more of it, to Finland, Latvia, and Lithuania.
“Within the European Union we are one of the less energy dependent countries,” Raine Pajo, a board member at Eesti Energia, the state-owned utility that accounts for nearly all the country's shale and electricity production, recently told the chairs of the EU affairs committees of the parliaments of the Baltic States and Poland in Auvere, near Narva, where the industry's major power and oil plants are. The oil shale sector employs about 6,500 people, or 1 percent of Estonia's workforce. The economic backbone of Estonia's northeast, it accounts for 3 percent of the country's economy. “This has been our philosophy for 25 years,” Pajo said. “We want to be independent in terms of energy.”
Coming a day after EU leaders in Brussels struck a broad climate change pact that would oblige EU countries to cut greenhouse gases by at least 40% by 2030, the visit was a chance to see first-hand the various faces of a little understood process. “When energy security is a big issue Estonia proves that it can be self sufficient in electricity,” British ambassador Christopher Holtby, who attended an Eesti Energianear Narva last month, said. “How it is made cleaner is the challenge, and it is cleaner than it was 10 years ago. “
Oil shale burning produces larges amounts of carbon dioxide and tons of ash that ends up in “ash hills” scarring the Estonian countryside. Something the Baltic and Polish representatives couldn't overlook driving through the Ida-Virumaa, a Russian-speaking region. In Soviet times little attention was paid to the oil shale industry's polluting impact. But since 1991 European Union pressure has forced the country to take steps to modernize its oil shale industry and diversify its energy sources.
Touring the Estonian oil shale sector was part of a twice-a-year gathering of Baltic States and Polish representatives. “But this meeting was unique,” Edmund Wittbrodt, chair of the Polish parliament's EU affairs committee, said.
“We've been talking about how to reduce C02 emissions, but here we come to talk to the people who are actually responsible for achieving those goals – and we know how difficult and costly it is,” Wittbrodt said. “In Poland we also have a problem, we still use 80 percent coal.”
And what the representatives saw last month - Estonia's two newest oil shale units - best illustrates how far Estonia has gone in developing technology to produce electricity and squeeze oil and gas out of the shale in a way that is less polluting and more efficient than ever before.
Brand new Power Plant
Their first stop was the soon-to-be-opened Auvere Power Plant, the world's biggest, and most modern, oil shale-fueled power unit when it starts operating at the end of 2014 or early next year. Special to the €600 million plant, which is being built by French-based Alstom next to 40-year old Eesti Power Plant, is that it can be fueled not only by oil shale but also by bio-mass like wood chips. And, perhaps most importantly, the new plant won't use the pulverized firing (PF) combustion process, a highly polluting method the industry had used since the 1960s where the shale is burned like coal anymore. Rather Eesti Energia's new power plant will rely on circulating fluidized bed combustion (CFB), a combustion method that considerably lowers the amounts of sulfur pollutants.
“From oil shale we still get C02, that you cannot avoid, but sulfuroxide we will not have,” Narva Power Plant Project Manager Ivo Mõik said. “In oil shale energy production it is a big step.”
Lithuanian representative Linas Balsys, who is also chair of his country's Green Party, said the new technology he saw impressed him. “New directives from the European Union say that either the big incinerating units have to be shut down or they have to be modernized, and Estonian has taken the later path - to modernize,” said Balsys, donning a helmet to tour the new power plant. “If it is so, from pollution point of view, it will be same as gas power plants. It's much better than nuclear energy."
Next step for Wittbrodt and his Baltic colleagues was Eesti Energi's Enefit 280, the new oil shale facility opened last year next to the power plant. New with the Enefit technology is that the semi-coke left over from producing oil is not thrown away but rather it is re-used to heat shale and generate electricity.
“That makes energy use of oil shale almost complete,” says Jaanus Rattur, production manager at Enefit 280. Experts say that the €250 million Enefit 280 plant represents the most technologically-advanced way of processing oil shale there is in the world so far. “Ash is circulating in the plant all the time."
“Estonia has gotten the direction of getting more value from the oil shale: the Enefit technology uses 95 percent of the energy contained in the oil shale,” Rattur said. Estonian began exporting the Enefit technology to countries like Jordan and the United States. “No other technology can reach that level.”
Green light on researching diesel fuel.
Estonia's oil shale industry remain highly controversial: the Enefit technology "makes using the oil shale more efficient, but oil shale remains the carbon-richest fuel in Europe,” said Valdur Lahtvee of the Stockholm Environment Institute in Tallinn. And declining oil prices have worried oil shale industry officials lately.
Yet the CO2 emission pact EU leaders agreed on Oct. 25 delivered some good news to Estonia's oil shale industry In a move meant to make its oil shale more valuable, Estonia has wanted to produce high-quality automotive diesel. But until last month the EU had said it would not allow Estonia to sell the diesel made from oil shale because the C02 emission levels were going to be too high.
“We were planning to invest into refineries to make diesel out of the oil shale, but whether those fuels could be sold to EU countries was a question mark,” said Kalle Palling, chair of the EU affairs committee of the Estonian parliament. “Now this is allowed, mainly because producing oil – fuel – out of the oil shale is three times as environmentally friendly than producing electricity. This is a huge breakthrough that will give us the opportunity to invest.”