North Macedonia expects a bumpy road in its quest to quit coal
BITOLA, North Macedonia, Nov 29 (Reuters) - As North Macedonia prepares to present its plan on Sunday to wean itself off coal-fired power, miners at the Bitola plant are running out of coal reserves and have to mix lignite with imported higher-grade coal to keep production alive.
The country of 2 million people is expected to get the backing of international lenders at the COP28 climate talks in Dubai for a 3 billion euro plan to shutdown its coal-fired power plants for cleaner energy production.
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"It is the biggest challenge in our history since our independence 30 years ago," country's head of energy Marko Bislimoski told Reuters from his office in Skopje.
"And to be honest, we don't have other choices, the reserves of lignite are at the end."
Bislimoski said in after 10 years North Macedonia will be free of coal and power will come from renewables and gas.
Miners at the coal mine near the plant are working to feed the plant with lignite, a form of coal with low burning quality but very polluting.
Around 200 trucks arrive a day filled with better quality coal from Albania and Greece to mix with domestic lignite to feed three units at the 700 megawatts (MW) capacity plant.
The new deal will lay out a plan to close the country's two coal-power plants and replace them with 1.7 gigawatts (GW) of renewable energy.
Coal still represents 40% of the energy source, according to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), which together with the World Bank are also backing the deal.
"In our case having large hydro power plants with the sun's potential is a good combination to be fully independent from coal in future," Viktor Andonov, director for development and investments at state owned power utility ESM said.
The United Nations in 2018 named North Macedonia's capital, Skopje, the most polluted in Europe. The country has worked for years to quit coal but plans were delayed in 2021 when Europe faced an energy crisis due to the war in Ukraine and Skopje had to reopen the dormant coal-fired Oslomej power plant to cut electricity imports.
Frosina Antonovska, an energy and climate policy officer from NGO CAN Europe, welcomed the plan but criticised the government of keeping it under wraps.
"We need to have transparency from day one so that we actually have an ownership of this process as a country," Antonovska said.
In the past two years North Macedonia has managed to add 600 MW of new capacity of renewables, mainly from solar energy. (Reporting by Fatos Bytyci; editing by David Evans)