Partially inspired by Germany’s version, the Czech Coal Commission met for the first time earlier this summer. Though it’s creation was largely driven by the mass student protests that have fundamentally transformed the Czech debate on climate policy, only two of its nineteen members are from environmental organizations. With its final report due in less than a year, it’s still unclear if the commission will decide upon a coal phase out date or a surge in renewables instead of new nuclear power. To learn more, Klára Schovánková, head of the ecology program at Heinrich Böll Foundation’s Prague office, interviewed Coal Commission member, Jiří Koželouh, who also heads the energy program at Hnutí Duha, Friends of the Earth Czech Republic.
Klára Schovánková: The Czech Coal Commission is scheduled to meet through September 2020. What are the commission’s objectives?
The commission should come up with a specific date for a coal phase out, although this goal is not directly stated in its bylaws. Its tasks are not as clearly defined at the outset as those of its German predecessor. Instead, typically for the Czech Republic, it’s cautious in the sense that its job is to determine what can and can’t be done.
Nonetheless, the first meeting demonstrated that no one is against setting a specific date, even though everyone has different motivations for ensuring the phasing out of coal. But making something binding will be more difficult. The Minister of Industry declared that the government has never voted against the opinions of other advisory bodies. But it can’t be fully binding. If we are talking about laws, those must be approved by parliament.
In your opinion what will define the commission’s success?
It depends upon whether we will focus on the technical aspects of phasing out coal; the impacts of the phase-out; and how we can replace the jobs and lost income for regions that today profit from coal. It will also depend on whether we can establish a date for eliminating it altogether. If some people insist on continuing to use coal however, it is obvious that no agreement will be made.
The German commission recommended that German brown coal regions would receive 40 billion euros in financial support over the next thirty years. Will the commission also suggest support mechanisms?
Definitely. One of the commission’s three working groups will deal with this issue. It’s not purely about money but also about specifying what it needs to be spent on. Of course, coal-mining regions should receive greater support, but at the same time it must be ensured that this money will go mainly toward projects that will support cutting greenhouse gas emissions. For example, by building up renewable energy, we could both develop new jobs and partially replace coal.
Can renewables fully replace coal-generated heat and electricity in the Czech Republic?
They can. Over ten years ago, a commission headed by Václav Pačes, the chairman of the Academy of Sciences, worked with conservative estimates that demonstrated current heat consumption can be gradually replaced by reducing consumption and waste. There is the potential to save 60 % on heating and to replace 40 % with renewables. This can be done by 2050, and then neither coal nor natural gas would be necessary. We have more recent electricity models that indicate that if in the next ten years there is solid growth in renewables, but not necessarily enough to meet their full potential, it will be possible to phase out all coal-fired power plants by 2030. The grid and supply would work, and as a country we would still export energy to a certain extent. Nuclear reactors play no role in the heating industry, and their potential is very low. They are therefore only important for electricity; but in our opinion they aren’t necessary and present high risks.
The share of energy from renewable sources in the Czech Republic is one of the lowest in the EU, and the current national energy and climate plan (NECP) does not lay out a more ambitious increase. Is it in the commission’s power to change this?
It should try, even though the NECP should be finalized by the end of the year and the commission will still continue to operate after this date. Focusing on how we will achieve the end of coal means renewable sources must play a major role here. Obviously, nuclear energy will be involved, but if this were to be the only scenario, it would be a problem.
Why is the Czech Republic prioritizing nuclear power over renewable energy?
The idea of new reactors allows people to think about the future of energy without making any major changes. We know that coal will not be around forever, and that we will have to phase it out due to pressure from intensifying climate change, and that nuclear energy will allow us to maintain the centralized energy system that we are used to and which, from a conservative perspective, works. And it is also a matter of great political pressure. Companies and the countries they are based in have an enormous stake in the building of reactors. At play are huge contracts that are worth fighting over even at the diplomatic level.
Is there any way to estimate the Czech public’s expectations of the commission and what type of energy model it would prefer?
There are expectations, as demonstrated by public opinion polls in which people consider coal-fired energy to be dirty. On the other hand, even though the public prefers renewables over nuclear energy, there is relatively strong support for nuclear power, which has an image as a stable cleaner source of energy.
What results do you think the commission should achieve? What would be unacceptable for you?
We see no reason why the state should not endeavor to phase out large coal-fired power plants by 2030. In 2030 there will also be no reason to burn coal for household heating, which is still another major consumer of coal. As far as heating plants are concerned, we need more calculations because there are multiple grids that are not connected like in the power industry. From the perspective of reducing CO2 emissions, it would make no sense to convert heating plants to run on natural gas and then let them operate for thirty years to ensure a return on investments.