Decarbonizing the local economies doesn’t need to be a drag

Decarbonizing the local economies doesn’t need to be a drag

Read the takeaways from the “Seizing the Chance: From Coal Ash to Solar Cash” webinar that took place on 4 June

The “Seizing the Chance: From Coal Ash to Solar Cash” webinar, organized by TheMayor.EU, in partnership with the European Investment Bank (EIB) and Iclei Europe, took place yesterday, 4 June, with expert speakers from all over Europe.

The participants, whose professional backgrounds span from local government and public administration to finance and community relation building, united around the main idea that the energy sector transformation in Europe will only be meaningful overall when it is meaningful to the local communities affected by it – despite its inevitability.

The great news is that providing a better quality of life in the future without interrupting the flow of heat and energy in the future doesn’t need to involve constant innovation from everyone. Instead, sharing best practices for particular local contexts does the job in most cases just as well.

Each of the speakers also presented their idea of what it means to add high value to an economy in flux.

Pernik is ready to transform

Stefan Krastev, deputy mayor of Pernik, first took the stage to give an overview of what’s currently happening in one of the most traditionally coal-reliant regions in Bulgaria. Percentagewise, that city is the most connected to district heating in terms of households and public buildings. In his words, this reliance has yielded to ambition for change and transformation.

The city’s industrial heritage and proximity to the nation’s capital – Sofia – has helped it maintain lower rates of unemployment, compared to the country’s average, but then again that has also been the source of anxiety among the local residents used to see fossil-derived energy as a source of heat, light and income. That’s regardless of the fact that the share of people employed in the fossil energy sector has significantly reduced since its height in the 1960s.

Nowadays, coal is only being used to feed the local thermal power plant during the winter season when heating demand rises significantly. Hot water during the summer is generated through the use of gas after refurbishment of the plant to work with that fuel.

When you realize that change is inevitable, it is only a question of your state of mind whether you decide to be a subject or an object of said change,” commented Stefan Krastev on the overall attitude towards approaching the Just Transition plan.

There’s a big project starting now to replace household heating systems in the surrounding villages that are still using coal or wood by providing them with A/C, heat pumps. Those considered to be living in conditions of energy poverty will have solar panels on their roofs in order to become self-sufficient.

Another project is the rejuvenation of abandoned coal mine terrains, which are still considered to be a source of fine dust particles. The creation of green walls and more green areas around the city is essential to create a natural filtering system.

The deputy mayor also shared the news that last week, Pernik was approved by the European City Facility for a feasibility study, which will see whether multi-household apartment buildings could turn into energy communities and power suppliers to the industrial areas of the city. An interesting thing that Mr Krastev shared was the fact that in his region it was still the local government that served as the main driver for the energy transition, and it had to be conscientious to involve the local private sector, as well as the NGO’s and youth to the cause.

There is an overall good mood and a sense of preparedness in the region as it eagerly awaits the start of the Just Transition Mechanism project tenders and approval of financing, which will give much-needed support to the government efforts.

Zasavje does it better with external help

Kristjan Adamlje from the Zasavje Regional Development Agency shared that the Just Transition process in this industrial Slovenian region has already been well underway for some time now. Although it is the smallest region in the country, Zasavje has long been the most industrially developed one thanks to the presence of coal mines there. The energy boom of the Industrial Revolution led to the development of different industries, such as glasswork – active to this day.

Good intentions, however, did not immediately translate into bright results on the ground. Indeed, the closure of coal mines and the thermal power plant in 2013-2014 led to the loss of 20% of jobs and depopulation at the rate of 11%, together with the degradation of facilities and infrastructure. This socio-economic shock led to an overall estimate that the first phase of the transition could be deemed unsuccessful. In response, the four municipalities of the region banded together to create the regional development agency in 2016. The region was then included in the EU Platform for Coal Regions in Transition in order to ensure a more just transition with European support.

Support from the Just Transition Mechanism meant the ability to create a robust Action Plan, which then served as the basis for a Territorial Just Transition Plan for Zasavje (TJTP). The culmination of the process, from an organizational perspective, was the establishment of the Zasavje Just Transition Centre – a central hub that serves information dissemination, support and advisory services, stakeholder engagement and guidance. The creation of the center was informed by the notion that energy transition is a long-term process that needs to show a tangible presence of continuous support and reassurance for the local communities feeling anxious when presented with a lack of direction.

Zasavje is ahead of Pernik in the sense that it already has projects underway that have been financed by the Just Transition Fund. That of course, is a great way to serve as a role model for peer regions and a showcase of the possibilities available.

For instance, Zasavje’s largest project in that framework is Center DUBT, which received 27.3 million euros from the JTF. Its essence is the establishment of a centre with state-of-the-art research and infrastructure for the development of battery and hydrogen technologies.

Useful tools to track the energy transition in Europe

Shira Stanton, a Program Lead from Beyond Fossil Fuels, a non-profit that seeks to connect various sectors by filling informational gaps and building bridges in order to underscore the sense that the mission of energy transition affects everyone, and no one should be left by the sidelines. Their vision is to have a sustainable, renewables-based European electricity sector that is free of fossil fuels by 2035.

Ms Stanton began with the exciting news that April 2024 was the first full month ever in Europe that electricity generation from renewables was higher than that from fossil fuels. It was this example of broader trends that the organization is confident will inspire and inform local communities to act and follow through. However, it is helpful if the massive data generated can be visualized. This is where Beyond Fossil Fuels presents easy-to-use digital tools in the form of trackers that indicate in real time the number of coal plants (both operating and decommissioned) on the continent or the various European governments’ commitments to fossil-free electricity by 2035.

BFF works with municipalities to provide know-how support in their energy transition journey. Such a model is the ‘6 benefits, 6 steps’ checklist that local governments can use to keep track of their progress. It was through the development of the checklist that the organization realized that each locality has its own unique challenges that need to be addressed. Currently, BFF is working on the development of a map of successful energy solution stories that can serve as a convenient database for local authorities, or anyone else, to draw inspiration from.

The Just Transition Mechanism has 3 Pillars of funding

Massimo Marra, Lead Advisor on the JASPERS programme from the European Investment Bank (EIB), took the digital floor to conclude the webinar and to present how the creative and innovative ideas around the energy transition can find realization thanks to financing from that institution.

The Just Transition Mechanism actually relies on three pillars of financial support from EIB. Through the first one EIB can co-finance EU ERDF funding via structural programme/framework loans. Pillar 2 puts the focus on green infrastructure, innovation, SMEs and microfinance under the InvestEU Programme. With Pillar 3, EIB financing is blended with European Commission grants through the Just Transition Public Sector Loan Facility.

In addition, EIB through its JASPERS programme aims to ensure that it’s not all about money transfers in vain by providing additional support in the form of advisory expertise to announced projects or capacity building and dissemination of methodologies and lessons learnt through various workshops and webinars.



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