Svalbard caught between coal, renewable energy, and two countries

While the Svalberg islands belong to Norway, Russia has mining rights under a 1920 treaty.

Longyearbyen coal-power plant

A power plant in Longyearbyen — the archipelago’s largest town — highlights the two countries’ vastly different approaches to energy transition. The Norwegian government announced last month that it wants to shut the tiny 10-megawatt coal-fired heat and power station, which supplies most of the 2,500 inhabitants with electricity and district heating, within two to five years. That sounds the death knell for the last operational Norwegian-owned coal mine on Svalbard. But another coal operation on the island of Spitsbergen, at the small Russian settlement of Barentsburg, is now almost entirely used to fuel the town’s power plant. With an annual production of only around 120,000 tons, it appears close to exhaustion. It is run by a state-owned Russian company that began coal production on Svalbard in 1932, Arktikugol, who have no plans to close it. “As long as there is coal, the Russians will supply the power plant in Barentsburg,” said Arild Moe, a professor at the Oslo-based Fridtjof Nansen Institute. The Russian reluctance to abandon coal mirrors the sentiment in much of Central and Eastern Europe, where governments are reluctant to move away from coal, as is happening in much of Western Europe. The calculation is very different in Norway, a country that has grown rich thanks to its vast deposits of oil and gas, but which now wants to green its economy while not halting fossil fuel exports.

Coal prices on world markets are now too low to make coal mining on Svalbard profitable. The power plant in Longyearbyen emits about 70,000 tons of CO2 per year, which isn’t a huge amount, but it is symbolic. The Arctic is very exposed to climate change with rising temperatures, increasing rainfall and melting ice posing a risk to local wildlife and ecosystems — the archipelago accommodates ca. 3,000 polar bears. There is no shortage of ideas when it comes to renewable energy. Statkraft, the Norwegian state-owned power company, has proposed using wind power in northern Norway to make hydrogen and ammonia which can be shipped to Svalbard to fuel a power plant. But getting that done by 2025 looks optimistic. A battery park on Svalbard is also being mulled. The future of Russian coal isn’t looking that bright either. Russia has rights to coal mining in other areas of Svalbard but building new mines would be very costly and seems unlikely to happen. The Kremlin maintains and interest in the archipelago as an advantageous asset — and seemingly very different interest in energy transition to Norway.

Now Read

Norway’s Zero Emissions Drive


Coal phaseout reaches remote Arctic archipelago, Politico, 2021-02-17

By Lukas Frisch Tonkinson.

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