Author: Walburga Hemetsberger, CEO of SolarPower Europe
Coal is on its way out, which is good news for efforts to avert a climate breakdown. However, local communities in coal regions need help in this energy transition, which is where solar power can step in, according to Walburga Hemetsberger, CEO of SolarPower Europe, in an op-ed for Balkan Green Energy News.
Solar power has significant potential in coal regions in Europe. By providing vast amounts of clean energy, and facilitating new jobs and investment opportunities in local communities impacted by the phase-out of coal, solar can help to ensure a successful energy transition.
Coal is on the way out
According to recent analysis by Sandbag, electricity generation from coal power stations fell by 19% – the steepest decline ever recorded. This is good news for sustainability, as coal is one of the most greenhouse gas-intensive fuels and a key driver of climate change. However, we need to ensure that no communities are left behind in the transition to a sustainable, clean energy world. According to the European Parliamentary Research Service, it is estimated that by 2030 around 160 000 direct jobs in the coal sector may be lost, with some countries such as Denmark, Spain, the Netherlands, Portugal and Finland aiming to phase out coal by 2030.
It is estimated that by 2030 around 160 000 direct jobs in the coal sector may be lost
In this changing landscape, solar can play an important role in bringing about a socially-just transition for all. As one of the cheapest clean energy technologies available today, it simply makes sense to go solar.
From brownfields to bright fields
Solar is ideal to place on former coal sites since the land is often no longer suitable for farming. A recent study from the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) found that there is significant solar potential in Europe’s coal regions, with researchers highlighting that these regions could produce 730.3 GW of electricity from solar, which would result in 874.3 TWh of production. This amounts to enough energy to replace the electricity output of the current coal power plants operating in these regions. Additionally, the study revealed that solar can produce electricity at a lower cost than current retail prices by utilising half of the available technical ‘potenial’ in coal and mining regions. In other words, solar is cheaper, cleaner, and more efficient than coal, with immense untapped potential.
Solar is cheaper, cleaner, and more efficient than coal, with immense untapped potential
Across Europe, there are several examples of former coal plants that have already undergone a transformation into successful solar farms. In Belgium, LRM was the owner of a sludge pond in Heusden-Zolder; the pond was used for rubble and fly ash dumping when coal was mined there. As it was difficult to find a suitable use for this site, LRM decided to transform the decontaminated land into a solar power plant – an ostensibly useless site acquired a new use. In Visonta, Hungary, power plant company Matrai Eromu opened a solar plant situated on top of a lignite mine dump site which now generates 16 MW of solar power. Just as sufficient pressure can transform coal into a diamond, solar can transform former coal sites into a treasure trove of clean energy.
Working together towards a clean energy future
In former coal regions, solar can also help to drive regional development and diversify economic activity. At present, 240,000 people work in coal related jobs in the regions studied, either mining coal or operating coal-fired generating facilities. The European Commission report estimates that transitioning to solar power in coal regions would create 135,000 construction jobs, plus 124,000 positions for the operation and maintenance of the new solar systems. Thus, transitioning to solar would more than make up for the loss in coal sector jobs.
Transitioning to solar would more than make up for the loss in coal sector jobs
Further, there are many examples of new solar projects employing former coal workers. In the United States, a new Google data centre is powered by two nearby solar projects – totalling 143 MW – at a former coal plant in Widows Creek, Alabama. The project has created 75 to 100 ongoing jobs in the data centre operation and over 400 construction jobs. This is just one of many global examples of how solar can spur job creation, provide clean energy, and ensure an inclusive sustainable energy transition for local communities.
It’s time to accelerate the transition
Solar is primed and ready to play a core role in former coal regions in the EU. The potential is immense; EU coal regions could supply 730 GW of solar power while providing employment for miners.
EU coal regions could supply 730 GW of solar power while providing employment for miners
With this in mind, SolarPower Europe has taken an active part in the European Commission’s ‘Platform for Coal Regions in Transition’. Launched in 2017, the platform aims to aid the EU’s most coal-reliant regions shift to clean energy by retraining workers and funding renewables and other projects.
SolarPower Europe continues to work on this topic – if you are preparing a solar project in a coal region or looking for support, please contact us to work together to lead a just and inclusive energy transition!