While Energy Union boss Maroš Šefčovič is making a case for a transition to geothermal energy in the Upper Nitra region of Slovakia, Prime Minister Robert Fico still believes in the future of lignite mining. EURACTIV Slovakia reports.
“As long as I am prime minister, my government will never turn its back on the miners,” declared Prime Minister Robert Fico on a visit to the Nováky Mine in September 2016.
“If we have things under control, we will do everything… for the coal production to continue (in Upper Nitra),” Fico said as he walked through the mines, which enjoyed government-sponsored investments as recently as 2009.
Right now – to paraphrase Fico’s own words – it seems that his government is losing control. At the One Planet summit in December in Paris, Environment Minister László Sólymos declared 2023 as the target year for Slovakia’s coal phase-out in both the mining and power sectors.
The environment ministry’s draft environmental strategy 2030, released the same week, argues for a “progressive phase-out of power and heat production from coal” due to local air pollution, calling Slovakia’s annual €100 million subsidies for coal power “environmentally damaging”.
European Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič also weighed in. The Slovak Commissioner listed his country’s region as one of the EU’s three “pilots” in the newly launched Coal Regions in Transition Platform. According to him, Upper Nitra could move from coal to geothermal energy.
‘General economic interest’
During his regular visits to the Slovak miners, Prime Minister Fico likes to recall the 2005 government decision to sustain until 2030 coal mining and power in “the general economic interest”.
Slovak electricity consumers pay approximately €100 million every year to fund feed-in prices for coal power. The country has two coal power plants but only one of them – Nováky – receives subsidies to burn domestic lignite, mostly produced in three mines in Upper Nitra.
The private mining company and the authorities have long hailed domestic coal as a contribution to the country’s security of energy supplies and electricity balancing, as well as to regional employment. Around 4,000 people work in the mines but the company claims 11,000 jobs in total depend on the Slovak coal industry.
Water and air pollution
The Commission regularly denounces Slovakia’s coal subsidies and is currently looking into the state aid’s compliance with EU rules. The pressure from Brussels, but also from the region itself, has forced the government to redefine its position.
When the ministry of environment received a request to extend the area for lignite production in Upper Nitra, a local spa company said it would increase the risk of underground water contamination and threaten the very effort to reorient the region towards tourism. The licencing process is pending.
Moreover, the benefits of energy security and employment look doubtful. Some local companies claim at least part of the miners can find jobs elsewhere, including in the new Jaguar Land Lover factory near Nitra. Experts also point out that no study has ever been published on the importance of the power plant for the regional power grid.
Nováky certainly is important in terms of emissions. It is the country’s second-biggest greenhouse-gas emitter. Measured by SOx emissions, the coal power plant ranks second in the whole European Union (2015).
Juraj Melichár, who works for Slovakia’s branch of CEE Bankwatch Network, argues that the EU’s new emission standards, applicable as of 2021, require extra investments. He said burning waste instead of coal in Nováky is not a solution.
Possible savings: €600 million
In July 2017, the ministry of environment calculated that closing down the Nováky power plant would save Slovakia annually not only €100 million in subsidies but also €500 million in “health benefits”.
At a conference co-organised by the Commission in early December, an official from the ministry of education admitted that coal subsidies represent one-fourth of the support to renewable energy sources in Slovakia. Eduard Hulík went on to say that in Upper Nitra, “the incidence of respiratory diseases is sometimes double than in nearby regions”.
Hulík, who is also Slovakia’s representative to the Commission’s Strategic Energy Technology Plan, confirmed there is “no need to replace the electricity source in Nováky, (because) there are other power plants in the power system.”
There is only an “urgent need to replace the heat sources” in Nováky.
Battle of ministries
The latest attempt to reorient Slovakia’s public policy is the draft ‘Strategy of Environmental Policy of the Slovak Republic until 2030’, released by the environment ministry in December, entitled ‘Greener Slovakia’.
“Waste management, air quality and forest ecosystem protection can be currently considered Slovakia’s current biggest environmental problems,” the document states. It fails to give a precise year for coal phase-out, quoting the need for further public consultations. The year 2023 was mentioned only by the environment minister himself.
In fact, it is the ministry of economy that is responsible for the country’s energy policy.
Contacted by EURACTIV.sk, its spokesperson declined to confirm the date. “It will result from the negotiations, which are not over yet,” said Maroš Stano, adding they would resume in the coming weeks.
Slovak geothermal energy
But Commissioner Šefčovič, whom the prime minister recently named as a possible candidate of his party in the 2019 presidential elections, is much further ahead in the planning. “The trend is fairly clear when it comes to the reduction of coal production and consumption in the European Union,” Šefčovič told EURACTIV.
He is ambitious: “What we will do in Slovakia will reflect our approach in other countries as well.” By the end of January 2018, he wants to present a study by the Commission’s Joint Research Centre, outlining the future economic model for Upper Nitra.
The way to go is geothermal energy. Šefčovič was “very encouraged by the very successful company GA Drilling looking for new, revolutionary modes of drilling in the very deep underground.” The company experiments with plasma.
Although GA Drilling’s technology has not been commercialised yet, the company has already become Slovakia’s showcase. Šefčovič claims it “is interested in the drilling expertise present in the mines and would like to cooperate directly on a project in Upper Nitra.”
Centre of future technologies?
“The issue with geothermal energy today is that deep drilling is expensive,” admitted Šefčovič. “But if you did it at an affordable price, which is GA Drilling’s objective, then, put very simply, the water enters on one side, is heated in the underground, and goes out as clean steam, which can be used as a clean energy source.”
The Slovak Commissioner said he would be “very glad if we managed to turn Upper Nitra into a centre of future technologies”. It would not be the first such centre, Šefčovič said, highlighting geothermal development in the former Belgian coal region around Genk.
“It will depend on specific conditions and available subsidies, but (GA Drilling) is interested in tens to hundreds of employees for their project (in Upper Nitra),” the Commissioner believes.
Funding is a key point. Several European funds can help efforts to boost new energy technologies or requalify former miners. But Šefčovič also argues for an earlier spending of regional funds earmarked for the tail end of the 2014-2020 period. These could serve to build roads to Slovak regions short of workforce.
Convincing the prime minister
According to its vice-president, the Commission will assist Slovak national and local governments and companies in preparing projects, “which even the people in the region consider the most important.”
Asked about the role of the miners, Šefčovič replied they should be “open-minded”. “We all realise we have to be grateful to them for their life-long service in this industry,” he said and added:
“The most responsible approach is to offer an alternative to these (coal) regions, a new future”.
What remains to be done is to convince the Slovak prime minister, who doesn’t seem to be discouraged even in the face of the country’s international commitments. “The perspective of mining in Upper Nitra is still very high,” he told miners in September 2016, the same month Slovakia ratified the Paris Agreement.