KOZANI, Greece (AP) — At Greece’s largest coal mine, controlled explosions and the roar of giant excavators scooping up blown rock have become routine again. Coal production has ramped up at the site near the northern Greek city of Kozani, as the war in Ukraine forced many European countries to rethink their energy supplies.
Coal, long treated as an old fuel in Europe, is now helping the continent secure its power supply and cope with the dramatic rise in natural gas prices caused by the war.
Electricity generated by coal in the European Union rose 19% in the fourth quarter of 2021 from a year earlier, according to the EU’s Energy Directorate, faster than any other energy source, as tensions between Russia and Ukraine and ahead of the invasion increased in late February.
Russian gas made up more than 40% of total gas consumption in the EU last year, leading the bloc to look for alternatives as prices rose and supply to several countries was cut off. Russia also accounted for 27% of the EU’s oil imports and 46% of its coal imports.
The crisis hit Greece at a difficult time in its own transition.
For decades, the country relied on domestic extraction of lignite, a low-quality, high-emission coal, but recently accelerated plans to shut down older power plants, promising to turn renewable energy into Greece’s main source of energy by 2030. to make. Currently, renewable energy sources account for about a third of the country’s energy mix.
A newly completed solar farm, one of the largest in Europe, is located just half an hour’s drive from the country’s largest open lignite mine, near the northern city of Kozani.
At the inauguration of the new solar facility, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis announced a 50% increase in lignite production until 2024 to build up reserves. Plans to shut down more coal-fired power stations were halted.
“Not only Greece, but all European countries are making minor changes to their energy transition programs with short-term measures and I emphasize short-term measures,” Mitsotakis said at the April 6 event.
Officials in Greece say the country is naturally suited to developing solar and wind energy. It is testing EU-sponsored battery technology to try to wean its islands from expensive and polluting local diesel plants.
The Kozani Mine occupies an area nearly nine times the size of New York’s JFK Airport: a black basin sunken in the land surrounded by forests and poppy fields. Excavators use claw wheels larger than the side of a house to load coal into long lanes of conveyor belts.
“This was the heart of Greek energy production,” said mine director Antonis Nikou, speaking at the plant and standing by the Orthodox Christian Church of Saint Barbara, the traditional protector of miners, firefighters and others at risk at work.
Nikou sees the end of the Greek coal era as inevitable, a belief shared by the rest of the EU by his own policymakers and many experts who argue that the short-term return of coal will only serve as a safety net as countries ramp up renewables and update their electricity networks. .
“Understandably, we try to feel safe not to get cold next winter,” said Elif Gunduzyeli, senior energy policy coordinator at Climate Action Network Europe, a Brussels-based coalition of environmental campaigns. groups.
Money needed to modernize the coal industry and find new deposits no longer attracts investors, she said.
Western Europe’s post-war integration was largely driven by coal – the European Coal and Steel Community founded in 1951 eventually evolved into the European Union – but consumption in the EU has long been eclipsed by other countries. China uses more coal than the rest of the world combined.
Coal consumption in the EU has fallen by more than 60% over the past 30 years, a decline that has been accelerating since 2018.
Regulation in Europe and how it achieves international climate goals is being closely watched by other industrial powers, along with how it manages to save local economies in vanishing mining communities.
Officially called the West Macedonia Lignite Center, the Kozani mine now employs 1,500 people, up from a staggering 6,000 in the 1990s. In the nearby 400-hectare solar park, only 20 can be rented.
The Greek electricity workers’ union is urging the government to give coal a longer life, instead of using gas, which is now more expensive.
“Clearly, this transition was not made on fair terms, but in a way that supported the interests of natural gas,” union leader George Adamidis told the AP in an interview. “We have made the decision to move away from Russian natural gas, but importing liquefied natural gas from the United States and elsewhere also involves a process that is polluting and does not serve our climate goals.”
The union wants to extend the life of modern coal-fired power plants by about five years, until 2035, and even increase its share of electricity generation from currently less than 15% to about 25%.
The government says money from the European Union’s Just Transition Fund, which was set up to help mining communities and others affected by the transition, will be used to help regions like Kozani with multiple programs, including the restoration of mined waters. country.
But Pavlos Deligiannis, a retired miner, urged authorities to extend the transition and give alternative industries tax breaks and other financial incentives to invest and create jobs in the region.
“We all know that coal has an expiration date,” he said. “Our young people are leaving the city… If you want a smooth transition, think about the next thing before closing the existing one. That has not happened here – we have done the opposite and are not prepared for the green transition.”
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Costas Kantouris in Thessaloniki, Greece contributed.
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