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.
STANDING SIDE-BY-SIDE WITH SLOVENIA
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.”
THE VELENJE WAY
But there is plenty of life still left in Velenje Coal Mine.
Indeed, Roser calls for a balanced approach between the objectives of the European Union and Slovenia’s national policy for a competitive, affordable and secure energy mix. Coal is still abundant in supply and relatively cheap, a factor which cannot be ignored when balancing environmental and economic priorities.
And Premogovnik Velenje continues to produce coal in a way that is reliable, safe and efficient.
Its self-developed process, known as the Velenje Mining Method, was first introduced in 1947 and has stood the test of time thanks to continued enhancements and innovations through the ensuing years.
Patent-protected, it is described as a “method of winning coal, particularly from thick coal-seams”, with Roser explaining how it has evolved specifically over the past decade.
“The procedure of controlled winning of roof coal by ‘pouring’ over roof supports into the Longwall Chain Conveyor provides very high production capacity with an extremely high level of safety and economic return,” he says. “Current mining results are comparable with the top results in Europe.”
Innovation is also being adopted in numerous other ways. On the business side, the company carries out a total renovation of internal processes thanks to the deployment of an SAP business information system, while it also upgraded the computer infrastructure of its data centre.
In the mine itself, a sophisticated communications network is underpinned by extensive fibre optic and wireless systems – a setup which enables reliable operation of information systems and comprehensive control of safety and technology parameters, making it a reference point among underground coal mines in Europe.
Roser goes on to introduce the company’s Safety and Technological Information System, better known as VTIS.
“The backbone of this system is formed by an optical ring in the mine with communication nodes, and is extended at worksites by wireless networks,” he explains. “Various sensors, smart devices and equipment are connected to it. This is the basis of the communication infrastructure for the many systems in the mine.”
These can be divided into surface and mine-based programmes.
In the mine, VTIS enables the functioning of numerous systems, including: SCADA systems to control safety and technological parameters; VOIP telephony; automation and remote control of equipment such as coal conveyers, crushers and ventilation stations; real-time tracking of assets via RFID; seismographs for detecting movements in the mine; and other computer equipment for reporting work.
On the surface, data obtained data from VTIS are stored and processed in various systems, such as: the coal mine control centre; Thingsboard IoT platform for analysis work; dispatch centre for mine transport; and IBM’s Maximo Enterprise Asset Management Software for predictive maintenance of machinery and equipment.
These systems are in turn supplemented by numerous other programmes, among them a web port and app which simplifies communications between employees and company management.
And it doesn’t stop here, for Roser plans to go even further down the digital path, moving the organisation to paperless operations and bolstering cybersecurity defences, among other priorities for the coming years.
A CARING COMMUNITY
It is a physical, biological threat which has caused most concern in 2020, however.
The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has swept its way across Europe after emerging out of China towards the end of 2019. As well as causing very serious health issues and taking many lives, the virus has also created enormous socioeconomic disruption, with almost all industries disrupted.
In Slovenia, Premogovnik Velenje could not afford to close its operations and cease supply of coal to Šoštanj Thermal Power Plant. Any closure would have immediately cut off 30 percent of electricity capacity and forced the country to plug the gap with costlier imports.
For Roser and the company, employee welfare was and continues to be top of the agenda.
“We organised our work to ensure the smooth implementation of activities, while taking into account all the recommendations of the National Institute for Public Health (NIJZ) and other measures to ensure we contributed to reducing the spread of the virus,” the General Manager explains.
“The safety of employees in the companies of the Premogovnik Velenje Group has always been our number one priority, and this is also the case in emergency situations.
“We are very pleased that we managed to survive the first wave of the epidemic without infection among employees, and for the second wave we are working on various measures on a daily basis to curb the spread of the disease in the companies of the Group.”
During the first wave, the company adopted an array of measures. These included installation of disinfectants across all sites, procurement of surgical masks, adoption of a new hoist machine usage regime, and use of thermal cameras and thermometers to check employee temperatures.
Premogovnik Velenje also limited entries to the mine, cancelled all business trips and non-essential meetings inside and outside of the firm, suspended group transport schemes and moved to home working where possible. Finally, Roser and his leadership team prepared detailed plans for three potential scenarios – continuation of work as it is currently, a reduction in work and people on site, and a total shutdown of operations.
No stone has been left unturned, and Roser is determined to continue paying this much attention to detail moving forwards.
“Despite the easing of measures at the national level in the summer months, the company followed the NIJZ recommendations without interruption, and kept other necessary preventive measures to control the spread of the coronavirus as much as possible,” he adds.
“Given the deteriorating epidemiological picture in Slovenia and the increase in the number of infected people, the consistent observance of preventive measures has proved to be the right decision and we will continue to follow this in the future.”
This care and consideration for the health and wellbeing of its people also translates into Premogovnik Velenje’s relationship with the wider community.
In particular, the company engages in activities in the realms of sport, culture, social affairs and education, and Roser is all too aware of how important it is for the firm’s legacy to stretch beyond simply providing economic stimulus and employment to the local area.
“Much importance is laid on the quality of life and work of our employees, cooperation with the local community and care for the broader environment,” he says.
“The significance of the Velenje Coal Mine cannot solely be measured by satisfying the society’s basic need for coal – it should also be measured by direct impacts of the coal mining industry on the environment and by its attitude towards the environment. The company is aware that its activity greatly affects the local environment, and that they have taken a lot from the valley. But it has also given a lot.”
Areas which have been excavated are promptly rehabilitated. For example, in the eastern part of the exploration zone, a tourist recreation centre and stadium have been built alongside the construction of hiking, running and cycling routes and installation of 100 benches.
These are used by inhabitants of the area and visitors, with Roser also pointing to the Coal Mining Museum of Slovenia which was opened in 1999 in the abandoned pits of the Škale mine, presenting the coal mining tradition of the Šaleška dolina valley in its authentic environment.
“It is comprised of original rooms on the surface, such as dressing rooms, a bathroom, the calling room and sections of the underground part of the mine,” the General Manager describes.
“The museum guide, the multi-vision presentation and scenes with lifesize puppets of coalminers will give you an insight of the work in a coal mine both in the past and present day. The museum houses various exhibitions, theatre plays and birthday parties as well as children’s Bergmandelc workshops for the youngest visitors.
“With its contribution to the development of the Šaleška valley, the Velenje Coal Mine has proven that it has been and will continue to be a key driver of development in the area.”
A FUTURE BEYOND COAL
Looking ahead, such development will inevitably involve a diversification away from coal over the next couple of decades.
This is not an unfamiliar exercise, as the company and its subsidiaries have developed numerous other activities through its 145-year history.
Today, it employs people across an array of professions with transferable skills that can be applied to non-coal endeavours, and plans are already being developed for more market-oriented programmes that will reduce dependence on coal mining.
“Within the Velenje Coal Mine, we are well aware of the necessity of transitioning into a carbon-free society, which is why we have joined the inter-ministerial working group set up by the Ministry of Infrastructure,” Roser adds.
“The Group prepared restructuring measures for coal mining regions, and will coordinate activities linked to the preparation of legal bases for the adoption of a regional strategy for the restructuring of such regions, and the adoption of a national strategy for the phase-out of coal, in line with the principles of a fair transition.
“The Velenje Coal Mine wishes to actively cooperate in further development of the Šaleška dolina valley and the entire of Slovenia. Energy generation is an important issue, and Slovenia needs different energy resources such as hydro, thermal and nuclear to ensure its prosperity in the future.”
But the near term very much involves coal, and Roser is determined to keep enhancing the way Premogovnik Velenje goes about its staple business.
Stabilisation and optimisation of operations form the crux of the General Manager’s immediate plans, the ultimate goal being to facilitate more profitable activities that in turn will enable investment into the long-term plans already described.
Central to this is continuing investment in people.
“At Premogovnik Velenje, the employment and retirement of employees is carried out in accordance with the realisation of business plans,” Roser explains, bringing the conversation to a conclusion. “We pay special attention to the appropriate transfer of knowledge between employees and the mentoring process, as we are aware of the importance of maintaining key jobs and key skills.
“Due to the specifics of our work and the consequent rapid retirement of employees in underground mining jobs (our employees retire on average at the age of 53), the retirement of these employees are appropriately replaced and we follow a system of successions that enables quality career development of individuals. We are therefore optimistic about the future, as we believe that the quality of our staff is our key advantage for tomorrow.
“At Velenje Coal Mine, we still strive to preserve traditional values such as comradeship, solidarity, affiliation, which are unfortunately disappearing in the modern society, but are of extreme significance in the coal production process.”