Bulgaria: From fossil fuel hostage to clean energy champion

Genady Kondarev is an economist and environmentalist from Bulgaria who has worked for over 12 years on the paths toward decarbonisation of the energy sector in Bulgaria. Genady currently works for Friends of the Earth. He has also completed all three courses in the Clean Power Programme. He was able to use the work from the courses to help him provide feedback into Bulgaria’s newly published National Energy and Climate Plan. He has now written us this blog about the future for clean energy in his native country.

Sofia, Bulgaria

Trapped at the coalface?

Every year Bulgaria, a country with a population of seven million people, burns over 30 million tons of the lowest quality lignite coal to deliver roughly half of its power mix. Another third of our energy comes from nuclear sources and a bit of gas used mostly in combined heat and power stations, with slow but not promising expansion for domestic use. There is around 18% share from renewable energy sources – half is from large hydropower plants and the rest is a mix of wind, solar and biomass.

To complete the picture, nearly 60% of people heat their homes using hard fuel in the winter   either coal or freshly chopped firewood, often burned in primitive stoves, which makes the air in urban areas often unbreathable. Bulgaria is at the top of the list of premature death rates due to air pollution.

The other 40% of households use electricity to heat (the EU average is 11%). The country is slowly moving from primitive electric heating devices to other usually less than perfect electric solutions – such as individual air-conditioners for cooling and heating which cause a sharp peak demand of electricity during the short snowy winter and the ever-hotter summer days.

These peaks in demand are used to justify the existence of many old and polluting power plants. Ensuring the heating needs are met with renewable energy will be a key variablto a sustainable future power mix. Most of the Bulgarian coal fleet was commissioned back in the 1960s and 1970s. The nuclear plant of Kozloduy was built during the 1970s and the 1980s. These plants are old and need to be replaced with clean power options to achieve full decarbonisation by 2050.

A crucial decade for the long-term sustainable energy future of Bulgaria starts now

The 2020 renewable energy targets of Bulgaria were a mere 16% of the final energy consumption – a goal easy to reach and even overshoot. The 2030 target that is emerging is currently decided and likely going to be 27%.

It will be mostly achieved by developments in the field of the renewable heat or co-firing of biomass, which is a rather slippery road to decarbonisation that is an easy to do and tick the box but has doubtful effect for real in time cuts of the CO2 emissions. The worst scenario is that the current planned pathway will not facilitate a good take up of more renewables in the next decade but will potentially hinder the achievement of 100 renewable energy in 2050.

What does Bulgaria need to avoid such a trajectory?

Ensuring security of supply in to the 2020s

The next decade is crucial if Bulgaria is to avoid investing in assets that will become stranded. The country urgently needs a plan for phasing-out coal. This could start with immediately shutting down the oldest and most polluting coal fleets – the plants of Brikel and Bobov. Instead, TPP Maritsa East 2 – the biggest coal power plant in the Balkans could provide capacity reserve for a couple of years in order to guarantee the energy security of the country by covering winter and summer peak demands and also ensuring employment.

The remaining nuclear fleet and the more modern coal plants would still be the main providers of baseload till 2030 but no new nuclear plants or reactors should be built – as they are too expensive, risky and slow to build. The needs for system flexibility initially could be covered from pumped hydropower, a flexible coal fleet and by smaller hydro plants.

Almost no new hydro projects should be commissioned but where applicable, existing hydropower plants could be upgraded to increase their efficiency and turn some into pumped-storage plants for stability.

Stepping up renewable energy

In 2019, the growth in renewable energy sources has halted, but these could restart under cost efficient expansion through auctions and cap-and-trade system – the best way to ensure that the right mix of cost-efficient and competitive renewable energy technology will penetrate the system and only as much as the power system needs at a given moment.

This way the old “dirty” capacity will be substituted with new clean generation at a smooth pace and avoiding system and market shocks. Renewable heat and energy efficiency will play a vital role. Energy poverty in Bulgaria has unfortunately led people to use heavy-polluting fuels but a switch to more efficient heating, like heat pumps, could be achieved through public funded programmes and low interest financial instruments.

Energy efficiency in buildings remain to be an important area for public investment and programmes for renovation of the building stock could create a real boom. The decrease in the energy consumption by these households could also help to derease the overall energy consumption and to curb the seasonal peaks in the demand.

Becoming a nation of prosumers

Decentralisation of renewable energy production could also get an extra boost through the new EU legislation, which has opened up doors for prosumers. Households and small businesses need a green light to start producing and consuming their own energy and these energy sources could be integrated into the electricity grid.

This new capacity comes on top of those build through the cap-and-trade system, which would lead Bulgaria to surpass its own renewable energy targets. Smart metering and demand-response practices could be the new norm.

Working with neighbouring countries

With the Western Balkans (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia) joining the EU in 2025 our regional energy cooperation could also be further strengthened.

The grid interconnectors between the countries are well established and could easily enable further European cooperation. This regional market could also include non-EU neighbouring countries  (e.g. Turkey and Ukraine). The bigger the region, the more the renewable energy production can balance the demand and the lesser the need for baseload and fossil fuel fleet kept on stand-by.

I think that if Bulgaria abandons its expensive gas and nuclear ambitions, it will be able to invest in a sustainable future. By 2030 pilot projects in power-to-gas may get successfully tested and then scale up in order to provide flexibility and security of supply. Bulgaria could even become an energy hub for the Balkans not just a transit zone for gas and oil projects. Hopefully, we will play a role in dispatching renewable energy around and between the neighbouring non-EU regions of South-East Europe and Turkey. Solar, wind and hydro could grow beyond their 30% share and expansion can be greater if we can step up cooperation at a regional level.

Using solar for heating

Many households could invest in solar water heaters to replace the electric ones. Solar-thermal heaters will decrease the need for imported gas in district heating networks as large empty industrial plots can be covered with solar collectors which will provide the energy needs for domestic hot water and heating. Initially, natural gas, but increasingly renewable gas and biogas, could supply the energy only in moments when energy from the sun cannot cover energy demand.

Moving to net zero emissions in 2040s?

The last coal power plants around the Balkans would be struggling to sell their expensive energy and will shut down by early 2030s. The big jump in the installed capacity between 2020 and 2030 of renewable energy sources could form an industry with serious influence and then nothing would stand in the way of completely decarbonising the energy sector. Nuclear could also be phased-out.

What in the previous decade have been just pilot projects, such as power-to-gas and heavier transport fuels, are now going full scale in order to allow the balancing of renewable energy supply and the security of supply. Non-renewable gas is gradually being phased-out both for domestic use and in the industry, this should be complete by 2040.

There has never been a decade more decisive for the future of the energy sector, but the coming one, and the picture looks similar all over the region.

Genady Kondarev

Genady KondarevGenady Kondarev is an economist and environmentalist from Bulgaria who has worked for over 12 years on the paths toward decarbonisation of the energy sector in Bulgaria. He currently works for Friends of the Earth.

He has also completed all three courses in the Clean Power Programme. He

was able to use the work from the courses to help him provide feedback into Bulgaria’s newly published National Energy and Climate Plan.

Find out more about the Clean Power Program.

You can sign up to all three courses of the Clean Power Program on the EdX platform. 

  1. Why Move Towards Cleaner Power
  2. Creating a Pro-Renewables Environment
  3. Incorporating Renewable Energy in Electricity Grids

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