Is Serbia Ready To Give up Coal in the Production of Electricity?

A thermal power plant
Is Serbia Ready To Give up Coal in the Production of Electricity?

Last year, on August 4th, the Serbian government adopted the Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) for 2021 to 2030. According to that document, Serbia is ambitiously planning to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 13.2% compared to 2010 levels. The Secretariat of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was informed about Serbia's plans 20 days later.

Serbia plans to move away from fossil fuels such as coal and transition to efficient and renewable energy sources, as outlined at the annual Conference of Member States in 2021. The UN has called on all OSCE countries, including Serbia, to eliminate the use of coal by 2030, while other countries have until 2040 to do so.

Trees burn near a group of houses
A fire in the vicinity of Nis / Credit: Jelena Đukić Pejić and Deutsche Welle.

Short deadline 

The question becomes whether Serbia can fulfill the commitments it signed and accepted 22 years ago when it became a member country of the Framework Convention on Climate Change, and whether it can do so in the next seven years.

The facts do not sound encouraging. Serbia is a country of lignite, a brown coal that is mostly used in the production of electricity. According to its size and GDP, Serbia ranks 10th in the world for annual lignite production. Thousands of tons of this brown coal is pumped daily from open coal mines and then burned in domestic thermal power plants. 

The main producer of electricity in Serbia, a joint-stock company called Elektroprivreda Srbije (EPS), confirms for MIC that as much as 70% of electricity is produced from brown coal, while about 30% of electricity comes from hydropower plants. Nevertheless, EPS says that by 2035, they plan to invest about 8 billion euros in decarbonization projects. They also say that more than 50% of these investments are planned to increase the share of renewable energy sources in electricity production, as new hydroelectric power plants, wind farms and solar power plants are announced.

"With the implementation of the plans from the 'Green Road,' the share of renewable energy sources in the total installed capacities of EPS would increase from about 37% to more than 60% by 2035. In this way, the annual production of electricity from renewable energy sources in EPS would be increased from the current approximately 10,000 gigawatt-hours to approximately 16,500 gigawatt-hours in 2035," said the EPS. They explain that the share of renewable energy sources would increase from the current 30% to almost 50%. 

In this joint-stock company, they specify that the biggest jump in the share of renewable energy sources is planned for the next seven to eight years, and that new capacities on the network are already expected in the next year.

A machine dumps coal into a truck at a warehouse
Coal being mined in Serbia / Credit: Jelena Đukić Pejić and Deutsche Welle.

Is it realistic to phase out coal completely? 

When asked how long it will take to switch from coal to renewable energy sources, EPS says that "it is not planned, nor is it realistic to completely stop the production of electricity from coal, but to gradually reduce it." 

On the other hand, the Ministry of Mining and Energy says that the transition to low-carbon technologies is just beginning and has big ambitions.

"The starting position of most countries in the region is significantly more difficult than in most EU member states, due to the high share of coal in the production of electricity, so the costs of decarbonization will be proportionately higher. This means that in Serbia and in other countries of the region, proportionate support from international partners, as well as investments in renewable energies, will be necessary. The EU has set aside 100 billion euros for this purpose," the ministry says, with a reminder that Serbia, along with Poland, is the most dependent country on coal in Europe and that when replacing this basic energy source with green energy, care must be taken not to jeopardize the stability of supply. 

The ministry also announced plans for priority investments in energy, which include investments of about 15 billion euros in the coming years. The list includes key projects in all areas of the department, from production capacities and transmission networks, to gas and oil. This document will specify a clear timeline, including which projects should be implemented by 2030, and which are longer-term.

They also added a draft of the new Energy Development Strategy, which should also be adopted by the end of the year. 

An electrical energy transmission grid
An electrical energy transmission grid / Credit: Jelena Đukić Pejić and Deutsche Welle.

Numerous problems for individual producers of electricity from solar panels 

The transmission network is just one of the necessities that the state must take care of, believes Radisav Dimić from Kragujevac, who has been working in solar energy in Serbia since 2010. With its solar panel installations, the state has covered dozens of solar power plants and a large number of households. However, Radisav says, all that is not enough for a process so vital for Serbia's decarbonization.

"It's not easy here, solar energy has just started. For larger plants, we first need stable routes, which will transmit that electricity from east to west, north and south, it should be stabilized, because these larger power plants of 10, 20 or 30 megawatts must have that safe flow," says Radisav. 

"I believe that more work should be done on these energy sources and with households, to offer people the opportunity to get easier loans, so that almost every other house can install solar systems. It is not easy in Serbia to allocate 50% of the price for citizens to pay, it should be made a little easier for them," believes Radisav.

"We are on the right track," he adds. 

He points to the advantages of solar panels, and the electricity that citizens can use throughout the year, with the unused surplus going into the grid. If they need that surplus in the winter, they can withdraw it from the network and use it for heating. This would eliminate individual wood and coal stoves, which 50% of households in Serbia have. 

Radisav Dimić
Radisav Dimić has been working on solar energy in Serbia since 2010 / Credit: Jelena Đukić Pejić and Deutsche Welle.

Sunny days in Serbia 

He emphasizes the importance of solar energy for factories that could cover their large roofed areas with panels and depend on their own electricity. This could also include schools and institutional buildings that have larger areas for panels. Currently no such thing exists, he says. 

In addition to subsidy incentives, paperwork is also part of the problem for those who want to use electricity from solar panels and contribute to the use of green energy. The paperwork is very demanding and takes a long time. An additional problem is that the excess electricity produced by the owner of the solar panel is written off once a year; electricity cannot be sold to Elektroprivreda, but can be sold on the European Stock Exchange. 

Households with solar panels on the roofs
Households with solar panels on their roofs / Credit: Jelena Đukić Pejić and Deutsche Welle.

"It should be done more simply, to make it so that citizens can invest and for it to be a stable income after 20 years, for example—then everyone will be interested in investing in power plants. Serbia needs to do more to enable households to buy excess electricity from them."

The Ministry of Energy points out that Serbia has great potential in terms of electricity production through solar power plants, even greater than Germany, because it has 280 sunny days per year. However, Serbia makes less use of its potential. 

Last train for emergency measures

The fact that Serbia is still "stuck" with coal, while other countries are taking measures more quickly, is seen as a big problem by Professor Anđelka Mihailov, ambassador of the EU Climate Pact (2021 to 2023). 

"The crisis with Ukraine has accelerated the thinking about leaving coal and fossil fuels in some countries. The EU's so-called green deal is to become climate neutral by 2050—no greenhouse gas emissions, no coal by 2050. On the day of accession to the European Union, we acquire obligations to act in this way. If we do not act, we will be punished every day," says Professor Andjelka Mihailov. 

Professor Anđelka Mihajlov
Professor Anđelka Mihajlov / Credit: Jelena Đukić Pejić and Deutsche Welle.

She notes that there is still no officially adopted national strategy in the process of abandoning fossil fuels, and that there are a large number of documents that were produced from various projects, which were proposed to the government and ministries. Until recently, it was the Low Carbon Development Strategy that was adopted and used. Professor Mihailov also cites the UN report, which shows that the rapid abandonment of fossil fuels can have a positive effect on climate change. UN Secretary General António Guterres said that all countries should come up with net zero plans in the next 10 years, which should reduce the impact of the greenhouse gases that warm the planet's atmosphere. Countries have already agreed that the global temperature increase will not exceed 1.5 degrees celsius, however this is possible in the next 10 years. 

"We are already between the orange and red zones. We are the first generations to walk in changed climatic conditions. Climatic changes have been a basic threat for 30 years, and some segmental ones are still unstudied," says Professor Mihailov, adding that Serbia is working on changes, but that it is going very slowly. 

Energy as scapegoat for climate change 

Jelica Putniković, editor of the Energija Balkana Portal, says, "I would like to point out that it is not only the energy sector that is to blame for these emissions (of harmful gases), it also includes traffic, the construction sector and even agriculture."

Jelica Putniković
Jelica Putniković, editor of the Energija Balkana Portal / Credit: MC Beograd.

Putniković also believes that renewable energy sources cannot be a continuous source for the production of electricity in sufficient quantities. 

"Serbia has not yet made a decision whether it will enter into the construction of a nuclear power plant on its territory or possibly enter into a partnership relationship with one of the neighboring countries that build nuclear plants. The planned construction of hydroelectric power plants, such as the Reversible Hydroelectric Power Plant 'Bistrica' and HPP Đerdap 3, will increase the balance of green energy in Serbia's energy mix, but this still does not mean that it will be possible to close coal-fired thermal power plants. I think the best solution is to go into that process gradually, so that the old thermal power plants are preserved as reserve capacity, as Germany did, for example." Putniković explains. 

'Just transition' in Serbia? 

While the production of electricity obtained from coal will decrease in the coming years, the question arises as to what will happen to the employees who currently work in the mines and production of coal-fired electricity. Our interlocutors have divided opinions. While Professor Anđelka Mihailov fears that no-one is thinking about a just transition and looking for alternative jobs that should be offered to workers soon, other MIC interlocutors do not share this concern. 

A close-up of dials and measuring instruments
An electricity generation plant in Ostrovica / Credit: Jelena Đukić Pejić and Deutsche Welle.

Jelica Putniković says that now employees in the sector of coal mining and power generation in thermal power plants in Serbia will already be eligible for old-age pensions. She adds that the world, including Serbia, is faced with a labor shortage in all sectors, so European countries will not have a problem with retraining, but rather of ensuring a sufficient number of workers overall. 

EPS admits that the largest number of employees in this joint-stock company work in the production of electricity and coal. They say that they estimated the number of directly and indirectly threatened jobs, but did not answer the question about the number of workers. 

"According to the experiences and plans in other countries that are going through the process of energy transition, part of the potential surplus of workers is hired within the company, as a replacement for employees who will retire and through the inclusion in the operation of new plants. To the extent that it is possible to build and introduce new renewable energy choices in the areas of thermal power plants and mines, for example solar or wind power plants, a number of employees are trained through retraining programs to continue working in the energy sector. For the rest, opportunities are sought in other sectors, in accordance with the state of the local labor markets and the degree of mobility. This includes jobs in agriculture and reclamation of mining pits that will cease to operate, trade and industry.” 

The Ministry of Energy, on the other hand, says the opposite—that it hasn't yet defined how everything will be reflected in the number of employees in the energy sector, which measures should be proposed to prevent this impact if it is negative, and how to enable the development of new knowledge and skills, new jobs and new economic branches. 

Great damage all over the world 

Professor Andjelka Mihailov says that climate change has been talked about for decades as the most important priority for governments of developed countries. In Serbia, however, this problem is only now being discussed, and very quietly. 

However, the reality is worrying. Floods are the most current example of climate impacts in the country, where a state of emergency has been declared in 52 municipalities. Italy has been dealing with major damages and losses due to floods in the north of the country for a month now. Spain is faced first with major droughts and now with floods.

The exterior of a house that is flooded
Floods in Lučanima in 2020 / Credit: Jelena Đukić Pejić and Deutsche Welle.

According to the estimates of the Serbian government, material damage caused by bad weather and climate change between 2015 and 2020 were estimated at least 1.8 billion euros, while material damages between 2000 and 2015 were estimated at around at least five billion euros. 

According to experts, the damage that is yet to come will be greater. One of the first and necessary steps is to abandon coal in the production of electricity. Until further notice, it remains unknown whether Serbia has enough time and capacity to find itself in the company of countries with a more developed environmental awareness.

This story was produced with support from Internews' Earth Journalism Network. It was first published in Medijski istraživački centar on June 17, 2023. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Banner Image: A thermal power plant / Credit: Jelena Đukić Pejić and Deutsche Welle.

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