Kolubara B: Modern Future or the Black Hole of Energy Sector?

Kolubara termoelektrana
Photo: Petr Hlobil/CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 licence

While European power plants are switching from coal and other fossil fuels to renewable energy sources, competing in innovative solutions, in Serbia, time seems to be going backwards. Plans to build a coal power plant Kolubara B are hailed as the gleaming example of development and the future of Serbian energy sector. This thermal power plant is a joint project between Public Enterprise Electric Power Industry of Serbia (EPS) and Chinese company Power Construction Corp. of China Ltd, which is set to invest 385 million euros in construction. 

Kolubara B power plant will be located only 40 kilometers southwest of Belgrade. Although EPS claims that the power plant will comply with all domestic and international environmental regulations, the question remains open – is that enough, and is that even possible? In the era of the race towards alternative energy sources, how profitable and rational is it to build a coal-fired power plant?  

Public discussion in Lazarevac was an opportunity for civil society organizations to submit objections, comments, remarks, and suggestions concerning Spatial plan for the construction of the thermal power plant Kolubara B and the Report on the strategic assessment of the environmental impact of the spatial plan

The discussion has been canceled until further notice due to epidemiological situation caused by Covid-19. In the absence of a public debate on the expediency of this project – here is what civil society has to say about Kolubara B and the future it brings to the citizens of Serbia. 

Environmental bomb without precedent 

As a signatory to the Treaty Establishing the Energy Community, Serbia is obligated to achieve a share of 27% of renewable energy sources in gross final consumption – and it’s already struggling to achieve that goal. The construction of Kolubara B would contribute to a further increase of fossil fuels in energy consumption in Serbia. It directly holds back the process of adjusting Serbia’s climate goals with EU’s goals – and this is a prerequisite for EU membership.

According to the Center for ecology and sustainable development (CEKOR), the spatial plan outlines locations of coal mine, as well as ash, silicates, and firedamp depositing facilities in close proximity to the inhabited areas, including Lazarevac and Ub. So far, the experiences with Obrenovac, Kostolac and Veliki Crljeni power plants have shown that this type of ash is almost impossible to control.

“Seeing the experiences in the Tamnava-Zapad basin, as well as the other basins and ash depositing facilities, we can say with absolute certainty that EPS is not capable of preventing ash and firedump from spreading tens of kilometers around the depositing facilities,” says Zvezdan Kalmar from CEKOR.

Another issue with this plan is turning Kolubara river basin into a water supply channel for EPS facilities.

“Apart from redirecting river flow, this process also pollutes water to the point of endangering the environment,” Kalmar says. “Another issue is draining the reserves of underground waters. This will seriously endanger the ecosystem, agriculture, and create new flood risks for the entire region,” Kalmar added. 

In their remarks, civil society organizations also point out that the report on the status of waters in the region draws references from 2012 reports. These reports don’t take into account great 2014  floods that hit the Kolubara region, seriously damaging the infrastructure and endangering local population. 

Finally, one of the greatest issues with the plan is the assessment of this object’s potential impact on the concentration of pollutants in the air. Civil society organizations warned that this influence cannot be viewed only from the local perspective, since these emissions affect people both regionally and internationally. 

“The report’s assessment of a mere local impact on population’s health will is incorrect. It has been proven that such emissions affect the health of people living thousands of kilometers away,” Belgrade Open School (BOŠ) warned in its comments. 

The plan relies on two EPS reports as main data sources, failing to take into consideration reports compiled by the relevant institutions in charge of monitoring air quality in the spatial plan area. Also, the data from the EPS reports was used selectively. In their remarks, BOŠ asks – why does this report not take into consideration the official data of the city of Belgrade available for every month in 2018 and 2019? 

“The results of these measurements show that during the winter months, measuring stations in Veliki Crljeni and Lazarevac registered that concentrations of pollutants exceeded the threshold limit values. In Lazarevac, there has also been a significant increase in PM10 particles concentration. During the summer months, the average monthly values of PM10 reached 120 μg/m3,” BOŠ warned.

The report ignored readily available air-quality data compiled and published by the Agency for Environmental Protection, City Institute for Public Health Belgrade, and Institute for Public Health Valjevo. Had the report included this data, it would have shown a more detailed (and worrisome) picture of the actual state of air quality in the spatial plan area. 

Similar remarks were given regarding the assessment of the state of biodiversity in the area. There is no data on field research, monitoring and methodology that would allow proper assessment of the thermal power plant’s influence on biodiversity. At the same time, the report’s conclusions are based on regulations that have been invalid for over a decade.

“The report’s claim that negative impact on the environment and local population’s health are inevitable price of development is not supported by arguments and analysis. It seems that this report serves to justify Kolubara B construction, despite recognizing its significant negative effects on the environment and people’s health,” the comments conclude. 

Bottomless financial pit

Although the plan emphasizes Kolubara B construction as an investment in the future of Serbian energy sector and its sustainable development, objective circumstances point to an entirely different reality.

Renewables and Environmental Regulatory Institute (RERI) warned that mere maintenance of the coal industry has a heavy price – and it’s going to be paid by the citizens of Serbia. According to the Energy Community 2015-2017 analysis of the subsidies for the coal-based electric energy, Serbia subsidized this area of industry with an average of 99,78 million annually through budget transfers, grants, international credits, debt write-offs, etc.

On top of that, the operating costs of Kolubara B would also include taxes for CO2 and SO2 emissions. The only way to prevent these emissions is to implement advanced and expensive technology for depositing these compounds. 

“For this object’s maintenance, we’d have to install incredibly expensive and sophisticated desulfurization units which cost at least 300 million, plus the yearly maintenance expenses that can reach tens of millions of euros. It’s important to note that these units have to be replaced after 10-15 years, so in the lifetime of this power plant (40-50 years), this will happen at least three times”, Kalmar explains.

Without adequate filters – the alternative are penalties. The existing coal-fired power plants in Serbia emit around 24 million tonnes of CO2 annually. Taxes for present emissions, with the current price in European Union (24 euros per tonne), would cost around 600 million a year

Despite all this, the report concludes that Serbia, which heavily relies on fossil fuels for energy, cannot focus its efforts on alternative energy sources on the short deadlines required by the EU accession process. BOŠ and RERI claim otherwise.

“At a time when the global energy market is rapidly turning to renewable energy sources, which are currently more competitive than fossil fuels, especially coal, at a time when most international financial institutions are suspending financing for coal plants, it is incredible that the authors of spatial plan claim that coal-fired power plant will contribute to “modernization of production and service capacities and diversification of economic activities” and improve support for all innovations! What exactly is innovative about technology that is more than 70 years old?” BOŠ asks in the comments.

RERI also noted there was public available data on vast potentials of wind and solar energy – but the authors of the spatial plan did not use them. 

“The potential of prosumers is never taken into account, although this type of electric energy market development has become a standard practice in the EU. Through the scheme of net metering, Albania is planning to install new 200MW of capacity for electric energy production,” RERI suggests.

CEKOR had additional proposals – shifting from gas and coal to large regulatory hydro power plants, which would also serve as an interim solution for integrating sun and wind power sources. First and foremost, this is Đerdap 3 project that has a huge potential. 

“Serbia has a huge wind potential of at least 2 GW of installed power. That is practically 70% of the total energy coming from coal. In addition, solar energy is an exceptional potential because Serbia has an exceptionally large number of sunny days. Our country has not even started the process of isolating houses and residential buildings. Energy saving hides great potential, and with the proper system, we could achieve significant energy savings,” Kalmar points out.

Non transparent decision making process 

Was the public informed about the decision to restart the project for the construction of Kolubara B? This issue is intertwined with all the objections to the spatial plan of Kolubara B. In the previous sections, it was notable that the plan and accompanying report relied on questionable data and information to draw conclusions which justify and paint this large and demanding project in a positive light.

In 2019, Serbia began preparations for the development of a new Spatial Plan of the Republic of Serbia. This plan also requires a strategic assessment of its impact on the environment for the period from 2021 to 2035. Therefore, the development of the plan for Kolubara B created preconditions for the project that will clash with the new spatial plan of the state and the accompanying guidelines concerning the environment.

“If this project doesn’t get rejected, it is certain that construction will not begin before 2021. So why would Ministry start drafting such an important spatial plan, despite the fact that it will not be in compliance with the new Law on Spatial Planning of the Republic of Serbia?” BOŠ remarked.

“It is necessary to develop a new Spatial Plan of the Republic of Serbia, which will compile the records on EPS plants’ carbon and environmental footprint. This plan should be harmonized with all the EU’s environmental and climate regulations and plans,” CEKOR stated. “Serbia’s goal is to join the EU, so compliance with these goals is a necessity.”

Questionable future in EU

The European Union is decisively racing towards a new energy future – and this policy has far-reaching consequences for the energy sector in Serbia, regardless of its potential membership in the organization. According to available data from the Republic Bureau of Statistics, Serbia exports most of its electricity to the European Union. Considering that the EU market is striving for zero carbon dioxide emissions, this will not be possible much longer.

“If we take into account the new EU energy and climate policies, as well as European Green Deal, a new development strategy adopted at the end of 2019, it is clear that Serbia will not be able to continue exporting its products (including electricity) to the EU market under the same conditions,” RERI warned.

Financing the energy sector through crediting will also become impossible. With a new emission standard of 250 grams of CO2 per kilowatt-hour (kWh), set to replace the current standard of 550 g CO2/kWh, the European Investment Bank aims to end financing the production of electricity from coal.

The bank will focus on financing projects that contribute to decarbonisation, innovative energy storage, as well as strengthening the electricity grid in a way that supports variable renewable energy.

The organizations that submitted objections to the report are unanimous in conclusion that the spatial plan, especially the report on the project’s impact on the environment, relies on a multitude of unsupported arguments, outdated documents, selectively presented information and laws that are no longer in force.

“In fact, the authors of the Report leave their part of the job to other actors, neglecting that it’s the authors’ task is to point out significant environmental impacts in the early stages of plan development, when it is still possible to influence the decision about adopting the planning act. With this in mind, it is necessary to reject this Report, because it was not prepared in accordance with legal requirements,” civil society organizations concluded.

Stay in touch!

Sign up for our newsletter and stay up to date with the latest news, activities, open calls, and courses!