Lithuania to move beyond biomass in record energy transition

Stelmuze Oak, an English (Pedunculate) oak tree in Stelmuze village, Lithuania. It is the oldest oak in Lithuania and one of the oldest in Europe.
Stelmuze Oak, an English (Pedunculate) oak tree in Stelmuze village, Lithuania. It is the oldest oak in Lithuania and one of the oldest in Europe.

Lithuania is a country undergoing an energy transition at record speed, with ambitions now to move beyond biomass. So, while some EU governments are still debating whether they need new pipelines, or can turn off the natural gas tap, Lithuania has been transforming its heat supply: Firstly using domestic biomass to exit the era of energy dependence on Russia; now upgrading its networks and eyeing new possibilities in the form of solar and heat pumps. 

For Lithuania, the transition story starts in places like Stelmuze — Stelmuze is all about wood. This little village in the forests of northeastern Lithuania is known for its wooden chapel built without saws or iron nails; and for the famous Stelmuze Oak. At 23m tall and over 1,500 years of age, the Stelmuze Oak is claimed to be the oldest such tree in Europe, with a trunk requiring no fewer than nine people holding hands to wrap it in a human embrace. 

The old and vast Lithuanian forests are also the scene for one of Europe’s fastest and most extensive energy transitions from fossil fuels to renewables. The tale of this transition is made up of a dramatic mix of international politics, climate action, and technological progress. 

Fastest and vastest energy transition in Europe 

When Lithuania declared its independence from Russia in 1990 and joined the European Union in 2004, it also had to break free from its energy dependency. Being part of the Soviet Union, Lithuania not only hosted the Tjernobyl type nuclear power plant Ignalina, but also, like most Eastern European countries, Lithuania’s highly developed district heating grid was fuelled almost entirely with Russian natural gas or heavy oil. 

The transition has been remarkable, says Director of the Lithuanian Energy Institute, Dr Sigitas Rimkevičius:

“In 2013, we still produced most of our district heat with natural gas imported from Russia. Since then, our energy transition from gas to renewable energy has set a world record both in speed and dimension. As a matter of fact, only three years later, the share of renewable energy had grown to almost 70%, which makes it one of the highest shares of Europe. We call it a European record.”

Heat grids and the value of native forests 

Dr Sigitas Rimkevičius, Director of Lithuanian Energy Institute
Dr Sigitas Rimkevičius, Director of Lithuanian Energy Institute

While the concept of district heating is still new to some Western European countries — like the UK with a modest share of 2% — literally all Lithuanian towns have a heat grid, with more than half of all households connected.

The pace of the Lithuanian energy transition becomes even more evident when compared with other larger and more powerful EU economies. While Germany, for instance, plans on importing even more natural gas from Russia via the Nord Stream pipeline currently under construction, Lithuania has taken advantage of support from EU Structural Funds to get off the gas tap. 

Dr Valdas Lukoševičius, President of the Lithuanian District Heating Association
Dr Valdas Lukoševičius, President of the Lithuanian District Heating Association

Biomass has had a key part to play, says Dr Valdas Lukoševičius, President of the Lithuanian District Heating Association (LDHA):

“Lithuanian forests are not only big, they are also among the most fit for wood production in the world. So, being able to use excess biomass from the lumber industry is not only cheaper and climate friendly, it’s also an act of national liberation!” 

Affordability is an critical challenge for energy transition processes all over the world. Lithuania has actually managed to keep prices decreasing since 2011 — mostly thanks to local biomass and technological progress. In fact, the average price of local biomass used for district heating corresponds to roughly a third of the price of natural gas. 

Next challenge: Beyond biomass 

Despite considerable successes, however, transformation of the district heating sector is far from over, says Lukoševičius:

“We can see new challenges looming, as biomass is increasingly under scrutiny for its actual climate impact. And while the biomass used in our networks is a sustainably sourced by-product of the lumber industry, global competition creates more and more pressure, making it an increasingly scarce resource.”

This is why the country is already looking towards the next phase of the transition, beyond biomass. In the coming months, more efficient CHP plants that combine heat and electricity production will come online to replace simple biomass boilers.

The local climate poses particular challenges. Lithuanian winters are cold and covering those high heat demands will prove almost impossible with renewable energy sources, but there are other emerging opportunities explains Lukoševičius:

“Using solar instead of biomass for hot water production during the summer months is the first possibility we are now looking into. It is not an easy switch, though. An important precondition for phasing in solar is to reduce the operating temperature in the grid to 60°C. That in turn will require reducing heat losses both in the building stock and the grid.”

Indeed, Lithuania already achieved a milestone in renewable power generation with the ‘world first’ launch last year of a remote solar energy consumer model — the ‘Solar Community’ project from Sun Investment Group.

From Šalčininkai to the rest of the world 

With its almost 7,000 inhabitants, Šalčininkai is a small town in a small country. It is also one of Lithuania’s newest towns, developed as the centre of the surrounding district in 1972. That said, its socio-political history is still in evidence.

The generous ground plan of Šalčininkai with the spacious and precisely calculated grid points to its Soviet heritage. Schools and dormitories, a new nursery, cinema and a local government building all also display the fine detailed and clean lines that are emblematic of the architecture and city planning of the late Soviet Union. 

However, being more than 30 years old, the town’s district heating network also displays the disadvantages of this legacy — namely, significant heat losses due both to poorly insulated building stock and over-dimensioned heat generation and transmission installations.

According to Lukoševičius, heat consumption in Lithuanian buildings is twice as high as in western Europe countries.

Šalčininkai has therefore been selected as a pilot in the Upgrade DH project funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Programme, with both the Šalčininkai district heating company and the LDHA as partners.

Artur Danulevič, CEO of Šalčininkai district heating company, outlines the programme of works involved:

“In Šalčininkai we are replacing the old Soviet steel pipes with pre-insulated pipes with significantly better insulation. Partly, we will even be using flexible pre-insulated plastic pipes, which despite limited operating temperatures, are starting to become very popular due to their improved flow characteristics. They are easy to install and reduce heat losses to a minimum.”

Thanks to the EU-backed programme, insights and learnings from the small town in southeastern Lithuania are set to be replicated all over Europe. A network optimisation plan will further decrease heat losses — and bring Lithuania closer to a future where heat will be produced by even smarter renewable technologies, including solar thermal and heat pumps. 

For the near future, therefore, all state support for biomass is cancelled, plus new subsidies for smart and sustainable solutions are already in the pipeline. The country is still reaching out for help to continue on its transition journey, though, concludes Dr Valdas Lukoševičius:

“We need all the support we can get for the transformation. Our government in Vilnius is ready, but the EU needs to give green light. Then, the Lithuanian energy transformation record challenge can continue.”

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