The Western Balkan states contain seven of the 10 most polluting coal-fired power plants in Europe. Several are being converted to solar power and the rest are likely to be gone in a few years, in a smooth transition that’s been hailed by European leaders as a model for others to follow.
North Macedonia’s government has just issued a tender for investors to construct two photovoltaic power plants in partnership with state power utility Elektrani na Severna Makedonija (ESM), which would have a combined capacity of up to 100 megawatts.
They’re on the site of a former 125MW lignite coal mine in Oslomej, and their commissioning will meet the twin goals of cutting air pollution and tackling climate change.
North Macedonia is racing ahead to transition from coal to solar, and there’s no shortage of bidders for the opportunities presented.
Turkish EPC contractor Giri?im Elektrik is one investor who’s already signed up to invest EUR 6.9 million (AUD $11.78 million) in a previously tendered 10 MW plant for the same location. Seventeen bids were received, of which eight entered a final assessment.
Giri?im has already built the largest PV plant in Algeria, with an installed capacity of 1.2 GW, and various renewable energy power plants in Turkey.
A further 126 bids have been submitted for another 62 MW of capacity. The full 200 MW will be reached by the end of 2021.
Europe’s plans to reach net-zero on greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 is being opposed by coal-dependent member countries, notably Poland, but this initiative has been praised by European leaders as showing a way for coal-dependent regions to retain economic security at the same time as transitioning to a green future.
The power utility would receive one tenth of the revenues arising from the sale of the solar electricity on the open market for 35 years, after which the ownership will be transferred to a public partner.
“With this project, North Macedonia shows an excellent example of how coal regions can be profitably transformed, providing new employment opportunities for former coal workers and driving sustainable regional development,” Janez Kopac, the head of the Vienna-based Energy Community Secretariat, said in a statement.
“The government took a bold step by giving civil society organisations the opportunity to be included from the early stages of the preparation of the strategy,” said Nevena Smilevska, program coordinator for climate at Eko-svest.
“This, in turn, resulted in a strategy that provides a clear roadmap towards a coal phase-out, brings great opportunities for investments in renewables, but also responsibility to both national and local authorities. It is crucial that they now work with local communities to plan for the just transition of the Oslomej and Bitola coal regions, to make sure no-one is left behind.”
Located on the old overburden tip, the proposed plant will sell electricity on the open market and receive premiums from the government.
The Bitola region’s solar plant is also being developed on the site of a coal mining and power generation complex.
The country plans to stop using coal for energy production by 2040 at the latest and regards a phase-out by 2025 as the cheapest option, all things considered, but will make a final decision later this year.
Coal currently is responsible for half of power generation, and 1600 premature deaths every year in the country, according to the World Bank. Its 2016 report put the economic cost linked to mortality from exposure to air pollution at $500–900 million annually, equivalent to 5.2–8.5 per cent of national output.
Europe without coal
Fifteen countries have announced targets to end coal burning, according to campaign group Europe Beyond Coal. Since January 2016, 83 coal plants have been retired or announced to be retired with 240 plants yet to go. Denmark, Spain, the Netherlands, Portugal and Finland aim to phase out coal by 2030.
To find out the most successful exit strategies for coal the group has conducted interviews in each country to come up with a list of “do’s and don’ts”.
It includes the use of an ambitious target that’s written into law, wind and solar to replace coal, a price on carbon, not leaving coal dependent communities behind, and closing the dirtiest plants first.
Solar is cheaper, cleaner, and more efficient than coal, and that’s good news because according to another study from the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, there’s enough solar potential in Europe’s coal regions to produce 730.3 GW of electricity. This is equivalent to 874.3 TWh of production to replace the electricity output of the coal plants operating there, at a lower cost than current retail prices, by using half of the available technical “potential” in coal and mining regions.
According to researchers Sandbag, electricity generation from European coal power stations has already fallen by 19 per cent and the European Parliamentary Research Service estimates that by 2030 around 160,000 direct jobs in the coal sector may be lost.
Solar projects around the world often employ former coal workers. A Google data centre in Widows Creek, Alabama, USA, is powered by two nearby 143 MW solar installations on the site of a closed coal plant, providing 75 to 100 ongoing jobs in the data centre and more than 400 construction jobs.
David Thorpe is author of the books Solar Technology and the new One Planet Cities. He also runs on line courses such as Post-Graduate Certificate in One Planet Governance. He is based in the UK.