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Behind energy security there must be solidarity – interview with Karol Galek, Secretary of State at the Slovak Ministry of Economy

The Russian attack on Ukraine has triggered disruptions along the entire energy industry value chain, with different packages of sanctions adopted by Western leaders to try to counteract it. 

The United States is coming back in the picture as the most reliable supplier of liquified natural gas (LNG) but those European countries reliant on Russian energy sources the most are also looking somewhere else, like Qatar, Azerbaijan, Algeria. For Slovakia, the solution is one and only and has it is based on the unity of the European Union.

On the sidelines of the GIE Annual Conference, CEENERGYNEWS spoke with Karol Galek, Secretary of State at the Slovak Ministry of Economy about the importance of the solidarity principle in the EU and the role of alternative low-carbon gases such as hydrogen to reach the decarbonisation targets. All of this while maintaining the economic growth and competitiveness of the country. 

Slovakia’s Minister of Foreign and European Affairs Ivan Korcok recently discussed LNG production and energy security with Qatar, spurring news that the country is looking to further diversify its energy sources, in response to Russia’s aggression on Ukraine. And Mr Galek recalls that similar talks were held also with Germany.

“We need to talk about solidarity, first of all: not for countries to order enough gas for themselves but for all Europe,” he says. “Especially those countries like Germany with a negative gas balance that will have gas overflows.”

He admits there are some fractures at the European level, which is logical in a way because “every country thinks about its security of supply.”

“But we need to find a solution at the European level,” he insists.

“If Russia halts gas flows to Europe, the gas trade will be the only thing left. We already see some LNG deliveries to Croatia and Poland, but we need to ensure the security of supply also for landlocked countries like Slovakia.”

But what if we do not get solidarity? The European Parliament has just passed a resolution, calling for an immediate full embargo on Russian imports of oil, nuclear fuel and gas in addition to the ban on coal imports announced by the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen. But still, there are countries, like Hungary that are against imposing energy sanctions to avoid the population suffering too much from it. 

“The current problem we are facing is the uncertainty of how long it will last if [Russian President Vladimir] Putin will shut down gas deliveries,” State Secretary Galek says. “And then there is the question of the sanctions which we need to coordinate.”

“We will not say no as Slovakia, we are ready to cut deliveries and we won’t pay in rubles if the whole EU will be united with this position and the solidarity principle will be used. I cannot imagine that there will be countries saying we prefer to work separately. There is a war and no country is asking the EU to support the war.”

In 2021, according to independent think tank Rystad Energy, Slovakia imported 3.2 billion cubic metres (bcm) of gas from Russia. Thus, when the country says to be ready to cut Russian deliveries, it must think about maintaining its economic competitiveness, as the European Commission estimates a GDP growth of 5 per cent in 2022.

“The current situation, not only because of the war but also because of the energy crisis that started a few months ago, with record-high prices will mean a step back in the short term,” Mr Galek underlines. “Some coal power plants are put back into operation, the industry is thinking on how to replace deliveries of gas or to find cheaper domestic solutions like biomass or fuelling energy from waste. It is a step back for countries like Poland, Germany and Italy, in the short term, negative for the decarbonisation efforts.”

But at the same time, he points out that it will be a driver for decarbonisation in the longer run.

“We will be much faster in investing in renewables, energy efficiency, interconnections both for electricity and gas, higher electrification rates. We will get to the goals of the EU much faster but some countries will have to take some steps back,” he continues.

“In Slovakia, we only have one plant running on coal that should be shut down next year and we don’t intend in prolonging it.” 

In particular, in Slovakia, more than 41 per cent of total emissions comes from the industry. In this regard, Karol Galek is calling for more common rules at the EU level. 

“It is not thinkable that some countries will take advantage of State aid for a specific sector or industry that will harm the industry of another country that didn’t get access to the State aid,” he says. “So also State aids must be regulated at the EU level and they must be about efficiency.”

Hydrogen in particular is a very favourite topic in Slovakia, a country that already two years ago started talking about a hydrogen national plan. In July a new pipeline to Poland will be put into operation which is already equipped to transport 20 per cent of blended hydrogen.

“The way forward will be a 50-50 per cent investments in both innovative technologies and financing,” he concludes. “The technical university of Kosice, for example, is working on a low-pressure hydrogen storage system, [Slovakia’s Transmission System Operator] Eustream is working on pipelines that can transport hydrogen and a small village in the southern part of Slovakia is already supplied by blended hydrogen at 10 per cent.”

But for hydrogen to be 100 per cent effective, the country needs to modernise its infrastructure, a priority that must be kept alive despite political turmoils and wars in neighbouring countries.

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