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Slovakia’s regional coal phase-out to be an example for other coal regions in Europe

In 2023, Slovakia ended coal power generation at the last remaining coal power plant in the Upper Nitra region. According to the Powering Past Coal Alliance (PPCA), this will result in an annual decrease of 1.2 million tonnes in carbon dioxide emissions, in other words, around 4 per cent of national emissions.

It has been a very long-awaited decision, especially considering the role played by coal in the country, throughout the past century and very recent government resolutions that supported the extraction of coal, amidst European calls to end up subsidies for fossil fuels. Today, after the adoption of the EU Climate Law and several national policies aimed at reaching carbon neutrality by 2050, coal doesn’t fit the picture anymore. However, it is not always easy, as one of the pillars of the energy transition is exactly the concept of not leaving anyone behind and the transformation of the coal regions together with the industry’s thousands of workers, is indeed a pressing issue.

A 100-year-long extraction

coal

Historically, the Upper Nitra brown coal basin has always been the richest and most extensive in Slovakia and the first attempts to extract coal stretch back to the 18th century with the opening of the Handlová Mine in 1909. This means that Slovakia has extracted brown coal for more than one hundred years. And as recently as 2005, the government decided to adopt a resolution to support coal-powered electricity and consumers paid around 100 million euros per year to fund feed-in tariffs and subsidise the sector.

Thus, in 2021, coal accounted for 16 per cent of Slovakia’s energy mix and despite a commitment to reach 24 per cent of renewables in the latest National Energy and Climate Plan (NECP), the European Commission said that more must be done to accelerate the country’s decarbonisation.

And in fact, the government has since then acknowledged the cost of coal, both for the environment and the citizens (especially considering that recent estimations pointed at around 500 million euros per year in damages to the health of citizens after the 2005 decision to support coal). Therefore, in 2018, it has identified 2023 as the year to end the subsidy for electricity generation from domestic coal. And, shortly after, Slovakia became a member of the Powering Past Coal Alliance.

Also within the Recovery and Resilience Plan (RPP), the decommissioning of the coal power plant in Nováky and the transition of the coal mining region are listed as the two major steps to achieve decarbonisation. To mitigate the impact of the cessation of mining activities on employees, the 2021-2027 cohesion policy funds will invest 8.5 billion euros in the green transition and the Just Transition Fund will foster job creation in regions with coal mining (we are talking about approximately 11,000 people employed by the coal industry as a whole and coal mines accounting for 4,000 jobs.)

The main challenges

In its Territorial Just Transition Plan for 2021-2027, Slovakia underlined three pillars reflecting the priorities and challenges of the coal regions: first, economic diversification, to support new businesses; second, clean transition and brownfield revitalisation, by increasing solar and geothermal capacity, having greater energy efficiency in public buildings, investing into brownfield sites and developing smart and sustainable transport including small-scale pilot projects of hydrogen mobility; third, reskilling and retraining for workers.

“Slovakia’s power sector is historically less carbon intensive than that of many of its European neighbours and as such, the decarbonisation of its electricity generation is relatively straightforward,” explains Alexandru Mustață, Beyond Fossil Fuel campaigner. “The bigger challenge is getting coal and fossil gas out of its heating sector. That relies on the widespread renovation of buildings and the installation of heat pumps, paired with an ambitious rollout of wind and solar to provide clean, affordable, renewable power to a newly electrified heating sector. Regrettably, the government is not currently doing enough on either of these fronts.”

For Richard Raši, Minister of Investments, Regional Development and Informatisation, “social destabilisation and the need to employ people in other sectors belong among major challenges.”

“Mining has been an important sector in the Nitra region for decades. Its phase-out means unemployment and economic decline in the region,” he tells CEENERGYNEWS, noting also, on a positive side that a phase-out brings gradual diversification.

coal“The mining company – Hornonitrianske Bane Prievidza expanded its business activities to organic tomato cultivation and fish farming while efficiently recovering the energy of mining waters,” Minister Raši emphasises, citing the significant environmental damage caused by coal mining such as soil, water and air pollution. “Therefore, Slovakia wants to revitalise these territories and attract new investors. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, energy security has become a major topic. Despite the situation, Slovakia honours its commitment to phase out coal mining.”

The specific case of the Upper Nitra region

Specifically to the Upper Nitra region, the Ministry has been actively addressing the problem since 2019, after years of what the Minister has defined as “negligence” from the previous government.

“Several measures have been implemented to create a safety net for the affected employees,” Minister Richard Raši explains. “In 2020, we launched a re-qualification project under OP Human Resources funded from EU resources. We set up three centres in Upper Nitra for miners and their families. These offer counselling in education and training, trade licences, legal advice and psychological and social support. Using the Just Transition Fund and the resources of the 2021-2027 programme period, we launched a new re-qualification project. We have enlarged the target group to include employees of the Nováky coal power plant. The participants will acquire new skills to smoothly transition to new jobs offered by the labour market.”

Mentioning the over 226 million euros in financial support from the European Union, Mr Mustață says that some of these will go to projects for retraining and improving the employability of coal miners and other workers.

“They will benefit either directly, for example, from job creation in Handlová’s new industrial park, or indirectly, through financial support granted to local small and medium enterprises,” he says. “Furthermore, a decommissioned coal site will be transformed into the largest solar power plant in Slovakia, providing households and businesses with clean, affordable electricity – while the retired mines themselves have the potential to be used as heat reservoirs in combination with heat pumps to reduce reliance on fossil fuel imports.”

Leading by example

Indeed, the path taken by Slovakia can be an example for other neighbouring countries in the CEE region, like Poland, which are also dependent on coal and are working towards a just transition of the coal regions.

While underlining that each country has its specific conditions, Minister Raši says that cooperation and sharing experiences can contribute to the successful transformation of other regions.

“The transition process must not leave communities in insecurity,” he points out. “Active communication and cooperation with the local population, businesses and non-profit organisations are key. A sound long-term transition plan must consider social consequences to minimise negative impacts on the economy and social stability.”

“The Upper Nitra region is a great example of public authorities actively bringing together public institutions from all levels with entrepreneurs, residents and NGOs like Friends of the Earth-CEPA to collectively plan a timely coal exit,” agrees Mr Mustață. “It’s hard to overstate the benefits that this has for Slovakia. Not only is it great news for people’s health, but it also provides an economic dividend, saving up to 605 million euros as shown by the study: Decarbonisation of the Slovak economy by 2030.”

Undeniably, Slovakia has begun 2024 in the right direction towards decarbonisation, with the closing of the Nováky (266 megawatts) power plant and with the plan to end coal activities later this year also in the last power plant (Vojany, 200 MW). This decision has brought the country’s coal phase-out forward by an impressive six years, with major benefits for people’s health and the Slovakian economy. The neighbouring country of Austria has also decided to abandon its plan to revitalise its coal power plant and is betting on renewables, ranking second among European countries with the highest renewable energy share in power generation for 2023. Maybe a domino effect that will expand to other countries in CEE. After all, there are only 16 years to 2040, by which date, the European Commission has just recommended decreasing the EU greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 90 per cent compared to 1990 levels.

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