TALLINN - The much-anticipated undersea power cable linking Estonia and Finland was launched on Dec. 4, ushering in a new era of a common Baltic-Nordic energy market and less dependence on Russian energy. Estonia's leaders and top EU officials hailed the 110 million euro project, with President Toomas Hendrik Ilves calling it "a new energy window to Europe."
The 105 kilometer cable, built by the ABB Group, is based on state-of-the-art technology. It is only 10 centimeters in diameter yet can handle 350 MW of power, enough to satisfy the needs of 300,000 households.
Estlink was a priority EU project for boosting regional energy security 's not just from the politicization of supplies, but also from inevitable blackouts 's and creating a better, safer power infrastructure between the bloc's 25 members.
For the Baltics, whose grids are still intertwined with Russia's electrical system, the cable represents increased energy security, particularly in light of the imminent closing of the second reactor of the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant in 2009.
EU Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs also attended the opening ceremony in Harju, just outside Tallinn. "In today's world, the security of supplies is critical," he said. "The Estlink cable builds more security of supply for the Baltic states but also for Finland."
Piebalgs, a native Latvian, added, "It is important for me that the Baltic states are no longer an island in the EU."
"It's a great piece of engineering, but the real importance of Estlink transcends pure engineering," ABB CEO Fred Kindle said after the ceremony. "It brings the Baltic and Nordic regions one step closer to a fully integrated electricity grid and does that at minimal environmental impact."
The Estlink project was launched in April 2005 by Nordic Energy Link. The owners include the Baltic states' three energy companies 's Eesti Energia, Latvenergo and Lietuvos Energija - and two Finnish utilities.
Project leaders warned, however, that the energy running back and forth across the cable wouldn't necessarily translate into cheaper electricity.
"We're building a bigger market area," said Sandor Liive, CEO of Eesti Energia. "What that means for customers is the best possible electricity price available at all times."
Despite the hoopla in Harju, Baltic energy leaders may clamor for yet more energy links to other EU neighbors.
Earlier this year, Prime Minister Andrus Ansip said that Estonia would need more power cables than just Estlink. "Its capacity is modest, so it is necessary to build further links," he said in March. "Most of the burden on building the connections will be borne by companies, but countries of the region and the EU must in every way possible promote the establishment of the necessary infrastructure."
Eesti Energia's Liive echoed the conclusion, saying in April that Estlink wouldn't be enough. "Estlink is the first serious cooperation project between the Baltic states and Finnish power companies. I am confident it will not be the last," said Liive, who is also chairman of Nordic Energy Link.
In particular, the Baltics would like to hook their power grids up to Sweden and Poland. "Only when the Baltic power grids are well connected with Northern and Western Europe will the prerequisites for a functioning electricity market be created in the Baltics," he said.
Proposed links for Estonia include a 600 MW cable to Sweden and another high-voltage undersea cable to Finland that would originate in either Paldiski to the west of Tallinn or Johvi on the northeastern coast.
In September, Lithuanian and Polish officials signed a protocol of intent to build a power bridge between the two countries. The signing comes after years of discussions and procrastination on Poland's end, since the country's previous leadership had different priorities for EU-funded projects.
"After a decade of discussions, we have finally made the first real step toward the integration of Lithuania's energy system into the common energy market of the European Union," said Lithuanian Economy Minister Vytas Navickas.
"Implementation of the project will also give impetus to the idea of the Baltic Ring 's a common free energy-market based on regional energy systems around the Baltic Sea."