A major and accelerated transition from a coal-fueled to a climate-friendly power plant in Longyearbyen, with a new facility in the 2022 budget that is operating within two to five years, was announced Monday by Norway’s government.
The announcement, if fulfilled, means the city’s 38-year-old coal plant will shut down well before the end of its theoretical life expectancy – although it will decommissioned in phases. It also means Mine 7 will lose its essential purpose of supplying coal to the power plant, leaving uncertain the fate of the last mining operation by Store Norske and other Norwegian companies that have been the foundation of Longyearbyen’s existence for virtually all of its 115-year history.
The new power plant is the final step in an energy plan that includes the opening of a new gas-fueled backup power plant that went online during the fall, Norway’s Minister of Petroleum and Energy Tina Bru said in a prepared statement. She said the coal plant that has been providing electricity and central heating since 1983 “is worn out, has large maintenance costs and produces high emissions of CO2.”
“In recent years the state has provided support for the maintenance of the coal-fired power plant and a new reserve power plant was put in place this autumn,” the statement notes. “The reserve power plant shall contribute to the sound operation of the power supply. The energy supply will nevertheless be vulnerable to interruptions and unforeseen costs in the years ahead.”
The coal plant was seen as operable for another 10 to 15 years, but local and national leaders have during the past few years stepped up efforts for a replacement. While the old plant will operate at some level during its phased shutdown, its unreliability is a foremost concern.
“Failure in the energy supply on Svalbard can have serious consequences,” Bru said. “Security of supply is the consideration that weighs heaviest in the assessment of a new energy solution. We are now considering a smaller number of solutions that are both safe and significantly more environmentally friendly than today’s coal-fired power plant. Depending on which solution is chosen, a new energy solution may be in place within two to five years.”
Longyearbyen Mayor Arild Olsen greeted the announcement enthusiastically in a post on his Facebook page that started with “Finally!”
“The time frame that is now outlined by the government are in line with our local ambitions,” he wrote. “It is also good to see that the job we have done on today’s infrastructure paves the way for a safe and secure transition from today’s coal burning to other solutions.”
The Longyearbyen Community Council, lead by Olsen, also voted in December to spend 40 million kroner on a giga-size 5 MWh battery pack to provide backup power, the largest such source in Norway.
Initial reaction by others to the new main power plant was a mix of enthusiasm and questions about how climate-friendly a new plant will be.
“Coal power on Svalbard should have been phased out 10 years ago, so this is high time,” wrote Anders Berg in a reader comment on a story published Monday by e24.no.
But others questioned the impact and cost of transporting gas or pellets to Svalbard.
“I do not quite understand the logic of this,” wrote Henning Øksland in a comment on the same article. “First a new power plant for gas or (wood) pellets must be built, then gas or pellets must be transported to Svalbard, and none of the alternatives are emission-free and the transport to Svalbard probably is not either. If there are pellets it must also use forests to produce pellets with all that entails of emissions…New coal-fired power plants with the latest technology are virtually emission-free.”
While some emissions improvements have been made to Longyearbyen’s ageing plant, studies have indicated a large-scale upgrade or replacement coal plant would be far too expensive.
The Longyearbyen Community Council has scheduled a special meeting for Jan. 21 to approve an energy transition plan already drafted, Olsen wrote. He also noted local officials will continue working with the ministry on specifics of the new plant and energy plan “so that neither the state nor the residents of Longyearbyen spend unnecessary time and money.”
Among the alternatives that have been considered are both fossil and renewable solutions, and combinations of these. A direct transition from coal power to 100 percent renewable power is very demanding in a place like Svalbard. In order to maintain security of supply, this must be done gradually, with a secure energy solution at the bottom. A new energy supply in Longyearbyen should be based on a new CHP plant, for example based on natural gas or pellets, in combination with a gradual phasing in of more renewable energy.
An in-depth government assessment in 2018 declared natural gas to be the preferred main source of power generation because it is cost-effective, clean and secure in terms of supply – but that other renewable sources such as solar and wind would like be a supplementary part of the overall plan.
The study showed the existing facility emits 58,000 tons of carbon emissions annually vs. 23,000 tons for a gas facility, if carbon capture is not implemented. With carbon capture the figures are 28,000 and 5,000, respectively. Pellets, according to the study, will produce 1,500 tons of carbon emissions.
Bru said Monday a secure transition of the power supply would have to be done gradually starting with a new plant “based on natural gas or pellets, for example, in combination with a gradual phasing in of more renewable energy.”
The new plant also means Mine 7, which has enough coal for at least another decade of operations at the current level of production, will be affected – although how is to be determined.
“When the coal-fired power plant is phased out and replaced with a more environmentally friendly energy solution, an important part of the operating basis for Mine 7, which is operated by Store Norske, will fall away,” said Minister of Trade and Industry Iselin Nybø. “It is then natural that the company’s board, as well as the state as the owner, consider what consequences this should have for the mining business. Store Norske has been, and will continue to be, a very central player for the Svalbard community. I therefore emphasize having a good process with all affected parties about this.”
Store Norske Administrative Director Jan Morten Ertsaas, in a prepared statement, said “today’s decision points to a probable closure of Mine 7.”
“The mine currently has 39 employees, and the loss of these jobs will be in addition to those who disappear in Svea and Lunckefjell in a few years,” he said. “This not only affects our employees, but will have ripple effects for the whole of Svalbard.”
Ertsaas said the company is already investing in alternative energy installations in Svalbard and expects to play a central role in the area’s long-term plans, an assertion similar to statements by government officials at the local and national level.
The likely closure of Mine 7 is sad, but expected, said Per Nilssen, the mine’s manager, in an interview with Svalbardposten.
“Now we are busy working on the plans we have to ensure a good decision-making process and establishing the steps involved for a closure of Mine 7 that also takes care of our employees,” he told the newspaper.
In addition to the climate impacts of coal, the mine notoriously suffered a major climate-inflicted setback last July when the hottest day in Longyearbyen’s history resulted in the mine being flooded by meltwater from a glacier above the mountainside installation. Extracting the water and repairing damaged equipment forced the closure of the mine until the end of October.
Monday’s announcement follows Friday’s release of a new “white paper” by Prime Minster Era Solberg outlining a low-carbon society plan envisioned for 2030.
The shutdown of the current power plant in Longyearbyen will not mean the end of coal power or mining in Svalbard since the Russian-operated settlement of Barentsburg plans to continue with both until the end of their life expectancies many years from now.