The Slovak region Upper Nitra is coming together for a future without lignite

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The country’s largest coal deposits are located along the upper reaches of the Nitra River in western Slovakia. Here – in the Trenčín region – are three of the most important lignite mines that have supplied the country with energy in the last century and heated about 13,000 homes in the region. In the 1990s, extraction activities began to decline. The region differentiated its economy by focusing on tourism – the famous Bojnice Castle is only a few kilometers from the mines. Other industries employ thousands of people in the region. What will the Upper Nitra region look like when mining shuts down?

In its corona recovery plan, Slovakia confirms that it no longer supports the use of lignite at the Novaky power plant – the most important in the region. The plant is expected to close in 2023 as it no longer receives grants.

However, the transition started more than five years ago. At that time, local authorities and citizens began to think about a future without the coal industry. The lignite mines in Upper Nitra supply fuel to the nearby power plant. The three mining areas are owned by the Hornonitrian railway Prievidza – HBP – a private mining company – while the Slovenian electricians – an electricity company – operate them.

“In the beginning, it was taboo to talk about the future of the region. In 2017, we started thinking about what could be the next step, but not necessarily about closing the mining sites, ”said innovation Origins Alojz Vlčko, head of the office of the mayor of Prievidza.

Transition

The city – the administrative capital of the Upper Nitra region – initiated the process and involved all stakeholders. Except for the national government, which initially refused to cooperate. Prievidza began working on its plan in January 2017, while the central government launched its own initiative in February 2018. At that time, two separate groups were working separately on two action plans.

Alojz Vliko
Alojz Vlčko – © Alojz Vlčko

Things changed in April 2018. Bratislava recognized the local plan as the backbone of the final plan. A few months later – in December – Slovakia announced that it would stop government support for coal-based electricity by 2023. In the case of Upper Nitra, the Novaky power plant receives € 115 million each year from the government to remain open.

“From 2017, the Ministry of Economic Affairs began to reconsider the so-called general economic interest. At that time, we also discovered that the case was also under investigation by the European Commission, “adds Vlčko.

The Upper Nitra region was selected by the European Commission in December 2017 as a pilot region for the European Commission’s coal region platform. Subsequently, the Commission launched the Just Transition Fund (JTF). Such an instrument aims to help those EU areas facing socio-economic challenges resulting from the transition to climate neutrality. In order to gain access to the funds, an action plan had to be drawn up to shape the future of Upper Nitra.

Closure

Analyzing the consequences of mine closure was one of the first steps in the process. In 2018, the mining company employed about 4,000 people. One of the biggest concerns was how to accommodate this workforce.

Seban
Ondrej Seban – © Ondrej Seban

“Although many people were still employed by the mining company, the region’s economy was quite diversified. There were other large employers, and unemployment was relatively low compared to other regions, ”explains Ondrej Seban. He is the senior manager at PwC, the company hired by the Commission to help local stakeholders draw up the action plan.

The action plan defines four pillars to focus on: infrastructure, economy, energy sector and quality of life and social aspects. In July 2019, it was approved as part of the national coal strategy.

In addition, many of the priorities of the action plan were subsequently incorporated into the Slovak Transitional Plan. It defines how Slovakia will use the support from the GTF. The fair transition plan is being approved by the European Commission. Thereafter, the Slovak Ministry of Investment will launch calls for projects.

my water

mining water
Water comes out of the mine. – © Alojz Vlčko

There are many ideas to shape the future of the region. Despite their closure, the mining areas – at least in one of the projects to be launched – will remain an energy source. “The mines are located in a part of the mountain range. The precipitation penetrates into the former mine cavities and flows naturally into the river. We intend to hold on to this leaky mine water. It flows on average all year round with a temperature of 16 °. We want to raise the temperature using heat pumps, biomass and solar panels so that it is enough for heating, “says Vlčko.

“On the other hand, the power plant site could be reused for other industries, such as battery production. Its connection to high voltage and gas pipelines makes it valuable for such technology. These features make it very valuable for different companies, ”adds Seban.

With regard to the creation of new jobs in the area, one of the ideas is repair and production of railway wagons. Such an investment could make use of the mining company’s existing railway infrastructure. Other ideas that are already being implemented relate to the construction of greenhouses for tomato growing and a fish farm. Both are part of the diversification plan that the mining company has implemented.

Inhabitants

One of the most important lessons to be learned from the case of Upper Nitra is that the residents accepting such a transition is crucial to getting the process started. Seban: “Locals must be prepared to go through such a transition, but government support is indispensable. From my perspective, it was important that there was an external person who brought all stakeholders around the same table to discuss the future. ”

Looking ahead, the region is aiming for depopulation by attracting highly qualified talent. “We have set up a working group to identify ideas and strategies to get young people interested in living here. Brose opened a new branch in Prievidza in 2015. The company already has more than a thousand employees and they plan to expand further. They hire engineers from other cities in the country to attract new people, ”says Vlčko.

More sustainable industry, tourism and possibly innovation. The road to a low-carbon future is there. The projects that will soon be selected will show what the future of Upper Nitra will look like.

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