One of the basic rules of the Acquis Communitaire (EU binding standards and laws) Slovakia must follow in order to enter the European Union by its stated goal of 2004 is to liberalise energy prices and open the energy market to foreign competitors. But to do this, both Slovak producers and consumers have to stop wasting energy which is heavily subsidised by the state.
According to energy analysts, only 30% of the electricity produced by Slovak power plants actually gets to consumers. When one compares expenditures on energy with the country's gross domestic product, Slovakia spends eight times more on energy than Germany and almost one and half times more than the neighbouring Czech Republic, reported the IVO think-tank in their 1999 Global Report on Slovakia.
The Slovak government and the EU are keen to fix this imbalance. So when the Menert energy company, which advises firms and state authorities on efficient energy use, was given 50,000 Euros (2 million Slovak crowns) last December by the EU energy program SAVE II (Specific Actions for Vigorous Energy Efficiency) to support energy saving measures in the Šaĺa-Galanta region 50 kilometres south-east of Bratislava, it was praised as a first small step toward energy conservation nationwide.
"We strongly support actvities like this, which help both regions and the whole country," said Jozef Urmín, an energy expert with the Economy Ministry. "Energy savings are a very progressive way to revitalise Slovak economy."
According to a United States Bein Institute study, in 1995 Slovak consumers paid only one-half the real production costs of energy, while fees from private companies covered the bare costs of production but little else besides.
These low prices have meant that people haven't thought twice about conserving energy. "Slovaks aren't used to saving energy," said Juraj Krivošík, an energy analyst working with the Slovak chapter of Greenpeace. "In the past, energy was very cheap because of state subsidies. But within the next four years this simply has to be changed."
Krivošík said that Slovakia was losing millions of crowns every day by wasting energy. Industry alone, he said, lost 10% of the electricity it bought through bad lines alone.
In-step with EU
Menert, a Slovak firm with 200 employees, has been advising private companies, schools and hospitals around the country on ways to save energy since 1992. "We can generate an indirect profit for my clients just by using energy more efficiently," said Miroslav Wollner, director of the Menert energy company.
Wollner believed that his efforts to help bodies conserve energy was essential to Slovakia's EU integration goals. "It's clear to me that if we want to pull Slovakia into the EU, we have to liberalise energy prices," he said. "But we won't be able to pay market prices at our current [high] rate of consumption. We have to save energy, otherwise we won't survive."
The EU became interested in the project when Menert and Šaĺa-Galanta municipal bodies (pop. 148,000) applied for financial support from the SAVE II program. Because Slovakia was only an associated member of the EU, Wollner and company weren't able to apply directly for funding, but had to go through partners in EU member countries. Thanks to Wollner's business contacts the project was sponsored by the city of Watford (UK) and the office of Prenzlauger Berg von Berlin county in Germany. The European Commission approved the project, which will offer low-fee consulting to interested entities in the Šaĺa-Galanta area, on December 23 last year.
"We are bringing the EU to our small region and putting our region on the EU map," Wollner said. There are 172 such energy consulting projects in the EU, but this is the first in Slovakia. The project will start up this summer with schools, hospitals and private companies in the region already lining up for consulting services. The number of employees working on the project will be just five people at first, but the agency will co-operate with part time consultants, analysts and scientists.
Wollner has his work cut out for him. Energy waste in factories is hard to estimate, partly because firms are not willing to give outsiders access to what they consider confidential information. One of Slovakia's biggest chemical works and largest regional employers, Duslo Šaĺa, said that they would not divulge data on energy expenditures and use, and would also not comment on whether they would seek consultation.
But Šaľa regional representatives were more willing to accept the consulting offered by the project. Ladislav Pomóthy, head of the 100,000 people Galanta district, estimated that they could save eight million Slovak crowns every year by just upgrading the heating systems used in schools.
"I manage 150 schools. More than 80% of all costs consist of energy expenditures. I'm sure only through regulating heating systems more carefully and upgrading systems from coal to gas we could save 20 to 30% on our bills," said Pomóthy.
Wollner saw possible ways to save energy as upgrading heating systems from coal to gas, renovating distribution networks and installing consumption meters in individual flats. At the moment, each apartment building gets one bill which all the flat owners split equally. "People who know how much they have to spend on electricity, gas and hot water will be more careful about waste in their own homes," Wollner said.