North Macedonia wins EU praise for pioneering coal-to-solar shift

File photo. High school students cook food on a solar furnace in the center of Negotino, Republic of North Macedonia, 19 September 2019. [Georgi Licovski/EPA/EFE]

The European Union energy watchdog praised North Macedonia on Wednesday (19 February) for a pioneering project among EU aspirants to transform an ageing coal mine into two solar power plants, in line with goals to cut pollution and tackle climate change.

The 27-member bloc has rolled out plans to be net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by the middle of the century, but faces resistance from its more coal-dependent members, led by Poland.

The Energy Community, an international body established by the EU and covering nine aspiring member states, aims to extend the bloc’s energy policy to would-be members.

“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 of North Macedonia issued a tender seeking investors to build two solar power units with a combined capacity of up to 100 megawatts (MW) at the site of the coal mine in western village of Oslomej in a partnership with the state power utility ESM.

Any interested parties can file their bids for the project, valued at around 80 million euros ($86.30 million), by 8 May.

The contract will be valid for 35 years, during which the private investor will pay to the ESM an annual fee equal to 10% of the revenues from the sale of the solar park’s power output at market prices.

After its expiration, the plant will be handed over to ESM.

According to the tender documentation, the winner will be the bidder offering the highest percentage of income from the electricity sold on the free market. The power price at regional exchanges HUPEX and OPCOM will serve as benchmark.

While Western Europe has been moving away from coal to meet climate goals, the Western Balkans remains home to seven of the ten most polluting coal-fired power plants in Europe.

About 1,600 people are estimated to die prematurely every year as a result of exposure to air pollution in North Macedonia, the World Bank said in a report in November.

The estimated economic cost linked to mortality from exposure to air pollution is in the range of $500–900 million annually, equivalent to 5.2–8.5% of national output in 2016, the report found.

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