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Evaluating the first year of the IGB gas pipeline – interview with Teodora Georgieva, Executive Officer, ICGB

In October 2022, the Interconnector Greece-Bulgaria (IGB) started its commercial operations, immediately showing its game-changing role in the security of supply of the region, as already in the first week of its operation, more than 303 gigawatt-hours (GWh) were transported.

One year later, we spoke with Teodora Georgieva, Executive Officer of the independent transmission operator ICGB, which is responsible for the commercial operation of the new gas infrastructure, about the main successes and challenges of the past 12 months, the expansion plan and the role of the interconnector in a future hydrogen-based economy.

She begins by saying that this first anniversary of the IGB pipeline’s commercial operations holds major significance for ICGB as a company and for both host countries of the project – Greece and Bulgaria.

“The interconnector that ties the national gas transmission systems of the two countries was launched in incredibly turbulent times when diversification of routes and supplies had become one of Europe’s main goals,” she recalls. “[…] Now, for the first time in decades, Bulgaria is no longer dependent on a single source for its natural gas deliveries. We are also able to provide secure and reliable natural gas transportation to other countries in the region – including Moldova and Ukraine. This is possible thanks to IGB’s synergy with the Trans-Balkan gas pipeline, which enabled us to provide secure deliveries during the winter months last year and showcase once again European solidarity and unity.”

On another note, she adds that IGB’s booked capacity reached over 90 per cent in just the first few months of operations, which for her is truly a testament to just how important the interconnector is.

“It was challenging for us as a new transmission system operator to grow out of the project phase and expand our capacity at such a fast pace,” Ms Georgieva continues, speaking of the main challenges. “We had to find highly experienced dispatchers, grow our commercial team, establish new roles, work on health and safety and had very limited time to do so. As a manager, this was my biggest challenge, but now that we’ve had our first 365 days with steady gas flow and 0 transportation interruptions, I must say we did exceptionally well as a team. ICGB’s biggest strength as a TSO is its dedicated staff.”

Current registered users are quite diverse and Ms Georgieva mentions Bulgarian and Greek companies as the majority of shippers in terms of origin.

“In addition, the rest of our shippers for now are mainly EU-based companies,” she adds. “Some of the registered shippers are globally active commodity trading companies and we also have domestic natural gas suppliers within the Bulgarian market.”

Lately, ICGB has also experienced a growing interest from companies that are engaged in liquified natural gas (LNG) trading, in particular companies that are sourcing LNG from the existing and planned Floating Storage Regasification Units (FSRUs) on the territory of Greece.

“This diverse range of shippers, from local to global players, is a strong indication that the IGB pipeline is a critical infrastructure in the energy supply change of the region,” the company’s Executive Officer continues. “The interconnector is developed in great synergy with Greece’s growing portfolio of LNG terminals and this will create more joint benefits for our countries in the years to come.”

The interest keeps growing for next year, as over 82 per cent of the total technical capacity for the next gas year (2023-2024) has already been booked.

“We’re offering the remaining capacity at regular daily, monthly and quarterly auctions and I’m certain the percentage will continue improving,” points out Ms Georgieva. “Most of the reserved capacity for now is secured by market participants who have also booked capacity at the LNG terminals in Greece. ICGB offers capacity at the interconnection points both with Trans-Adriatic Gas Pipeline (TAP) and DESFA to make sure we provide users with the option to have access to quantities from the upcoming terminal in Alexandroupolis.”

This growing interest has led to discussions about expanding the interconnector’s capacity to 5 billion cubic metres (bcm) per year (from 3 bcm/year today), by constructing a compressor station in Komotini, Greece, where the gas pipeline connects to the Greek gas transmission network and to the TAP, giving Bulgaria direct access to the Southern Gas Corridor.

“From the early planning stage of the project the possibility of increasing the pipeline’s capacity to 5 bcm per year in case of market interest has been set in our regulatory framework,” underlines Teodora Georgieva. “In July this year, ICGB launched an incremental capacity process to assess what is the market demand for increasing the capacity of the interconnector. The procedure consists of two main phases and is carried out in close cooperation with the operators of neighbouring transmission systems.”

For now, she goes on, the first non-binding phase was concluded with positive market indications for expansion of the technical capacity, as the demand received was significant in terms of volume, as well as in duration.

“We registered requests for substantial additional capacity for the next few gas years in the interconnection points of IGB with the Greek national operator DESFA and the Bulgarian national operator Bulgartransgaz,” she says. “The next steps, depending on the final conclusions based on the results, would include the preparation of project proposals, conducting a public consultation and submitting a final project proposal to the relevant national regulatory authorities. After that, of course, we expect the binding phase of the process.”

The IGB will play indeed a greater role once the FSRU in Alexandroupolis begins its operations, as ICGB is already offering capacity at the interconnection point with DESFA in expectation of its launch.

“With the development of new infrastructure in close proximity and enabling new routes and sources of gas, IGB’s regional importance will be further boosted,” Ms Georgieva adds. “The two projects – IGB and the Alexandroupolis FSRU, have excellent synergy and together will serve to strengthen the energy security in the region.”

Finally, looking at the future and specifically about the potential of hydrogen and the role of the IGB in this regard, Teodora Georgieva mentions that transporting hydrogen in the mix “is something we are currently exploring – there needs to be a thorough research and analysis on how we could achieve this in a sustainable and cost-effective manner in the future. However,” she concludes, “we need to be mindful of the fact that for hydrogen transportation to become a reality in the long run, all adjacent TSOs need to develop their infrastructure to allow this.”

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