An interview with Ivan Tzankov, Managing Director of AES Bulgaria, for Energia Magazine

Mr. Tzankov, how did the power capacities of AES Bulgaria cope in the conditions of COVID-19 this winter?
– The crisis caused by coronavirus pandemic has affected the global economy and billions of people around the world. I am extremely proud that we, at AES Bulgaria, managed to take many timely measures that allowed even in the critical moments during the two months of the state of emergency in Bulgaria our power facilities – TPP AES Galabovo and St. Nikola Wind Farm – not to stop working. From March 13 to May 13, within the state of emergency due to COVID-19 in the country, our two power plants provided Bulgarian consumers with more than 460,000 MWh of electricity. In the context of a pandemic, our primary task was to preserve the health of our employees, partners, and communities, and at the same time – to ensure continuity of power generation. To ensure normal operation and minimize the risk of the virus spreading, we suspended all non-essential access access to the two plants to outsiders. On the site of TPP AES Galabovo, we built a “town of the energy workers” with temporary accommodation, where, in case of need, on a shift basis for 2 weeks, we can isolate a full team of volunteers from the TPP team to ensure the smooth operation of the plant and the continuity of energy supply. We have provided PCR tests to use in case of need. It is time to thank all our employees for the high professionalism and discipline they showed in their work in a pandemic.

Bulgaria’s energy sector also faces another challenge, called the EU’s Green Deal. How do you view this change?

– AES’s mission has always been to ensure a safer and greener energy future. Minimizing the factors influencing climate change and protecting the environment must be a priority for all. The EU’s drive for a Green Deal is therefore understandable, but this transition cannot take place without regard to the specificities of the individual Member States. In Bulgaria over 40% of electricity is provided by coal. Therefore, the closure of the coal-fired power plants is not possible immediately, because it would put at risk energy security and energy independence of Bulgaria. TPP AES Galabovo is a very strategic plant for Bulgaria because it is the most modern and newest coal-fired power plant in Bulgaria and fully meets the new environmental requirements.

And what do you think about the idea of retrofitting coal-fired power plants to run on gas?
– There are different options for switching coal-fired power plants to natural gas. The first option is to convert the burners of the power plant from coal to gas, and keep the rest of the power plant pretty much the same. While such conversion is technically possible, its economic viability depends on the long-term evolution of the prices of natural gas and CO2 credits. The second option is to build a brand new natural gas combined cycle plant, which ensures the most efficient use of natural gas, albeit with a much larger investment. Conversion to gas also raises the question of energy independence, since gas would be imported in Bulgaria. The development of the Alexandropolis LNG terminal, of which Bulgargaz took a 20% stake, along with the completion of the IGB pipeline, will ensure that Bulgaria has access to competitively price international LNG.

– And is it possible to switch completely to renewable energy production?
– The peculiarities of the climate in Bulgaria do not allow our energy system to rely only on RES. Yes, we have built and operate the largest wind farm in Bulgaria – St. Nikola – but we are fully aware that the Bulgarian consumer and our economy need electricity not only when the wind blows or the sun shines, but 24 hours a day. That is why a balance of public interests must be found on the road to a greener energy future. Thermal plants such as AES Galabovo can facilitate the integration of increasing amounts of renewable energy by providing firm capacity to the electricity system to account of the variability of renewable generation. Another good solution in this direction would be the application of energy storage systems. AES is a world leader in the use of these innovative energy solutions and the experience gained suggests that storing energy through battery systems provides far better opportunities both to regulate the system and to include a larger share of renewable energy in the energy mix.

– You mentioned St. Nikola Wind Farm. This year the wind farm celebrates 10 years since its commissioning. What is the balance?
– For 10 years, the 52 turbines of St. Nikola Wind Farm have provided the Bulgarian consumers with more than 3.2 million MWh of clean electricity. In this way, the wind farm contributed to the saving of nearly 2.6 million tons of carbon emissions. The achieved result is equal to the effect of C02 absorption of 2.2 million trees over 70 years or the elimination of carbon pollution from the burning of 1.2 billion liters of diesel while driving. During these 10 years, St. Nikola Wind Farm is at the core of the Integrated Early Warning System for Bird Protection, which complies with the European requirements for the conservation of wild birds. Modern radars and experienced ornithologists on-site monitor approaching flocks and stop one or a group of turbines to ensure the unimpeded passage of birds. All of this is part of AES’ biodiversity conservation philosophy. I want to emphasize one more thing. No European subsidies or other grant funds were used for the construction of the farm. The investment in St. Nikola Wind Farm is BGN 540 million and they are provided as a capital by The AES Corporation and loans from the EBRD and IFC to the World Bank.