Wednesday

24th Jan 2018

Opinion

From dark coal toward a brighter future

  • Belchatow coal plant in Poland. "The energy transition is one of the most exciting challenges of our time." (Photo: BiLK_Thorn)

The world is changing at an unprecedented pace, one which no generation has ever known before. It is hard to imagine that only 10 years ago there were still no tablets, sharing platforms like Uber and Airbnb did not yet exist, nor apps like WhatsApp, Instagram; even Twitter was just invented!

When it comes to energy, change is just as rapid with profound implications on our entire societal and economic model. I often refer to the energy transition as the '6Ds model', because we are looking at decarbonisation and of diversification our energy sources through decentralisation and digitisation of production. This would allow for a democratisation of the entire energy system, while entailing significant disruption.

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The last D is tricky. Disruption is indeed important but it means that the process will be more difficult for some regions than for others. The challenge is particularly present in coal-intensive regions which will have to reinvent themselves in order to flourish in the new economy.

Coal was at the heart of Europe's economy for many decades. Its tremendous economic and social importance was leveraged politically to unite our devastated continent after WWII (in the form of the Coal and Steel Community which later evolved into the European Union).

Yet, this 20th century technology is now being phased out in favour of cleaner solutions. This is one of the main objectives of the Energy Union, creating a European single market which is not only secure and competitive, but that is also sustainable and inclusive.

Today 41 regions in 12 EU member states are actively mining coal. This provides direct employment to about 185,000 people across the EU, with additional indirect jobs relying on coal production. However, over the past few decades, the production and consumption of coal in the EU has been in steady decline. This is partly due to relatively high extraction costs which have turned Europe's coal industry less competitive.

Europe's ability to lead the global energy transition depends not only on the front-runners. Our success also depends on the inclusiveness of this change, on ensuring no one is left behind.

Coal Regions in Transition Platform

That is why today we are kicking off the EU Coal Regions in Transition Platform. The platform brings together a diverse range of stakeholders, like national and regional public authorities, business representatives, social partners and civil society.

There are regions with interesting projects, stakeholders with relevant expertise, NGOs who have analysed the problem extensively, and social partners who can provide first-hand insight. Together, they will support European regions which are highly invested in coal through triggering investment, prescribing policies, providing technical assistance, and sharing knowledge with other regions.

Following requests by Slovakia, Poland and Greece, pilot country teams were established in the second half of 2017 to assist the regions of Trencin, Silesia and Western Macedonia. This will be extended to other interested member states and regions, as part of the pilot project.

As the work of these teams progresses, they will share their experiences with the new platform.

It is not too late to join the EU Coal Regions in Transition Platform. If you would like to present projects, ideas good practices, or even attend as an as an observer - simply contact our team and express your interest.

A continent of solutions

No one has ever claimed that the industrial transition will be easy. It raises difficult questions on the agility of our current education systems, professional training programmes, and our ability to foresee and deploy emerging technologies.

Yet, this transformation is both indispensable and within reach. We know it because we've seen other European regions which have succeeded in making this transition in the past years and decades. Some have become beacons of renewable energy technologies, eco-innovation and/or advanced coal technologies.

Inspiring projects include EnergyVille in the Belgian city of Genk which transitioned from a coal-mining economy to high tech hub which helps cities across the country learn from its experience.

Loos-en-Gohelle in the north of France made a similar transformation form a regional coal mine into a regional research centre of sustainable development. Visitors now witness the surreal image of solar panels in front of the mine's spoil tips.

The energy transition is one of the most exciting challenges of our time: from our current dependence on oil-importing countries, from paying a fortune to import this and other fossil fuels, from polluting the air we breathe and disrupting our climate - we are moving into a world where energy is clean, free, and unlimited. This new era, we are about to enter, is creating an entire range of new opportunities.

The real challenge is to ensure these opportunities are available to all.

Maro Sefcovic is vice president of the European Commission in charge of energy union

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