The Ongoing Chaos of Unit 6
It was back in 2004 that the long and complicated saga of Unit 6 at Šoštanj Thermal Power Plant began. In June of that year, the plant adopted a strategic development plan. Central to it was the construction of a new, lignite-fired unit. In 2006, an investment plan for the 600 milliwatt (MW) unit was adopted. Two years later, a EUR 654m agreement for equipment was signed with Alstrom. Soon the unit was listed as an energy investment in all state strategic and development documents.
The very early days of the project did not hint at the controversies that would ultimately swirl around it. Most locals enthusiastically supported the plan for the unit, realising that it would guarantee ongoing work both at the plant and at neighbouring lignite mine Premogovnik Velenje. The energy community, meanwhile, was excited at what would be a major investment in new technology. They pointed out that Slovenia's electricity consumption is growing at a rate of three percent a year and that the new unit would help ensure those needs can be met.
At first, it was only environmental groups who expressed concerns about the plans. They warned of the environmental and economic consequences of the carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions that would be linked with Unit 6. Not only would Šaleška Valley still be heavily polluted, they said, but Slovenian consumers would have to pay more for electricity due to new regulations around CO2.
Focus on the details
And then, slowly but surely, more people began to pay attention to the project - and became critical of it. The cost of the unit rose to EUR 1.2 billion, but the plant managers continued with the plan. The soaring costs were kept relatively quiet until earlier this year when rumours about irregularities reached Ljubljana and the government asked for information.
From that point on, matters have gone from bad to worse. The most recent controversy - the one plant employees are protesting about - is the supervising board's decision to recall long-time plant director Uroš Rotnik. The board maintains that Rotnik was not recalled for bad project management but due to his failure to communicate the latest status of the Unit 6 project. Regardless, employees are not happy and refused to let newly-appointed director Simon Tot enter the premises.
As employees argue over who should be responsible for the plant, environmental groups continue to argue that the new unit should not be built at all. Their most recent move has been to give comments on environmental permit documentation needed for the project. They believe that Austria has not been included in the assessment of the unit's environmental impact and that carbon capture and storage was not analysed.
Predictably, political parties are getting involved in the controversy. While Minister for Economy Darja Radić and director general of the directorate for energy Janez Kopač both belong to the Zares party, Velenje is a town where the Social Democrats - the other main partner in the current coalition government - enjoy strong support. There is no doubt that the unit is an important issue for the state, not least because Slovenian power plants holding HSE is state-owned.But here too there is confusion and controversy. Current HSE director general Matjaž Janežič took up the post after a decision to recall Borut Meh, who held the post for only a year in spite of good results under his leadership. With the newly-established Agency for Management of Capital Investments opposing HSE's decision to recall Rotnik and at the same time demanding that supervisors put Meh back in post, the mess surrounding the Šoštanj plant continues. Right now nobody can predict when it might end. For most it's a case of hoping for the best... but expecting the worst.