Published on July 16, 2019

Clinging to coal: A sobering look into Bulgaria’s energy transition

, Lea Vranicar (WWF Germany)

This could be the story of a country that – faced with economic hardship – rises to the challenge and finds an improved way of life through innovation and sustainability. This could be the story of the underdog that proves everyone wrong.

Unfortunately, it is not. Not yet, anyway.

Instead, it is a story of a country that is stuck in outdated technology. And, making matters worse, a place where political mismanagement is hindering development benefitting the people living here.

The story takes place in southwest Bulgaria, in one of the coal regions of the Balkan country. Bulgaria has the lowest GDP in the entire European Union. And, unlike many other places or even the second coal region of the country, mine workers here don’t make good money. With a salary of about €350-400 a month, it is only a little higher than the Bulgarian average.

And still, the country clings to coal.

“It would be a crime if we can’t make use of these resources”, says Georgi Manolov, CEO of an open-cast mine in Pernik, the coal province close to the country’s capital Sofia. The statement stands in stark contrast to the facts, that Manolov isn’t shy to list: The market for coal in Bulgaria is small, new markets don’t come easy – especially after Greece broke away after the economic crisis. Today the mine only employs about 160 people, down from 2,000 in 1985. And funding is hard to get. “As soon as they hear coal they say no.”

Which should be no surprise, given the international necessity to end coal usage. Coal is the single biggest contributor to global heating. Continuing burning fossil fuels like coal means exacerbating the climate crisis, also bringing Europe more and more extreme weather events like heatwaves, droughts and floods.

That is exactly why the national WWF offices in Bulgaria, Germany, Greece and Poland started the project “Regions Beyond Coal”, backed by the German environmental ministry, to foster just transition plans for coal regions in these countries. As part of this project, unionists, journalists, members of civil society initiatives and politicians from all four countries got together in the Bulgarian coal region of Pernik and Kyustendil provinces in June this year.

They witnessed a transition already underway – but one that was far from bringing a sustainable future for the benefits of people and nature.

“We slept through the time when we had to develop clean mining technologies”, says Georgi Stoyanchev, engineer at the Pernik mine. “The technology has to be changed to produce clean coal.” He says coal production has been interrupted in the past – by the discovery of petrol and atomic power – but it always came back. He figures coal can also come back after CO2 emission cuts.

The reality looks different. How desperate the coal situation really is – not even from a climate standpoint, but purely for economic reasons – is not only visible on the tour around the mine, where two or three workers sit under an archaic-looking construction in the middle of the small pit, the waste of the mine being deposited within sight, in a landfill and a pond.

It becomes even more visible at the Pernik power plant, one of the only two power plants in this coal region, built in 1951. In the last decade, it went from 1,200 workers to 450, as two coal-powered boilers were decommissioned. Another one was switched from coal to gas. They now produce an average of 100 MW of electricity and 460 MW of heat daily. The plans to keep operating currently cover the next 10 to 15 years. But here, at least, the director, Lyubomir Spasov, does not dream of clean coal. “It is clear to us that at a certain point we have to stop using coal. We have to shift to another fuel”, Spasov says.

He considers the CO2 prices. “If the price reaches €40, it will be extremely difficult for us.” He is planning to add more biofuels into the mix to reduce emissions, which are currently at about 200,000 tons of CO2 a year. They are already testing biomass and waste but those come with high-level environmental obligations. Another idea is to start a project to use solar heating of water to supply warm water to the people in the summer. But it has not started. While staff is declining, prices are rising and the almost 70-year-old building is showing more and more cracks, the urgency for change and innovation is lacking. The lack of institutional support from the Bulgarian government does not help: “I can’t say that the state is a particularly interested owner”, Spasov says.

Officially, in this region, private companies own the plants and mines in Bulgaria – although in the case of the Pernik power plant, the state also holds a fifth. Unofficially, however, the real owner of plants and mines in this country is a well-known energy oligarch on the Balkans living in Sofia. And this man, naturally, acts on his own behalf.

In the city of Bobov Dol in the province of Kyustendil, they experienced what this means the previous year. A mine was closed basically overnight, two miners, Ivaylo Antonov and Kiril Minev, tell the visitors of the WWF project. “The government said this is the reality, we don’t need you anymore, that was it”. Antonov and Minev, along with their colleagues, were left unemployed, compensated only with one month worth of salary. And because they were barely under the age of 45, they didn’t qualify for early retirement in case the mine closed.

From the 10,000 miners that were working in the mines here 30 years ago, today 500 remain. Only a handful open cast mines still exist – the underground ones that were also used for lignite mining here are all closed.

“The state allowed all this to happen”, the local authorities say and point out that they are limited in what they can do. The mayor, Elza Velichkova, complains: “I was the last one learning about the concession” – talking about the handing over of the mine from the state to a private owner on concession ten years ago. “If I knew what would happen I would have done something beforehand”, she says.

But now that it’s done, what is she doing for her city and the people living here? Searching for new investors, Velichkova answers repetitively. And here again lies a connection to many other regions in economic trouble, dreaming of the next big investor. The potential of existing structures that are worth nurturing and the dangers of new dependencies of a next big industry are too often overlooked in this scenario.

Even though there are small structures turning on a new path and worth nurturing even in Bobov Dol. The school that was formerly training miners – and close to shutting down synchronically to the mines – just installed solar panels. But not primarily to generate electricity – the output of the panels is too small for that – but to train the students in solar installation.

There is also a sewing factory producing shoes that came into Bobov Dol in the 1990s and still has capacity for more workers. The problem, however, is that former miners – mostly male – do not want to work there. “In general men are ashamed to work in such jobs”, the owner, Valeri Dimitrov, says. That is astonishing for two reasons: First, the job, even though it is a conveyor belt one, comes without the massive risks of an underground mine. And second: It is better paid, even though still way under EU average, as are most jobs in Bulgaria. Even so: “We have capacity for at least 100 more workers, but there are no applicants”, Dimitrov resumes.

The structural problems of the region go beyond coal. In addition to the little state interest and the ownership makeup, there also seems to be a lack of exploiting existing potential like the industrial ones, be it renewable energy or production of goods. With the stunning nature of the provinces, including national parks, the highest peak of the Balkan peninsula, ski resorts and geothermal spas, lots could be done in terms of sustainable tourism, as well. And agriculturally: With higher standards, the cherry fields in Shatrovo village, at the foot of the Rila mountains, could export to countries like Germany to increase revenue.

Money needs to flow in the improvement of infrastructure, one of the main obstacles for business here, says Alexsander Kolev, manager at Trelleborg Sealing Solutions, a company belonging to the Swedish Trelleborg group that has grown considerably in the last few years. He has a very clear opinion about the “old” industry in the region, meaning the coal plants and mines. “They are struggling because their business model is wrong”, he says. According to him, they are not seeking a way forward.

Within the WWF project, a study proposes a way forward. But to make it work, Bulgaria will need more initiative by local actors and the state. It will also need more development of already existing economic models and potentials of the region, rather than hoping for the next big investor to bring salvation. And to fully function, it will need structures untainted by political mismanagement. Especially for this last task, the international community, beginning at the EU level, must turn an eye on Bulgaria.