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The coal curtain: why Eastern Europe will be slower to adopt renewable energy

Image by hangela from Pixabay

For much of the past century, a divide has separated Eastern and Western Europe. This trend has persisted to today’s march towards renewable energy, with a “coal curtain” taking the place of the notorious Iron Curtain from year’s past.

Eastern and Western Europe face different challenges when it comes to increasing renewable energy. But there are more factors in play here than simple ideological differences. Notably, it’s not an issue with wanting to save the environment — all of Eastern Europe signed the Paris Agreement, of course. Simply put, in Western countries, you won’t notice it on your energy bill — in Eastern Europe, you will.

The ecological vs. the economical

One of the main hindrances to the expansion of renewable energy sources is the high cost that it takes to fully implement. The main difference is that wealthier countries in the West can afford to switch over to renewables but in the relatively poorer Eastern Europe, it’s a much trickier proposition. 

Mining has historically been a huge part of many Eastern European countries — much of the countryside is perfectly situated on natural resources such as coal. In fact, Poland is currently the largest coal producer in Europe. Therefore, most European countries don’t necessarily feel obligated to look into other resources because of their coal output — a change to renewable energy would affect the economy of an Eastern European nation much more than a Western European one.

Furthermore, the power grid of much of Eastern Europe is still up-to-date and efficient, with diversification across various energy sources. For instance, Slovakia has a good mixture of energy technologies such as nuclear, water, gas and of course coal. It doesn’t make sense for them economically to divert attention away from what they know works. And unlike their more affluent cousins to the West, they can’t afford to drop proven energy sources on a whim.

A close relationship with coal means that these countries have a long history of people working in the mining industry in regions with limited possibilities of where to work. To divert attention to renewable energy would leave thousands of coal miners unemployed – thousands of unemployed coal miners with a vote in the next election. When combined with political implications of increased unemployment, it’s difficult to gain enough popular support to push through measures in favor of renewable energy.

Ununified EU

In response to the Paris Agreements, the EU issued a mandate amongst its member countries to reduce greenhouse emissions by 20% while increasing the total energy consumption from renewable energy by 20% by 2020. While valiant, this has proven to be much easier said than done when it comes to organizing the myriad member states — each with its own regulations, energy sources, and agendas. 

In Slovakia, nuclear and hydropower are a big part of their energy system, but aren’t included in the EU mandate for renewable energy. This means that it’s even more difficult and costly to switch over to different energy sources. The same goes for many other states in the region, who have much of their energy tied to nonrenewable sources. Eastern Europe simply has a much deeper hole to climb out of than their Western brethren when it comes to the switch to renewables, making it that much more of a challenge.

It’s forward-thinking to attempt to unify the energy politics of the EU. In fact, it will be almost impossible to do so — especially with the differences between Eastern and Western Europe. In the end, it will do damage to some countries on behalf of others — almost certainly meaning richer and Western over poorer and Eastern.

Future for renewable energy

Is Eastern Europe in too big a hole to adapt to renewable energy sources before a major crisis occurs? While it may be cutting it close, there is still time to effect positive change. The shifts to clean energy need to be complex, taking advantage of every shortcut and loose end to optimize the potential for change.

Technology will be an important part of any future transition to renewable energy and Eastern Europe needs to work with this technology rather than ignoring it. Smart energy devices and AI that help coordinate, measure, and optimize what to do with energy produced from renewable energy sources will be essential in the coming years. Smart microgrids, which allow for the sharing and trading of surplus green energy between consumers, will prove to be critical to future clean energy endeavors.

Improper implementation of subsidies is a major reason why the move towards renewables is much harder in Eastern Europe. Many countries hinge on subsidies, but it tends to be a slow process as they are often ineffective. Also, subsidies in their early stages are set up unreasonably — they are often set too high with predominantly people connected with political establishments benefiting from them.  

So what is the solution to the problem of subsidies? We need to cut them off and agree to build carbon power sources only for grid regulation. In this situation, subsidies will no longer be needed, allowing the market to do the rest of the dirty work. 

Furthermore, we need to unify everything into one coherent entity — the everyday politics, energy, food, and everything else. A collaborative plan that will help in building this bridge between the ecological and economical is sorely needed in order to form the policies that stick. 

Cooperation throughout the EU is key in the ensuing years — the petty squabbles between member states have to give way to collaboration as all need to stand together in order to fight this upcoming catastrophe. It’s going to be a difficult battle to fight, but victory is still well within our reach.