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Bulgaria’s realistic path to carbon neutrality includes nuclear and natural gas

The 12 States of Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia have just gathered for the Three Seas Initiative (3SI) Summit in Sofia, confirming again the importance of a close regional cooperation, especially in the energy field.

EU’s climate policy poses major challenges and tasks to CEE

Bulgaria, as the hosting country, has put again on the table the debate around the role of natural gas and nuclear in the energy transition. As the European Union aims to reduce its carbon emissions by 55 per cent by 2030, some countries from Central and Eastern Europe, which highly rely on gas and nuclear for their electricity production are afraid to be left behind, despite many reassurances by the European Commission that this will be a Just Transition.

“The EU’s ambitious climate policy poses major challenges and tasks to Central and Eastern European countries, which would be difficult to overcome without common efforts,” Minister of Energy Andrey Zhivkov tells CEENERGYNEWS. “Given that more than 75 per cent of EU carbon emissions are the result of energy production and consumption, the energy sector is expected to play a key role in the transition to a carbon-neutral economy by transforming it into a cleaner, more secure, competitive, flexible and accessible one.”

Source: Three Seas Initiative Summit

Overall, Members of the Initiative said to be fully aligned with the goals of the Paris Agreement, the European Green Deal and the Trans-European Networks (TEN) instrument. The joint declaration adopted at the end of the Summit emphasised that strengthening energy security and diversification of routes and sources of supply across the region, together with the just transition to a climate-neutral energy sector, is among the top priorities.

“The Central and Eastern European Region will be increasingly attractive to large-scale strategic investments, thanks to the strengthened cooperation within the Three Seas Initiative,” stated Bulgaria’s President Rumen Radev opening the Summit.

Decarbonising Bulgaria’s energy sector

However, on one hand, decarbonising the energy sector is a particular challenge for Bulgaria. According to a policy brief by the Centre for the Study of Democracy entitled Accelerating the Energy Transition in Bulgaria: A Roadmap to 2050, lignite plants generate roughly 40 per cent of the country’s electricity and employ more than 43,000 workers. Thus, the country is caught between the EU’s net-zero carbon ambitions for 2030 and 2050 and the slow diffusion of renewables and energy efficiency.

On the other hand, Olivier Marquette, President of AES Bulgaria and Head of Business Development Eurasia reminds that the country has been the 2nd EU Member State to meet its 2020 renewable energy targets.

“The new targets are still under negotiation, but there are a number of positive factors which will support all Member States, including Bulgaria, to reach their next targets,” he tells CEENERGYNEWS.

Among these factors, he acknowledges the massive decrease in the cost of renewable energy and the speed of their deployment.

“Over the last 10 years (from 2010 to 2019) the price of PV modules, onshore wind turbines and Li-ion battery pack decreased respectively by about 90 per cent, 60 per cent and 90 per cent,” he goes on. “The lower prices are among key incentives for massive deployment of renewable energy facilities.”

Source: AES Bulgaria

As an example, he mentioned that AES is partnering with solar technology innovator 5B to offer a technology that delivers up to two times more solar energy, three times faster while using 50 per cent less land and making clean energy available in places previously thought of as impossible.

”We’re removing the barriers to widespread solar energy adoption, ushering in a new wave of customers to meet their short-term and long-term clean energy goals,” he underlines. “The third factor relates to the availability of funding. Thanks to the EU funds channelled through the Recovery and Resilience Facility, investments in renewable energy will represent a priority for Bulgaria.”

Regional and international cooperation is key

In this regard, cooperation is key. Not only within the region but also with international partners, like Germany, the European Commission and the United States with whom Bulgaria has signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) last October for strategic cooperation in the field of nuclear energy for civilian purposes.

“A key task for governments in the region is to create an attractive investment and business climate based on the principles of free market, transparency and competitiveness,” Minister Zhivkov points out. “The significant improvement of infrastructure connections between the countries in the Three Seas Region, including in the energy sector, is a prerequisite for deepening economic cooperation among them. Synergy in the development of different types of infrastructure has long-term effects such as the creation of new supply chains and new jobs, and closer integration of our economies and societies.”

A good example for him is the development of the gas infrastructure, including the construction of interconnections and liquefied natural gas terminals.

“Joint regional energy projects in the field of RES, nuclear energy, natural gas, hydrogen and other decarbonised gases will be a practical expression of the cooperation among the countries of the Initiative, contributing to their economic growth and energy security,” the Minister continues. “Deepening interaction among Central and Eastern European countries, as well as Transatlantic cooperation, will allow the Initiative to contribute to the post-pandemic recovery of the region, by attracting new investments to finance trans-regional and cross-border projects of strategic importance.”

The role of natural gas and nuclear energy

Although the ideal low-carbon energy mix of the future is based on renewable sources, the Minister has recognised the limited progress in the development of energy storage systems, something that makes natural gas more important in the medium term as well. For him, a realistic path to a sustainable carbon-free economy includes using both renewables and nuclear energy as a baseline while natural gas is considered as a transition fuel. Especially if we take into account the development of new gases like hydrogen and the importance of adapting the existing infrastructure.

“There is no one size fits all solution for all Member States and it really depends on the starting position of each Member State and the availability of technologies in their markets,” adds Mr Marquette. “In the case of Bulgaria, there is actually a great variety of technologies that can contribute to the decarbonisation of the electricity sector, including solar, wind, energy storage, natural gas, hydro, geothermal and carbon capture utilisation and storage and nuclear. Based on my experience in Bulgaria, I believe that the experts in the energy sector will address the needs of the country based on the know-how that the most innovative and agile energy solution providers can offer.”

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