Eastern Europe has a complex history and continues to be shaped by internal and external forces. Political and economic alignments, disputes over territory and land annexation, and split loyalties between major players such as the European Union, China and Russia are contributing factors.
Some eastern European countries are small and poor compared to their western counterparts. This can limit their available energy resources, although several have sizeable reserves of hard coal and/or lignite, used to generate much of their electricity. The report covers the non-European Union (EU) countries of Albania, Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Moldova, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia, Turkey and Ukraine, some of which are candidate EU member states. Others have closer alignments with Russia or are more engaged with China, via the Belt and Road Initiative. To achieve EU membership countries must align with the bloc’s commitment to decarbonise, meaning the eventual phase-out of coal-fired power generation. However, some lack the resources to fully replace their coal capacity with sustainable, affordable alternatives and so continue to rely on their coal-fired power plants for electricity. Funding is limited for upgrading or replacing old, inefficient plant, which means some major polluting units continue to operate. Thus, governments of some prospective EU member states face conflicting requirements; they wish to achieve full EU membership and to decarbonise, but must also have a reliable, affordable supply of electricity. Numerous proposals for new generating capacity assumed they would be fuelled by Russian gas; for many, this is no longer an option.
The Russian-Ukraine conflict highlights the fragility of energy sectors over-reliant on a single technology or heavily dependent on external sources of energy. Some eastern European countries, including several aspiring EU member states, are not able to eliminate coal power. Coal sourced from indigenous reserves or imported from a portfolio of reliable outside suppliers provides some control and stability over energy costs and greater security of energy supply.
Various coal power projects have been proposed or are under development in eastern Europe. Some involve upgrading and improving existing plants, others are for new plant. The impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine means that many existing plants are now likely to operate for much longer than previously anticipated. Despite many earlier plans to use Russian gas as a direct replacement for coal power, supply uncertainties may incentivise the development of more coal-based power projects.