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A lesson in decarbonisation from North Macedonia

The cleared site for the new solar power plant with the old coal-fired plant in the foreground The cleared site for the new solar power plant with the old coal-fired plant in the foreground
Towering over the brambles and scrub of the valley is a huge old thermal power plant chimney. Only a few veteran workers leave the coal-fired plant in buses at 2pm after the work shift. The 125MW plant at Oslomej, North Macedonia, is kept on a reduced working footing mainly as a reserve in case of problems elsewhere in the system.

While this might seem a story of decline, what’s going on in the scrubland all around is actually an exciting development that will help North Macedonia move decisively forward with decarbonisation.

A country whose capital, Skopje, was named the most polluted capital in Europe last year is keen to diversify its energy sources and clean up its air. It aims to generate 23 per cent of its electricity from renewables by 2020. So a huge patch of wasteland once pitted with surface coal mines, which supplied the Oslomej plant in the second half of the 20th century, has been cleared and levelled.

With help from the EBRD, this is about to become North Macedonia’s first large-scale solar power plant.

The EBRD is lending €5.9 million to ELEM (recently renamed ESM), the country’s state-owned electricity company, to build the 10MW on the site of the exhausted lignite coal mine. The company will meet the rest of the total costs, estimated at €8.7 million.

The new solar plant is ESM’s first and will be the largest in the country. Once operational it will produce nearly 15 GWh a year of electricity and displace 12,177 tonnes of CO2 a year. It will also support ESM’s efforts to rehabilitate the 26-hectare mine site that used to supply the thermal plant with coal.

While this is only a tenth of the capacity of the coal-fired plant, ESM has plans for much more.

“It’s a lot smaller, but we are evaluating scenarios to replace the old power plant fully. We have in the pipeline to expand the solar field and theoretically to come to the 125 MW of the previous thermal power plant for Oslomej,” explains Dimitar, an engineer from ESM.

“We’re taking a modular approach. This project of 10MW is very important to us, because it’s a nice unit – the first large-scale plant. It can then be cloned and multiplied to fulfil our strategy further down the line. It’s a pilot project for the future. And it’s a power plant all by itself.”

This project will help the country reduce its reliance on ageing lignite-fired infrastructure and also help the local community in the Kicevo municipality, traditionally reliant on lignite mining and generation, to develop more sustainable practices.

ESM, a public electricity generation utility owned by the government of North Macedonia, provides 90 per cent of the country’s domestic electricity production – about 3,600 GWh from two thermal power plants and 1,250 GWh from eight hydropower plants. ESM also operates two combined heat and power facilities and the first wind farm in the country, producing about 100 GWh annually.

The new solar project, signed in Skopje in January by the EBRD’s Head of Power and Energy Utilities, Harry Boyd-Carpenter, and by ESM Chief Executive Officer Dragan Minovski, will diversify the production mix of ESM from coal and increase the share of renewables, providing more clean energy in a country and region with capacity shortages and high levels of carbon intensity.

Further support for decarbonisation and renewable energy targets comes in the shape of EBRD technical assistance in designing competitive renewable tenders for 200 MW of solar capacity and 150 MW of wind power capacity.

The Italian Technical Cooperation Fund is providing almost €75,000 towards technical due diligence. The EBRD Shareholders Special Fund (SSF) is providing €75,000 for environmental and social due diligence. The EBRD’s Green Economy Transition (GET) Project Preparation and Implementation Framework will support the company during project implementation.

What did workers leaving the old lignite plant think of the coming changes, and of tomorrow’s power coming more from solar panels? In the words of one man who’d worked 12 years as a fireman there, “Super.” Why? “We worry about pollution now. People with respiratory problems say they originate from the plant. It’s what they say, though there’s no proof. But the panels will improve that. It will be better with solar.”

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