Harmful emissions from the coal power plants in the Western Balkans increased in 2022, according to the latest Comply or Close report from NGO Bankwatch released on June 28.
The release of the three main pollutants – sulphur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx) and dust – all showed an increase, and notably, the overall limit for NOx in the region was exceeded for the first time.
Despite the energy crisis following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, this did not appear to be caused by an overall rise in coal use. Instead, Bankwatch Southeast Europe energy policy officer Pippa Gallop told bne IntelliNews: “The crisis was made worse precisely due to technical problems at some of the plants (particularly in Kosovo and North Macedonia, where Bitola 3 was offline for the whole of 2022) and coal supply problems.”
In 2022, the coal plants covered by the National Emissions Reduction Plans (NERPs) of Bosnia & Herzegovina, Kosovo, North Macedonia and Serbia surpassed the permitted limits for SO2 emissions by a collective factor of 5.6.
2022 also saw a sharp rise in dust emissions in comparison to 2021, reaching nearly 1.8 times the allowable limit in 2022.
NOx emissions slightly exceeded the prescribed thresholds for the countries due to inadequate investments in pollution control measures, elevated emissions and stricter annual limits outlined in the NERPs, Bankwatch said.
This is despite countries in the region being required to meet new air pollution standards back in January 2018. However, none of the countries with large combustion plants met those requirements even by the end of 2022.
“The end of 2022 marked five years since new air pollution standards entered into force in the Western Balkans on 1 January, 2018. Yet the deadly air pollution from the region’s mostly antiquated coal power plants has hardly decreased at all,” said Bankwatch.
Between 2018 and 2020, the coal plants in the Western Balkans were responsible for a combined total of 19,000 deaths. According to Bankwatch, nearly 12,000 of these fatalities can be attributed to emissions over the NERP ceilings during that period.
“The pollution levels in the Western Balkans are utterly unacceptable. The governments must finally get a grip on the situation and stop letting energy utilities make their own rules,” said Davor Pehchevski, pollution campaigner at Bankwatch, in a press release from the NGO.
The worst offenders
In 2022, Serbia's NERP coal plants emerged as the largest emitters of SO2 in absolute terms, releasing 261,207 tonnes, followed by Bosnia with 182,667 tonnes.
While Serbia's NERP plants witnessed an increase in SO2 emissions compared to 2021, Bosnia's emissions remained relatively stable.
Despite the energy crisis, Gallop said the rise in emissions was not due to an overall increase in coal consumption.
“We checked this recently using the energy regulators' annual reports from the countries and it turns out that BiH and Serbia actually generated less electricity from coal in 2021 and 2022 than the previous years, while the other countries were more variable but made a smaller impact on the overall regional situation … So in fact there has been no overall increase in coal use in the Western Balkans during the crisis,” she told bne IntelliNews.
Instead, the increase in emissions was most likely linked to technical issues and the use of different types of coal, thus only indirectly connected to the energy crisis.
This is believed to be the reason for the sudden hike in emissions from North Macedonia's Bitola B1+2 unit. For the first time since the implementation of the new rules, the Bitola B1+2 unit recorded the highest SO2 emissions in the region, 111,408 tonnes, nearly doubling its emissions from the previous year, the report said. The same unit also had the highest dust emissions, almost doubling from 2021 levels.
“Bitola 1+2 almost doubled its sulphur dioxide and dust emissions in 2022 compared to 2021, while its operating hours were only about 20% higher. Neither the plant operator nor the government has yet offered any explanation, but we think it might be connected to using different imported coal than the type the plant was designed for,” Gallop said.
The Gacko plant in Bosnia also exhibited “alarmingly high” dust emissions in 2022, reaching 12 times the permitted limit. Additionally, the plant operator recently announced plans to incinerate waste within the facility.
Ugljevik in Bosnia and Kostolac B in Serbia, considered long-standing offenders by Bankwatch, also continued to significantly surpass SO2 limits, despite having desulphurisation equipment installed. “It is still unclear whether technical issues or attempts by the operators to save money and increase production are to blame,” said Bankwatch’s press release.
Operating hours exceeded
Despite the energy transition getting underway in Europe, Gallop says, “In the coming years we expect governments and utilities [in the Western Balkans] will continue to cling desperately to their coal plants for some time, but there are limits to this, as most of the plants are extremely old and are becoming increasingly unreliable.”
Refusal to allow ageing plants to shut down has brought several Western Balkan countries into conflict with the Energy Community Secretariat.
According to Bankwatch, all three Western Balkan countries with coal power plants, which are subject to an 'opt-out' derogation that limits their operating hours, are now in breach of this provision.
Montenegro's Pljevlja plant has been operating unlawfully since late 2020, surpassing the authorised 20,000 operating hours allowed after January 1, 2018. In 2022, Bosnia’s Tuzla 4 and Kakanj 5 units and Serbia's Morava plant also exceeded their 20,000-hour limits. All these plants are still in operation.
In response, the Energy Community Secretariat has initiated several dispute settlement cases against the countries involved. Recently a new complaint was filed by the Renewables and Environmental Regulatory Institute (RERI) from Serbia and Bankwatch regarding the illegal operation of the Morava plant.
NECP deadline approaches
By the end of June, all Western Balkan countries are required to submit their draft National Energy and Climate Plans (NECPs) to the Energy Community Secretariat. These plans will outline their strategies for reducing greenhouse gas [GHG] emissions by 2030, including their plans for the closure of coal power plants.
Albania (which relies almost entirely on hydropower) and North Macedonia already adopted their NECPs in 2021 and 2022 respectively, but updates are expected. North Macedonia, once a leader in regional energy transition but now hosting the most polluting coal plant in the region, has indicated a potential delay in its coal phase-out from 2027 to 2030 and is even considering new coal mines, warned Bankwatch.
Serbia has also published a draft NECP for consultation, but Bosnia, Kosovo and Montenegro are yet to release their drafts, leading to uncertainty about their plans for coal power plants.
Commenting on the lack of action ahead of the deadline, Gallop said, “It's a combination of reasons. On one hand the European Commission set the deadline very late so they started to relax too much, but also domestic factors have likely played a strong role, for example constant political turmoil in Montenegro, the energy crisis in Kosovo and the constant elections and change of energy ministers in Serbia.”
Distracted from reforms
The energy crisis has distracted governments in countries in the region and beyond from the need to phase out consumption of coal and other polluting fuels.
"The energy crisis has on one hand shown how urgent it is to speed up the energy transition, but on a day-to-day level the challenge of securing a reliable electricity supply has distracted governments and made them even more reluctant to make ambitious decisions,” said Gallop.
“But there is no time to lose – Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism [CBAM] is just around the corner, with payments starting in 2026 for electricity imported from the region into the EU. This will make coal plants in the region much less competitive, as they rely on exports to attain higher prices than they can get domestically.”
"Two contradictory trends are currently underway: The region’s antiquated coal plants are increasingly unreliable, but the energy crisis has distracted governments and utilities even further from a sustainable energy transition,” said Ioana Ciuta, energy co-ordinator at Bankwatch.
“All the countries need to show in their NECPs that they have a plan, but in most cases not even a draft has been publicly available so far.”
New coal plants uncertain
Another controversial issue is the construction of new coal power plants, though as pressure increases on countries in the region to abandon coal plants and international financial institutions (IFIs) step away from financing fossil fuel projects, these plans are looking increasingly unclear.
“Kostolac B3 in Serbia is said to be nearing completion, but the situation with other plants in the country is less clear. Kolubara B was informally cancelled by the previous energy minister, but it is still in the country's draft spatial plan along with several other new coal plants. We do not really expect them to go ahead but it is hard to tell, as Serbia has so far failed to lay out any clear vision for its energy future, including in its recently published draft NECP,” said Gallop.
“Similarly, the plants planned in Bosnia & Herzegovina – Tuzla 7, Ugljevik III and Gacko II – have still not been cancelled and are sometimes mentioned as if they are going ahead, but we do not expect this to happen.”