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New EU Needs to Go Green

As part of its obligations as a new EU member, Estonia must increase its share of renewable energy. It's a difficult task for the small country, but committed environmentalists are trying to find new sources of energy.

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Raimo Pirksaar, 26, says Estonia needs to develop renewable energy sources.

Engineer Raimo Pirksaar is on his way to Estonia's sole wind energy park on the country's west coast. Only three wind turbines are in operation, but it's a start. Under EU directives Estonia needs to increase its share of renewable energy to 5.1 percent by the year 2005. It currently stands at just one percent.

Wind energy is expected to make up at least one third of that figure, says Pirksaar. Estonia's coastline is blessed with a continual strong breeze and several large wind energy plants are already being planned.

Measuring the benefits of alternative energy

The 26-year-old engineer, who is researching the impact of wind energy on Estonia's power grid, says it is important to determine how electricity generated from different types of turbines effects the outdated grid system. Models vary in quality and older ones especially can cause problems for the weak grid, says Pirksaar, who hopes his measurements will show how many turbines the state-run electricity system can safely manage.

But there's another problem. Wind is not a continuous, non-stop source of electricity, and the supply gap can hardly be filled by Estonia's obsolete power plants which run on oil shale.

"Sometimes there's a strong wind, sometimes there isn't, so the turbines aren't producing power all the time, and the oil shale plants can't pick up the slack so quickly," Pirksaar explains. "It takes hours to either boost or scale down output. That's the problem."

Rethinking Estonia's power supply

Oil shale is Estonia's main power source and has rendered the country practically self-sufficient in the energy sector, but it also has the negative side effects of carbon dioxide and other toxic emissions. According to EU environmental guidelines, to which Estonia now must also adhere, these greenhouse gases have to be drastically reduced by the year 2005.

A major step towards this goal is the modernization of the Soviet-era power plants.

Up in the north of the country, along the Estonian-Russian border, near the town of Narva, the state power supplier Eesti Energia has taken the initiative and launched a new program to reduce emissions. Valdur Lahtvee, environmental manager of the utility giant and co-founder of Estonia's Green movement says that 10 million tons of oil shale are burned annually in energy production, but only less than a third is actually suitable for energy use. The rest ends up as ash mixed with water on dump sites.

"It's the environment that suffers. The Estonians are working on it, harnessing the latest in power plant technolgy," Lahtvee says. And so far the plant in Narva has managed to cut sulfur dioxide emissions by 95 percent. It's a figure he's proud of: "New technology enhances efficiency and productivity from 28 to 36 percent, and significantly reduces emissions of carbon dioxide."

Eesti Energia has plans on the drafting table to convert smaller plants from oil shale to biomass-based energy suppliers. But so far such goals are still a ways off in the future.

Reserves of biomass, such as wood waste and sawdust, are found in abundance in a country so full of forests as Estonia. The alternative energy source, however, has hardly been exploited for mass power supply. Only on the individual level, in a few small villages such as Avirnurme in central Estonia, has biomass been used to provide heat for the residents by using modern technology to burn wood waste.

Raimo Pirksaar hopes Estonia will look to such smaller examples for a nationwide energy plan and begin investing more in the study and harnessing of renewable energy sources for the future.

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