Territorial Just Transition Plans – an opportunity for rapid and sustainable energy transition of coal regions
Energy and Climate Team, Za Zemiata
Undoubtedly, the Territorial Just Transition Plans (TJTPs) of coal regions are essential for their decarbonisation and green energy transition. In Bulgaria, EU funding is foreseen for the TJTPs of the regions of Stara Zagora, Pernik and Kyustendil. Over the years, we have become convinced that just having a solid budget is not enough and may even have a questionable effect. We have seen the financing of unprofitable or ill-conceived projects, just to utilise the money on paper, and we have seen a lack of vision, the thriving of non-market and even corrupt practices.
Good planning is at the core. However, delay in regional plans by the administration has an objective reason – the long delay of the National Recovery and Sustainability Plan (NRSP) on which 3 successive governments have worked. The transition plans of the coal regions are directly linked to the Bulgarian NRSP and could not have been prepared before its approval by the European Commission (EC), which happened only in April this year. According to some energy experts, the lack of an updated energy strategy is also an obstacle to work on the territorial plans, but in our view no energy strategy would have anticipated the huge spike in energy prices in Europe since last autumn, as well as the brutal aggression of the Putin regime against Ukraine.
Now, however, the government must step up and submit the territorial plans for public consultation. The price shock of energy produced from gas and coal has shown us once again that, by relying on fossil fuels, we are putting the economy not only in a position of uncertainty and dependence on unpredictable markets, but also under the influence of political and economic interests over which we have no control.
In our view, the government should approach the TJTPs with a vision to make an energy, economic and social transition in coal regions and with the intent to preserve and enhance the incomes of people employed in the sector, and improve their quality of life as well as their working environment. This would make it possible to quantify the socio-economic losses that the Just Transition Fund is intended compensate.
To ensure more secure and sustainable energy at affordable prices, the focus should be on energy efficiency, diversification of energy supply and accelerated deployment of renewable energy to replace fossil fuels in homes, industry and electricity generation. Our main recommendations to the Government in its work on the territorial plans focus on the need for specificity of measures and for an individualised approach:
– To focus on proposing concrete projects, supported by all stakeholders – we are past the point of general guidelines;
– To be guided by the foreseen decarbonisation of the energy sector by achieving a 40% reduction in carbon emissions from electricity generation by 2026 (compared to 2019 levels), which should also be sealed in a regulatory framework as soon as possible;
– To apply a differentiated approach, because the three regions exist in very different economic and social conditions – Bobov Dol is in a serious social and economic crisis, Pernik is close to Sofia, which has a good impact on development prospects, and Stara Zagora is one of the regions with the highest average wages. In this regard, it is good to point out the sectors that have development potential;
– To start with a clear outline of the initial situation in the regions – the number of direct and indirect jobs, as well as the competence profile of those people for whom alternative employment will be sought;
– To invest in the training of personnel for environmentally friendly industries, including the energy sector – installation of renewable energy and other energy saving measures. Educational institutions at the high school level and higher education in the regions still focus on the dying coal industry;
– To have concrete measures and a timetable with clear deadlines for closing coal plants and mines. They need not be record-breakingly short, but they should be stated and defended with specific projects and alternatives, both for employment and for alternative renewable energy capacity and storage, tailored to local geography. In our view, economic logic will not allow a large share of coal in the energy mix after 2030;
– To have a scientific rationale for the timetable and interim targets to be linked to the energy modelling to be done by the NAP Energy Transition Commission and the expanded Green Deal Implementation Advisory Board;
– To set out measures to move towards 100% renewable electricity and heat generation.
According to our observations and analyses, all three regions, to varying degrees, have a significant share of urbanized and damaged land. We recommend the introduction of zones dedicated to the development of renewable energy, with shortened and simplified permitting processes in areas with lower environmental risks, as we believe they have a significant proportion of urbanised and damaged land on which this potential can be realised. The implementation of such projects will help to rapidly convert these damaged sites into useful areas for renewable energy development as well as clean and high value-added jobs.
The evaluation criteria should look for the following project characteristics:
– Projects supporting the decentralisation of electricity generation;
– Aiming at the recultivation of land damaged by coal mining, which preserves some jobs and generates renewable energy (provided, however, that no European funds are used for recultivation, but those from coal operators’ recultivation funds);
– Supporting energy efficiency improvements in buildings and infrastructure. They usually also create a large number of jobs with attractive pay;
– Ensuring access to renewable energy for individual households and the establishment of energy cooperatives, including such with the participation of municipalities, coal workers, energy poor households;
– Circular economy projects, including measures aimed at increasing resource efficiency in parallel with achieving zero emission measures;
– Supporting investments in the establishment of R&D enterprises, in the production and recycling of heat pumps, solar and photovoltaic panels, small wind turbines, and passive energy efficiency materials with an emphasis on the use of low-carbon primary resources (e.g. insulation from natural materials);
– the heating company in Pernik – TPP „Republic“ should entirely transition to renewable energy. This would be a very successful project and a good example for the whole country. According to our analyses, Pernik region could be a leader in the country in terms of successful and environmentally friendly energy transition. The proximity to Sofia, the small number of people employed in the coal sector and the low unemployment are extant prerequisites for Pernik to become a leading region on the way to decarbonisation and meeting the Green Deal targets;
– We do not recommend giving grants to businesses, but to ease the procedures for the implementation of their projects when they are in line with nature conservation and environmental requirements. Renewable energy industries and technologies have long had no need for subsidies and are implemented on a market basis.
Waste incineration should not receive support, given that this activity belongs to the lower levels of the waste management hierarchy within the circular economy. It is not only the incineration of imported waste, but also of domestic waste, that poses risks to human health and the environment. It is in sharp conflict with the principles of the Green Deal because it wastes a valuable resource and generates more and more waste. It is resource efficiency that should be the main criterion for projects funded under regional plans. They should contribute to the transition to a sustainable, climate-neutral circular economy and the country’s energy independence.