May 27. 2024. 10:01

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Bulgaria’s coal giant stands on feet of clay


Bulgarian politicians’ gambling with the fate of people in coal regions and those affected by toxic air and the climate crisis is immoral and unacceptable, and a workable alternative for an energy future is needed, Apostol Dyankov writes.

Last week was an important one for the energy transition in Bulgaria.

The EU Court of Justice, petitioned by Greenpeace-Bulgaria and Friends of the Earth Europe – Za Zemiata, ruled that Bulgaria violates European environmental law by allowing the largest state-owned thermal power plant, Maritsa East 2, to emit sulphur dioxide (SO2) well above the limits.

The court ruling is of great importance for the health of Bulgarians, as Greenpeace Bulgaria estimates that emissions from the country’s coal-fired power plants have led to 3,160 additional deaths from air pollution between 2016 and 2020, while the costs to the health system alone amounted to €11.8 billion over the same period.

At the same time, the carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from coal-fired power plants, responsible for climate change, are not only rising (for Bulgaria, they increased by 23% in 2022 – the highest percentage increase in the EU), but are also being swept under the carpet.

An unprecedented investigation by Bulgarian authorities and the European Public Prosecutor’s Office points to large-scale carbon accounting fraud at coal plants linked to Hristo Kovachki. According to an analysis by For the Earth, the fraud amounted to at least 2 million tonnes of CO2 and a value in excess of €74 million. It has been going on for years in full view of Bulgarian authorities.

Today we ask: What exactly is happening with the decarbonisation reform and the phased exit from coal power? For the last two months, the so-called “40% Reform” (a 40% reduction in CO2 emissions from coal-fired power plants, agreed with the European Union in the Recovery and Resilience Plan – NRRP) continues to be on hold, with no negotiations taking place with the European Commission.

A formal request for negotiations from Bulgaria is expected at any moment. Until this happens and negotiations lead to a result (which is unlikely to be in favour of Bulgaria’s dirtiest lignite plants), the reform remains in place, and Bulgaria is obliged to cut coal emissions.

Meanwhile, the government has not yet finalised and submitted the Territorial Plans for Just Transition for its three coal regions – Stara Zagora, Pernik and Kyustendil (Bulgaria remains the only country in the EU without adopted plans).

A National Roadmap for the decarbonisation of the Bulgarian economy, also adopted as a reform under the NRRP, has not been elaborated. The delay in these plans and reforms has already cost our coal regions €100 million in lost funding from the Just Transition Fund, and if it continues another €800 million of EU funds could be lost within this year.

These funds are the only real hope for transition and development in Bulgaria’s most economically deprived coal towns, where there is no other significant investment. They would enable the retraining of workers, the creation of new small and medium-sized enterprises and help heal the environmental damage from decades of dirty coal-fired power generation. The argument that revenues and profits from the continued operation of the plants themselves would offset such opportunities is illusory.

The future of the plants is far from certain even in the current decade, and Bulgaria will not continue to profit from coal power exports. By March 2023, Bulgaria’s lignite power generation can no longer cover its costs. For example, the production costs of the state-owned Maritsa East 2 currently exceed by nearly 30% the average market price at which the plant can sell its electricity.

In neighbouring Greece and Romania, huge renewable energy production and storage capacities are being built. Bulgaria is also seeing rapid renewable development – according to the Electricity System Operator (ESO), 400 MW of solar capacity were connected to the national grid in 2022, with a further 700 ME expected in 2023.

The gambling that politicians and institutions are playing with the fate of people in coal regions and those affected by toxic air and the climate crisis (often the same) is immoral and unacceptable. Bulgaria’s coal giant stands on feet of clay. A workable alternative for an energy future is needed.