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Serbia’s electricity crisis: EPS struggling to get coal plants back online

Mud-laden lignite has caused a breakdown in Serbia’s biggest thermal power plants after heavy snowfall. State-owned coal and electricity producer EPS got some of the aging units functioning again, but the country is still relying on power imports and the government is blaming the company’s management. As coal plants are becoming obsolete, renewables are Serbia’s best bet, Professor Nikola Rajaković told Balkan Green Energy News.

It has been an open secret for years that Elektroprivreda Srbije (EPS) isn’t developing its coal pits fast enough. Recent rainfall and the season’s first major snow soaked the lignite, which already has a high share of mud, clay and sand, clogging up the TENT thermal power complex in Obrenovac in Belgrade territory.

The breakdown in Serbia’s two biggest coal plants on December 12 caused widespread outages, prompting EPS to start importing unprecedented quantities of electricity via transmission system operator Elektromreža Srbije (EMS). The share of power from abroad in domestic consumption reached as much as 45%.

In volume terms, maximum imports were above 2 GW at some points in the past few days. Active coal plant capacity crashed to just above 900 MW early on December 14, compared to an ordinary level of almost 3 GW.

The crisis reached its peak when wind stopped and an outage occurred at the Kostolac coal plant. Hydropower plants bore most of the burden on the domestic production front.

President Vučić: Total collapse

According to data from EMS’s application Energy Flux, EPS now has 2.1 GW online in coal plant capacity. Imports, at 1.4 GW, are covering 26% of consumption.

In yesterday’s dramatic appearance at a joint session of the Government of Serbia with representatives of state-owned companies and other institutions, President Aleksandar Vučić told EPS’s acting director Milorad Grčić he is personally responsible for the “total collapse.”

“I should hang myself from this biggest chandelier” in the room for listening to “ecologists, fake experts and all sorts of foreigners,” Vučić stressed and said he was responsible for not starting the construction of Kostolac B3 unit sooner and for abandoning the Kolubara B coal power plant project. It is not the first time that the president expressed skepticism with regard to the coal phaseout process, which is accelerating all over Europe.

Distribution grid neglected

Minister of Mining and Energy Zorana Mihajlović said this morning 30% of the company’s production capacity was still out and that 126,000 consumers were without electricity on December 12.

Mihajlović: Distribution system operator EDS needs major investment over several years

The municipality of Obrenovac and the town itself were mostly without electricity, central heating and water. Elsewhere in Serbia, power outages were registered mostly in rural areas. The people there are complaining that the distribution network, run by government-controlled Elektrodistribucija Srbije (EDS), has been neglected for many years and that it is getting worse. It raises questions about who is responsible that they are marginalized.

Minister Mihajlović, who is also deputy prime minister, said EDS, Serbia’s distribution system operator, requires major investment over several years and admitted maintenance has long been insufficient. The company was separated from EPS one year ago.

Serbia has been paying more than EUR 10 million for electricity imports per day since the breakdown. Vučić acknowledged the financial impact would be serious.

Renewables are best bet for Serbia’s energy future

Professor Nikola Rajaković from the School of Electrical Engineering at the University of Belgrade told Balkan Green Energy News that, low-quality lignite aside, not much can be done anymore with the oldest coal power units as some are half a century old.

“Serbia will have to gradually shut them down, but not before installing the capacities to replace them. Scientists and experts are aware of the intermittence challenges in the case of reliance on solar and wind power, but they are leaning more and more toward such a switch as new storage and flexibilization solutions are becoming available,” Rajaković stressed and estimated a breakthrough “is within reach.”

Emerging storage and flexibility solutions, demand response and sector coupling could enable a full switch to renewables, according to Professor Nikola Rajaković

Stability with renewables can be significantly helped with sector coupling, for instance by turning excess wind and solar power to heat and hydrogen for other uses, the professor underscored. Rajaković pointed to demand response as another important factor – a drop in supply can be offset by a coordinated reduction in demand among consumers.

Gas is “a perfect transitional solution” while Serbia should turn to nuclear power only if the issues with renewables can’t be overcome, he asserted. On the other hand, the country has no experience with the technology and the smaller, modular nuclear power plants still aren’t tested enough, according to Rajaković.

Of note, Kosovo* has just suffered another in a series of outages at its coal plants over the past several weeks, and one unit at the REK Bitola coal complex in North Macedonia was shut down a month ago amid a large fire at a substation there.


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