Russian gas: Czech and Slovak homes eye alternatives
Czech and Slovakian households have been using natural gas as an energy source for decades. Until recently, many had considered gas an affordable, reliable and relatively eco-friendly way to keep their homes warm.
Almost all gas used in the Czech Republic and Slovakia is sourced from Russia. But since Moscow launched its war on Ukraine, the EU has been pushing to drastically reduce imports from Russia.
This, however, represents a serious challenge for the Czech Republic and Slovakia. How will people heat their homes? And how will their industries cope without gas?
Czech households have been told to increase their advance payments for gas deliveries next year. They are considerably higher than in the past. It is clear the cost of gas is rising dramatically. Czechs and Slovaks living in small single-family homes are facing prepayments of €200-300 ($214-321) per month — sums that low-income households are finding hard to stomach.
And it could get worse.
"It would be very difficult to stock up European gas reserves should Russian gas deliveries end before summer, because it would be impossible to make up for 40% of Russian gas overnight," says Czech energy security czar Vaclav Bartuska.
"Germany, the Czech Republic and other countries face a similar problem, though private households and critical infrastructure sectors would be the last to have their gas supplies cut off."
Heat pumps on the rise
Countless Czech households are now thinking about installing heat pumps. Running such a heating system is currently 20%-30% cheaper than using gas. Heat pumps also have the edge over other alternatives such as coal or wood, which have become 20% and 60% more expensive, respectively.
Heap pumps are sought-after also because they are partially subsidized by the Czech state. Low-income households can have almost the entire costs covered by the state, albeit no more than €4,000 ($4,290).
Czech companies installing the heating systems report a spike in demand compared with last year. Many are already booked out for months in advance.
"After Russia's invasion of Ukraine, we saw a dramatic rise in interest in heat pumps; demand increased almost tenfold compared with last spring," Marek Blaha, who runs one of the country's leading heat pump firms IVT Tepelna cerpadla, told the news portal idnes.cz. Each year, his company installs thousands of the systems.
Bartuska says supplying enough electricity to run them should pose no issue at all. "The Czech Republic still produces more power than it uses; we export roughly 10-12 terawatt-hours of electricity each year," says the energy expert.
In Slovakia, the situation looks far more complicated. While the state has announced a program to subsidize households seeking to install heat pumps and interest is substantial, the funds pledged are anything but. "Only €15 million ($16 million) have been made available, and without state support most households cannot afford the up-front cost," explains Ronald Izip, editor-in-chief at Trend, a Slovak business magazine.
This explains why, he says, most households are still sticking with gas to heat their homes.
Thermal isolation is key but costly
Fitting homes with better thermal insulation is another way to reduce heating costs. But both countries suffer from a lack of companies that produce such insulation, meaning that prices for it are high. Even when subsidies are available, households face costs of several tens of thousands of euros each.
Czech economist Lukas Kovanda, who is on the government's economic advisory council, says getting a heat pump fitted is currently more cost-efficient than hastily installing thermal insulation. "Buying a heat pump can spare you possible side-effects of having insulation fitted, such as mold, which can grow when the wrong kind of polystyrene insulation is installed," says Kovanda.
The Czech Environment Ministry has nonetheless set up a special scheme to help poorer households at least partially insulate their homes. "The program is designed to help residents insulate roofs, attics, outward-facing walls, or replace some windows or doors," explains Environment Minister Anna Hubackova.
"The aim is for people to be able apply to apply for the money easily, without needing to fill in complicated forms," she says. So far, €40 million ($42 million) have been earmarked for the scheme.
The government of Slovakia is also pushing for households to install thermal insulation.
"The insulation drive is receiving €500 million ($536 million) out of the EU stimulus package; the program will begin in September, and it is expected that the Slovak people will show great interest in the scheme," says Ronald Izip.
Is nuclear power the answer?
None of these measures can offset the marked rise in energy costs, let alone make up for a potential import ban on Russian gas. That is why Czech and Slovakian lawmakers are relying on existing nuclear power stations and eyeing the construction of new reactors.
"The state should address the root of the problem and direct its energy and available financial means toward building new nuclear power plants," says Czech economist Kovanda.
The Czech Republic plans to build new reactors generating some 2400 megawatts of power by 2036. Slovakia, which has been constructing two new reactors with an output of 940 megawatts at the Mochovce nuclear power plant since 2008, plans to put them into operation later this year or in 2023.
This article was originally written in German.