Ivan Tzankov, Managing Director of AES Bulgaria: Looking Forward to a Greener Future, AES is the Guarantor of the Energy Security of Bulgaria Today

Mr Tzankov, this year marks the 12th anniversary of AES’s TPP in Galabovo’s commissioning. What path has the power plant walked throughout the years?

Indeed, in June, the AES’ TPP in Galabovo celebrated its 12th anniversary since its commissioning. AES’ TPP in Galabovo has since continuously played a key role in Bulgaria’s energy security and stability of the electricity system. AES’ TPP in Galabovo is, without a doubt, Bulgaria’s most technologically advanced and newest coal-fired power plant, as well as the first newly built coal-fired power plant in Bulgaria in the past more than 30 years. Along this vein, the power plant has implemented the highest safety standards as well as cutting-edge technologies in terms of energy and environmental performance.

How does AES’s TPP in Galabovo contribute to Bulgaria’s energy security?

Our power plant provides around 10% of the electricity consumed in the country. This means that every tenth kilowatt-hour consumed by Bulgarians at home or work is generated by the the two units of AES’ TPP in Galabovo using Bulgarian lignite coal. It should be noted that AES’ TPP in Galabovo is critical to the Bulgarian energy system not only for the amount of electricity it generates but also for the entire spectrum of system dispatch services it provides to ESO. As the country’s most modern coal-fired power plant, it is also the most flexible in terms of load management, which means it can swiftly raise its capacity and, therefore, the quantity of electricity generated, if necessary, or decrease it when consumption is lower. AES’ TPP in Galabovo also assists the country in meeting ENTSO-E regulations for primary and secondary electricity system regulation. The power plant is crucial for ensuring Bulgaria’s energy system’s static and dynamic stability, as well as maintaining voltage levels and reactive power capacities balance in the electricity transmission grid.
Because lignite is the only local energy resource and its use for energy generation is not influenced by global processes, as witnessed in the context of the war in Ukraine, the use of Bulgarian coal is also a question of the country’s energy independence.

What is the TPP’s contribution to the region’s development?

With its capacities – St. Nikola wind farm, the country’s largest wind farm and AES’ TPP in Galabovo – AES has been the most significant investor in the Bulgarian energy sector for more than 30 years. AES is a partner of the state, a strategic investor, an essential partner of the local communities, and a responsible employer in the regions where it operates. AES’ TPP in Galabovo employеs over 4,000 people directly and indirectly in the Stara Zagora and Galabovo region alone.

AES takes care of people’s well-being since it executes many CSR projects in the fields of education, healthcare, sports, and youth development that are important to the Galabovo community. AES’ TPP in Galabovo has invested more than BGN 15 million in CSR during the last 12 years. We supported the construction of the Youth Center in Galabovo and the city park surrounding it, we provide funds for heating and food for students at the school in the village of Obruchishte, support all first graders in schools in the municipality of Galabovo, provide warm clothes and shoes to children in need in Galabovo through the initiative Angels’ Tree, support the reconstruction of the town football stadium, and donate funds for machines and medical equipment to Galabovo’s hospital together with many other initiatives for the benefit of local community.

We’re all aware that the energy sector is about to undergo a considerable transformation. What impact will this shift have on AES’ TPP in Galabovo? You’ve most likely already made your estimates and calculations.

The EU’s Green Deal is undoubtedly a significant challenge for Bulgaria and the other member states. At the same time, it represents an excellent opportunity for the transition to a low-carbon economy. This process, however, must be done with caution, taking into account all of the features of the particular member states. It is no secret that coal-fired power generation in Bulgaria accounts for over 40% of the entire energy mix. This is a significant percentage. These power plants are critical not just for generating electricity but also for delivering system services ensuring the stability of the Bulgarian energy system. Coal-fired power plants are also an important social factor, providing job of tens of thousands of families. For this reason, the shuttering down of coal-fired power plants in Bulgaria marks a watershed moment in the country’s economy and energy sector, and it must be treated with caution and responsibility.

AES’ TPP in Galabovo has the technological potential to transition to partial use of alternative fuels such as natural gas, biomass, and even waste-derived fuel. Another intriguing opportunity that we are investigating in depth is the conversion of one unit into an energy storage system by utilizing molten salt. Yet, it is unclear if this will occur because it is dependent on the technological, economic, and environmental justifications of each alternative. The most essential question is whether such a transformation is economically profitable. It is critical to emphasize that AES is a long-term strategic investor in Bulgaria, and our primary goal continues to be guaranteeing the security of the energy supply. So, after 2026, we will continue to rely on our St. Nikola wind farm too.

Isn’t there a modern approach that would allow us to keep our coal-fired capacities while also making our energy sector more environmentally friendly?

We examined in detail such potential technological solution in depth: carbon capture and storage (CCS) systems. So far, only preliminary studies on this topic have been conducted in our country, based on the experience of other countries that are far ahead of us in the implementation of such projects. We have initiated a project with colleagues from other TPPs and Maritza East Mines to investigate the geological prospects for CO2 storage in the Maritza East region, led by the Mining and Geological University. This would be a significant investment that could not be made just by investors, as they require a clear state policy and assurances.

What are your comments on the idea of a battery park to replace baseload coal-fired power plants?

Batteries are an excellent technology for smoothing short-term system imbalances and balancing RES, but there is no way to replace coal capacities at present. In the winter, for example, when there is no sun for 14 hours a day, yet industry and households require power, a baseload capacity must be available to offer steady generation. No battery can provide power for 14 hours. Thus, batteries are helpful for short-term grid shocks. I believe the state will establish the essential conditions for the development of energy storage batteries parks. This would allow for a more significant proportion of RES and a more flexible supply management. According to our estimate, a complete transition to RES is feasible but unlikely before 2035. And to implement the projects faster, we hope for legislative changes to facilitate the implementation procedures.

Is Bulgaria’s energy security guaranteed as the winter season approaches?

Yes, consumers may be confident as winter approaches. AES’ TPP in Galabovo is fully ready to operate in the upcoming winter season. We have approximately 400,000 tons of coal kept in stock, which is about 50% more than the required reserve. This amount of available coal would keep the power plant running at total load for more than half of a month. We have also stocked the required amounts of liquid fuel and limestone for the desulphurization process. We also completed the annual planned preventative maintenance on the units, ensuring that the power plant is fully operational during the autumn-winter season.