Coal regions can become champions of the renewable energy sector. They have the energy infrastructure, the land, the people.
Authors: Elif Gündüzyeli and Jörg Mühlenhoff
Published in energypost.eu
Coal mining regions have exploitable energy infrastructure as well as land available to implement renewable energy projects. Coal extraction is a land-intensive activity, both in terms of area size required and the physical strain mining puts on the land. After decommissioning, coal-mining areas, especially open cast lignite areas, cannot easily be reused for agriculture or settlements. However, those areas can effectively be converted to be used for renewable energy sources like solar or wind. This repurposing can help accelerate mine rehabilitation which provides immediate jobs for former miners and a safe, healthy local environment.
Building up a strong renewable energy sector also prevents coal regions from falling into the trap of so-called transition fuels. By investing in solar or wind energy, coal regions can leapfrog fossil gas, which, being a climate dead end, would only add another painful transition in the years to come.
There are two misleading arguments used against coal phase out: maintaining energy supply and replacing jobs that will be lost when coal mines and power plants are shut down. Tackling both requires structural changes in energy technology as well as in the energy economy. As a cheap energy production source with a low technological threshold, solar energy can provide a valuable contribution to a just transition from fossil energy to a 100% renewable energy supply for coal regions.
From challenges to opportunities
Coal is often portrayed as the backbone of the economy for the coal-mining regions. Taking a closer look reveals that coal is not just an incredible burden for the environment and human health, but that extracting and burning coal also increases the costs of the public purse.
Besides continued subsidies for the coal industry, taxpayers also have to bear the external costs such as environmental damage as well as health costs and the impacts of dangerous climate change such as droughts, heat waves and floodings. In every respect, coal power is far more costly for society and consumers than renewable energy sources. Moreover, it depends on a limited resource which takes centuries to form, and extracting quality coal is becoming very costly for many of the European coal regions as they have to dig deeper and deeper.
Promoting solar and wind energy production in coal regions equals investing in more competitive energy technologies and creating quality jobs on the long term.
In Germany, for example, the process of building up a strong renewable energy sector with the experience and infrastructure available in the coal regions proves to be successful. In the region of Lausitz, the site of a former coal mine made way for the gigantic Solar Park Meuro, providing 17,500 households with clean energy.
Similar projects have been realised in other coal mining regions in Germany. In Brandenburg, Saxony and North Rhine-Westphalia, heavily coal dependent regions, the renewable energy sector has provided jobs in all stages of the projects: from planning, manufacturing to operating. In 2016, around 80,000 people were employed in the emerging renewable energy sector in these three states alone, exceeding employment in coal mining and coal power plants in the same regions many times over.
If coal areas are looked at as assets for wind and solar projects, then the coal phase out can happen faster with just transition principles at its heart. Germany can still revise its plans to phase out coal by 2038, quickly move from coal regions to renewables hubs, and set a good example for other European countries. A Paris-compatible coal phase out means that by 2030, energy production from coal stops.
Across the EU, solar photovoltaic (PV) energy is on the rise. The solar PV electricity output marked 119.1 TWh in 2019 , experiencing an annual growth of 8.2% between 2018 and 2019. During 2019, an additional solar PV capacity of 15.6 GW was installed bringing the total EU solar PV capacity up to 117.1 GW at the end of the year.
Despite the lack of stable support schemes in many EU Member States, solar PV quickly has become Europe’s cheapest energy source. In forerunner countries such as Germany, where the growth of solar PV was much stronger at the beginning of the last decade, the share of solar energy in the total electricity output is still twice as high as the European mean.
The technical potential of solar electricity generation in the coal regions is huge. Mobilising the suitable rooftop and ground-mounted potential of the coal regions alone could cover up to a quarter of the EU’s current electricity generation. The highest potential is estimated in Spain, Poland and Romania for ground-mounted and Germany and Spain for rooftop-mounted PV systems.
Apart from the available area and technical feasibility, workers in coal regions with decades of experience in the energy sector also display a highly valuable set of skills for a transition to renewable energy. Currently, the coal sector in the European Union employs nearly half a million people, with about 200,000 direct coal activity jobs in coal regions. While not every lost job in the coal sector can be matched in terms of competences and location, the overall outlook is promising.
Even conservative estimations (based on the EUCO3232.5 scenario) show that the deployment of renewable energy technologies in coal regions can generate up to 300,000 jobs already by 2030 and reaching at least 460,000 by 2050.
Transferring coal jobs to renewable ones would also accelerate the re- and up-skilling of workers, providing quality job opportunities. The new EU Cohesion Policy Funds, and especially the Just Transition Fund, are there to support these efforts to leave no one behind.
Coal regions in transition
In its 1.5°C Special Report (2018) the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), tasked with providing scientific assessment of the impacts of climate change and pathways for limitation and adaption, makes it abundantly clear that in order to limit temperature rise to 1.5 °C, global greenhouse gas emissions will have to reach net-zero by 2050. The Paris Agreement compatible energy scenario by CAN Europe and the European Environmental Bureau shows that the EU can reach climate neutrality ten years earlier.
In the EU, coal-fired energy generation is still responsible for 15.2% of the total greenhouse gas emission. To meet the commitments made under the Paris Agreement and live up to its fair share, the EU needs to phase out coal by 2030 latest.
Coal production and consumption has already been steadily declining in the EU when electricity produced from renewable sources surpassed fossil fuel generation for the first time in 2020. However, 18 EU countries are still using coal as a source for electricity production, seven of which have not set up their National Energy and Climate Plans (NECPs) to put them on a track with a coal phase-out by 2030.
Instead of a dire future of economic downturn and job loss, the transition from coal to renewable energy offers an opportunity for regional development and job creation. Waiting even longer does not pay off, on the contrary. Every hour the sun is shining on a rooftop without solar panels is a wasted hour for the climate as well as for the coal regions that deserve a clean energy future.
 The numbers presented in this paragraph refer to EU-27.