Premogovnik Velenje (Velenje Coal Mine) continues to supply vital coal to Slovenia’s energy mix, the operation representing one of the most sophisticated in Europe, with plans afoot to ensure its long-term future.
Coal has long played a critical role in Slovenia’s energy mix.
Home to rich deposits, the country still relies on lignite to produce around 30 percent of its electricity, activities which continue to provide stable employment and form the pillar of many communities.
It is a proud industry, one which Janez Roser has identified himself with from a very young age.
“Ever since I was a child, I watched the parades of uniformed men on Miners’ Day and, given that there were no miners in my family, I watched these dignified men with even greater interest,” he recalls. “This sense of pride and belonging that they radiated made a strong impression on me.
“After graduating from high school, I enrolled in the study of geotechnology and mining engineering, as I was attracted to the engineering challenges of building underground facilities. After completing my doctoral studies, I was offered the opportunity to work in the Premogovnik Velenje Group in the mine surveying and geodesy programme.
“Looking back, I am grateful to have taken the opportunity to work in the coal mining industry, as our work is full of challenges – it is demanding, but we still have a spirit of camaraderie, mutual help and pride, which are certainly feelings that enrich and fulfil every individual.”
Today, Roser serves as Premogovnik Velenje’s General Manager. The company operates at the Velenje Coal Mine in the Šaleška dolina valley, a basin in northern Slovenia nestled in the north-eastern pre-alpine foothills.
The mine feeds the Šoštanj Thermal Power Plant with just over three million tonnes of coal a year, which in turn produces almost a third of the electricity consumed domestically. Indeed, it represents a key chunk of what is a healthy and flexible Slovenian energy mix, with nuclear power also accounting for around 30 percent power generation and renewables another 30 percent (hydro being the dominant player here).
However, despite the balance of generation sources, the country was a net importer of electricity in 2019.
Coal production is also in decline, as a result of the closure at Rudnik Trbovlje-Hrastnik in 2013 and lower production at Velenje, which today is the only operation extracting from a Slovenian lignite deposit.
But the site remains a national and regional flagship – an ultra-modernised mine which carries a formidable legacy behind it.
“Velenje Coal Mine is one of the largest and most modern deep coal mining sites in Europe,” Roser says proudly. “It operates on the largest Slovenian coal deposit and on one of the thickest known coal layers in the world.
“In 145 years of operation of the coal mine, nearly 220 million tonnes of lignite have been extracted from the lignite seam of thickness up to 165 metres, and there are still more than 100 million tonnes of coal reserves here.
“A clean and healthy environment represents important values for the company. Therefore, responsible and controlled environment management has been included in our strategy. In accordance with the legislation requirements, Velenje Coal Mine performs monitoring of impacts of mining works on the environment (ground, air, water and noise), and constantly strives to reduce them.”
Beyond producing coal, major activities at Velenje Coal Mine include the mechanical and electrical design of underground facilities and opencast mining, designing of all types of underground facilities, drilling, geomechanical research, mine surveying, hydrogeological and technological services, and education services – a truly multifaceted operation.
And this is critical when looking through a long-term lens.
Although the deposit’s reserves are sufficient for another three decades of mining at the current output, the energy industry is shifting towards carbon neutrality, a reality which Roser and Premogovnik Velenje are already planning for.
“Due to shifts in the energy industry and the envisaged changes in the operation of the Šoštanj Thermal Power Plant, mining sites will in the most part close before lignite reserves are exploited,” Roser says.
“A gradual closure of the mine and the abandonment of fossil fuels at Šoštanj power plant in the future will have a significant role in the country’s energy transition, as both companies represent an important energy pillar of Slovenia.”
There is also the Šalek valley community to consider. “The most important long-term challenge facing us is how to create attractive and well-paid jobs for the next generation,” Roser continues.
“There is an opportunity to improve the environment and health in the region, to invest into infrastructure and create more attractive local living conditions for the local inhabitants. Infrastructure that will stay after mining can be prepared in advance and take on new opportunities, serving other industries, education and tourism.
“There will be opportunities for new jobs in renewables which includes the production and installation of photovoltaic, biomass, related wood industries and more.
“From our perspective, we need to consider strengths in coal mining which can be utilised in civil construction, machinery and electrical activities, as well as new industries in accordance with smart specialisation strategies and industry 4.0.”