Energy company gets tough: Debtors warned, strategic investor sought

  • 1999-01-28
  • Paul Beckman
VILNIUS - The Lithuanian power company, Lietuvos Energija, is speaking loudly and promising the proverbial big stick in early February should their demands on Belarus and the PowerBridge Group go unfulfilled.

In mid-January, the company gave Belarus, which has yet to pay an electric bill exceeding $100,000, until early February to hammer out a realistic payment plan.

The PowerBridge Group, which needed extra time chalking up a list of investors for an electric power line to the West, was also warned it must present its list by the new Feb.8 deadline. Lietuvos Energija hinted that if its demands are not met, it could mean lights out for the former and deal's off for the latter.

The issue of Belarus' financial debt to Lietuvos Energija for its electrical export, has been a big concern for Lithuanian officials for months. Despite payment promises made by Belarusian officials, including President Alexander Lukashenko himself last November, the amount of money owed to Lietuvos Energija continues to rise.

According to a Lietuvos Energija spokesman, the time of patiently waiting, however, is quickly dwindling.

"We had a meeting with the Belarusians [in the third week of January]," said the spokesman. "We wanted a decision about how they would cover their debt. So we gave them two weeks to come to a particular conclusion on how to pay - whether in goods or money."

The spokesman did not rule out the possibility of cutting power to Belarus if they do not come up with an acceptable payment plan.

The annoying nature of Belarus' debt situation has led Lietuvos Energija and the Lithuanian government to look upon the PowerBridge project as a "strategic" one.

The PowerBridge Group, a consortium of the American companies Duke Engineering & Services, The Stanton Group, Siguler Guff and CalEnergy is planning to build an electric power line from Lithuania to Western Europe. After the completion of the project Lithuania hopes to export its excess energy to more reliable customers.

On Oct. 31, 1998 the PowerBridge group and Lietuvos Energija signed a "supplemental project agreement" which committed both sides to carrying out the project. According to a joint statement, the PowerBridge Group's responsibilities includes "investing funds and securing other financing, as well as finding customers for Lithuanian electricity exports."

When the PowerBridge Group failed to produce a "satisfactory" list of project investors, Lietuvos Energija announced they would consider canceling the agreement unless the group could muster up an acceptable list by Feb. 8.

"The PowerBridge [Group] did not give us an exact list of participants nor what kind of money they would pay," said the Lietuvos Energija spokesman. "They've been looking for [investors] for a long time and we agreed to postpone the deadline until February 8."

News articles about the subject appeared in dramatic style in some Lithuanian newspapers. The daily Lietuvos Rytas, for example, printed an ELTA story entitled "Electric line project to the West is falling".

The magazine "Veidas" ran a picture of PowerBridge's Lithuanian representative, Linas Kojelis, at the bottom end of their weekly "good news/bad news" scale.

But both Kojelis and the Lietuvos Energija spokesman offered calmer assessments of the PowerBridge deal's status. Kojelis told TBT that the date was postponed after a "normal exchange" of words with Lietuvos Energija. He also added that collecting enough investors by the Feb. 8 deadline would not be too tall an order.

"We've got buckets of investors," said Kojelis. "It's not that there aren't any investors. They are just taking their time sifting through the information. The Stanton people are [meeting some] from the United States, UK and even Germany. We are on these investors and will have the batting order [of participants] by Feb. 8."

Should the investor issue get smoothed over by Feb. 8, the project can proceed as planned. The two sides expect that 6 billion kilowatt-hours yearly of electric power from Lithuania will begin flowing across the planned lines to Western Europe no later than Jan. 1, 2002.