In an energy-strapped Europe, coal gets a reprieve in Greece

A coal shovel sits in Greece’s largest mine outside the northern town of Kozani. Turbulence in the energy market caused by the war in Ukraine has triggered an increase in coal-fired electricity generation in the European Union and a temporary slowdown in the closure of power plants long intended for retirement. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

KOZANI, Greece (AP) — At Greece’s largest coal mine, controlled explosions and the roar of giant excavators scooping up blasted rock are once again commonplace. Coal production has been ramped up at the site near the town of Kozani in northern Greece as war in Ukraine has forced many European countries to rethink their energy supply.

Coal, long considered a legacy fuel in Europe, is now helping the continent preserve its electricity supply and cope with soaring natural gas prices caused by the war.

Electricity generated by coal in the European Union jumped 19% in the fourth quarter of 2021 compared to the previous year, according to the EU’s energy directorate, faster than any other energy source , as tension rose between Russia and Ukraine and before the invasion in late February.

Russian gas accounted for more than 40% of total gas consumption in the EU last year, leaving the bloc to search for alternatives as prices rose and supply was cut to several countries. Russia also supplied 27% of the EU’s oil imports and 46% of its coal imports.

The crisis has caught Greece at a difficult time in its own transition.

For decades, the country has relied on domestic mining of lignite, a low-grade, high-emitting type of coal, but recently accelerated plans to shut down older power plants, promising to make renewables Greece’s main source of energy by 2030. Currently, renewables make up about a third of the country’s energy mix.

A recently completed solar park, one of the largest in Europe, is just half an hour’s drive from the country’s largest open-pit lignite mine, near the northern town 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 retire more coal-fired power plants have been put on hold.

“Not only Greece, but all European countries are making minor changes to their energy transition programs with short-term – and I emphasize short-term – measures,” Mitsotakis said at the April 6 event. . Greek officials say the country is naturally suited to the development of solar and wind energy. It is testing EU-sponsored battery technology to try to wean its islands off expensive and polluting diesel-powered local power stations.

The Kozani mine covers an area nearly nine times the size of New York’s JFK airport: a black basin sunk into land surrounded by forests and poppy fields. Excavators use claw wheels higher than the side of a house to load coal into long conveyor belt lanes.

“It was the heart of Greece’s energy production,” mine manager Antonis Nikou said, speaking outside the plant and standing near the Orthodox Christian Church of Saint Barbara, the traditional protector miners, firefighters and others facing danger at work.

Nikou sees the end of the coal era in Greece as inevitable, a conviction shared for the rest of the EU by his own policymakers and many experts who argue that the brief comeback of coal will only serve as a safety net for that countries are stepping up renewable energy and updating their power grids.

“Trying to feel safe in terms of not being cold next winter is understandable, but it’s a very short-term arrangement,” said Elif Gunduzyeli, senior energy policy coordinator. at the Climate Action Network Europe, a coalition of environmental campaigns based in Brussels. groups.

The money needed to modernize the coal industry and find new deposits, she says, no longer attracts investors.

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