Will Bulgaria manage to escape the gas trap?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

“Serbia receives gas via the Balkan Stream in regular, pre-defined quantities of six million cubic metres. The country spends some 4.6 million cubic metres a day, which means we have enough to cover our needs,” said Mihajlović, adding that she “hopes Bulgaria will not take the gas for its own needs,” and that she is in touch with Bulgarian representatives. [Circlephoto / Shutterstock]

After the Russian decision to halt gas supplies to Bulgaria, the country is under pressure. Nevertheless, past delays in developing gas power infrastructure might now turn to its advantage, writes Genady Kondarev.

Genady Kondarev is senior associate for Central and Eastern Europe at climate think tank E3G.

Gazprom has decided to stop supplying gas to Bulgaria. Experts worry about Bulgaria’s lack of immediate substitutes for Russian gas, as it receives all gas and nuclear fuel imports from Russia and the gas interconnection with Romania seems to be the only option left for the country.

Nevertheless, the country may be able to keep the situation under control and even speed up cutting its Russia dependency once and for all.

One reason is that Bulgaria has already started diversifying its supply sources. A gas interconnector with Greece is now under rapid construction after years of delay. Moreover, doubling the capacity of existing underground gas storage is underway—a backup for nearly a third of the country’s gas consumption.

Non-Russian oil is a matter of availability on the global markets, and according to the Bulgarian Minister of Energy, a change in nuclear supply is possible as early as 2024. We are witnessing the only moment of genuine push for diversification in decades.

The other reason is Bulgaria’s relatively low gas consumption (just over 3 bcm). Indeed, only a small percentage of buildings in the country use gas directly for heating. This makes it possible to quickly quit all public support for expanding distributed gas networks and opens space for easy investment in energy alternatives.

Bypassing the gas frenzy

Bulgaria’s slow pace joining the regional gas frenzy partly explains this lower gas consumption. Many countries in transition count on gas capacity to achieve a timely exit from coal, even though renewable alternatives are often cheaper and faster to build.

For instance, Hungary is still planning to replace its major Matra coal plant with gas capacity. Greece has also complemented renewable electricity ambitions with gas-fired power stations. But Bulgaria has not yet made significant investments in gas-fired electricity generation.

Following this period of procrastination, the Bulgarian government should now seize the opportunity to bypass gas altogether, as gas has now become a highly costly option, both economically and politically.

With other countries already knee-deep in gas investments, the Bulgarian government is on time for a last-minute U-turn. They have scrapped the previous government’s plan to use public funds to build 1 GW of Combined Cycle Gas Turbine (CCGT) and 125 km of gas pipelines through the Recovery and Resilience Facility. Even plans to provide gas boilers for a few academic buildings have now been discarded.

This is a welcome departure from previous political choices, such as pouring billions into the Russia-backed Turkish/Balkan Stream pipeline in 2020.

Is Bulgaria on the safe side of renewables?

In the absence of gas turbines as a backup, Bulgaria’s first challenge will be to guarantee the grid’s stability. But more coal is not necessary to keep energy security. Although the government is claiming it will keep lignite plants running as long as possible, that is increasingly unfeasible.

Bulgaria’s 2038 coal exit date is unrealistically far in the future—obligatory reforms in the energy sector envisage 1.6 GW (more than a third) of Bulgarian coal capacity retired before 2025. The promise to cut 40% of national greenhouse gas emissions by 2025 means that much of the remaining capacity will likely have to be kept out of operation during long periods each year. Moreover, the increasing carbon pricing by the EU’s Emission Trading System and the competition of cheaper renewables will make coal plants increasingly uneconomic to run.

To ensure energy security Bulgaria is turning to renewable energy and energy efficiency. The government plans to resume the renovation of buildings with €1.3bn included in the Recovery and Resilience plan. The government is also planning multi-level support for renewables through new funding and faster permitting—from schemes that will foster household renewables, to capacity auctions that will promote clean energy sources and storage, to new state-owned battery plants that will double the balancing capability of the grid operator while avoiding reliance on gas for power. The first geothermal combined heat and power (CHP) projects are also being considered for the middle of this decade.

All this means that by 2025 Bulgaria can meet energy and climate targets currently set for beyond 2030, thus truly aligning with the EU’s ‘Fit For 55’ targets.

These actions show that Bulgaria has the potential to chart a new path away from gas and fossil fuel dependency. A path based on improving resilience, protecting citizens, and unlocking economic opportunities for decades to come. Therefore, in the current situation is vital that the short-term urgency measures serve as a bridge to that bright future. With a fragile political balance in the current coalition government, and pressures on supply chains globally, this outcome is far from secure.

The only guaranteed good news is that the heating season is over. The government has been projecting calm since the gas supply disruption was notified by Gazprom. Hopefully Bulgaria is betting right.

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