The Problem of Coal Thermal Power Plants in the Western Balkan - Mihael Gubas

The burning of coal is the primary source of air pollution in the world as coal-powered thermal power plants are such an important part of the Balkan energy production, that poses a problem. “If all the countries of the Western Balkans became a part of the EU tomorrow, all the coal thermal power plants would go bankrupt. “ Those are the words of Energy Association’s director, Janez Kopač. The Western Balkans rely heavily on thermal power plants, and that does not come without a price.

Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Serbia, Montenegro, North Macedonia have, for years, been investing almost 170 million euros of subsidy per year for the extraction of energy from coal. If let’s say tomorrow, they all entered the EU, that investment would have to be a billion dollars higher. The reason is the emission tax. In the EU, the companies that pollute the air with greenhouse gasses have to pay a certain amount to be able to continue doing so. In other words, they have to pay taxes. I.e., the price of producing one tonne of CO2 is 25€. And since coal plants in the West Balkan have especially high CO2 release, the price would be very high and quite unsustainable. A solution for that, as Kopac says, could be putting a significantly less tax on those powerplants, a couple of euros per tonne. That money would then be invested in renewable energy sources. And as a result, the energy sector would slowly prepare for entering the EU and its standards.

The Balkans aren’t the only countries that are struggling with coal power plants. EU countries like Poland and Germany have also got a massive subsidy towards coal plants each year. On the other hand, however, the European Commission has, for years, been calling for more energy production from renewable sources. Until 2020. the percentage of electrical energy spent in the EU made from renewable sources had to be 20%. Until 2030 that number has to be 32%. Renewable energy is not cheap, however. Solar panels are very expensive and are not be profitable for most EU countries. It also doesn’t help that the EU put a significant fee on imported Chinese solar panels, which are 45% cheaper than EU produced ones. With an intention to encourage the buying of locally produced solar panels, the EU missed the opportunity of having additional 55 000 workplaces in the sector.

Despite EU’s policy, most countries haven’t achieved that goal. Countries that are looking to join the EU also need to try to reach that point. Now, because of that, there are plans on constructing around 2700 mini-hydropower plants with a capacity maximum of 10MW. The locals have reacted very poorly to this news. Mostly because these power plants ruin the environment around them, they redirect and pollute the rivers that are a cultural heritage and very meaningful for the local population. The destruction of the environment is catastrophic, and building permits are often given without or with a wrong assessment of environmental impact. Another reason is that, without significant subsidy, those power plants will not be sustainable, and because of their small size, they don’t improve the energy security of the region.

The Balkan region makes a lot of profit exporting that electrical energy to the EU. Therefore there are already plans to build new coal power plants. The point is this: “Most of the energy produced by coal power plants is exported to the EU. That energy is cheaper than the one produced in EU power plants since they have to pay fees for greenhouse gas emissions. “Says Kopac. A solution to Balkan’s problem might be instead of the investments in mini-hydropower plants and a giant subsidy towards other power plants, that money could be redirected towards solar energy and wind turbines.

As the whole world is trying to adapt to new renewable and clean energy sources, everyone needs to make a change. Balkan being no exception. In the last couple of years, all across Western Balkan, we saw improvements on the question with the appearance of new wind turbines, which have never been talked about before in the region. It’s a big step forward, but there is still a long way to go if we really want to reach at least the EU’s standard.

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