The coal industry in Svalbard is facing an uncertain future due to low prices, with operations at Svea and the new Lunckefjell mine now being suspended. At Mine 7, there is currently enough coal for 10 to 12 years of operations employing two shifts, but Parliament has declared it will not support additional mines in the archipelago (see separate article).
But Longyearbyen must have electricity and heat, which today is provided by coal.
Øyvind Korsberg, a Progress Party member on Parliament's Energy and Environment Committee, said he believes it is urgent to begin the process of assessing the options and possible consequences of a power cable extending from the mainland to Svalbard via Bjørnøya.
"It will cost a great deal, but it is an investment in the long term, he says.
Before the weekend, he was in Longyearbyen with party colleague Ib Thomsen meeting with leaders of the Longyearbyen Community Council, Store Norske and the city's power plant.
"There is much to suggest that coal may unfortunately be history before long," Korsberg said.
The expected lifespan of the coal-fired power plant was recently lengthened to 22 years. But there may be an end to local coal mine long before that time.
Korsberg said it may be simple to add a 100-megawatt cable along the same route as the subsea fiber-optic cables and, although the forthcoming "white paper" outlining policy goals for Svalbard won't be specific, it needs to include a long-term perspective on the area's power supply.
He said he also believes one goal must be to make Svalbard a coal-free place, including the Russian settlement of Barentsburg.
"It goes without saying that there's a time horizon in dealing with coal, so there is an urgent need to get started with doing away with it," Thomsen said.
"We know that time is going fast."
Korsberg is suggesting Hammerfest, or possibly Nordland, as potential places a cable can go from. Because of the Goliat offshore oil field, which became operational this week, the region's power grid has been strengthened. In addition, the power plant at Melkøya has the capacity to supply electricity, but there is currently no support for natural gas power in Norway.
"One cannot say that we should concentrate on fish processing facilities and other industries, and that we don't know what we'll have for power in a few years," he said.
Their Conservative Party partners in the government's ruling coalition are more lukewarm toward a power cable from the mainland. Ensuring a good and reliable supply means it is important to look at solutions for the existing power plant and renewable energy sources, according to Conservative leaders.
"Considering the cost of bringing forward an underwater cable, I have difficultly seeing that it will happen in the near future," said Tina Bru, a Conservative who is the second deputy chairwoman of the Energy and Environment Committee.
The Labor Party is also less than thrilled. Terje Aasland said he believes a solution involving power from the mainland will be challenging and costly with today's technology.
Support from the Socialist Left Party and the Christian Democratic Party
The Green Party is also expressing opposition to the proposal. Rasmus Hansson, Parliament's lone member of the party, said he believes Svalbard must be energy self-sufficient in the future, arguing the millions spent on Store Norske during the past year should have gone toward developing future energy sources in the archipelago
"Both production and efficiency improvements," he said, adding he believes the coal mining now occurring in Svalbard will be the last. "Wind, sun, earth and fjord heat, and future battery technology must be the goal. If it becomes necessary for a period, it may perhaps be possible to establish a coal power plant with CO2 capture."
The Progress Party is receiving support from the left. Heikki Holmås, a member of the Socialist Left Party, is among those declaring support for mainland power.
"It may be strategically sensible to examine mainland connections for power, so that Træna and other Norwegian islands come under the coalition government," he said.
The Socialist Left Party is also suggesting producing modern wood pellets instead of coal as a fuel source.
The Christian Democratic Party is open to the suggestion of mainland power, but believes mining is still important for Svalbard's energy supply and for Norwegian sovereignty.
"In the long term, mainland power will be applicable, but the possibility of renewable energy sources should also be considered thoroughly,"said Rigmor Andersen Eide.
Not ruling out imports
Longyearbyen Mayor Arild Olsen, a Labor Party member, said is important to have clarity about future energy supply.
"I have been clear that it is important that we begin with a study about the future energy source we will have for Svalbard," he said.
The city's power plant has been upgraded, thus extending its lifespan, but time is passing fast and the state must begin its assessment now, Olsen said. As for power from the mainland:
"I see the attractiveness of it, but I know neither the costs nor technical execution of it," he said. "So whether it is feasible remains to be seen."
Olsen said he believes Svalbard must be self-sufficient for emergency situations, and that therefore local energy production and a combination of energy sources can't be ignored.
Korsberg and Thomsen said they agree. Korsberg said he believes all possibilities will investigated. Olsen, in turn, said he isn't ruling out importing coal.
"I think it is unrealistic to put a new energy plant in place utility within a decade," he said. "So in one way or another we have to deal with that we have a coal power plant in need of coal. However this is solved in the future, one must take the position to continue with that."
There are major plans for Longyearbyen after the cuts at Store Norske. Local politicians and specific fisheries in North Cape and Lenvik are now working on plans to establish processing facilities for groundfish, shrimp and eventually snow crab.
Hotellneset stands out as a future commercial and industrial area, and Thomsen advised against letting studies prevent an early start of construction.
"There must be a sense of urgency to get started," he said. "Then you must not not set the bar so high that you cannot get started. Hotellneset has a fantastic location. One can achieve a lot there."
Thomsen and Korsberg said they believe it is best to build step by step, and that it is most realistic to get started with Hotellneset before a new harbor is built closer to the center of town.
"We have to pick the fruits that hang lowest first," Korsberg said.
Translated by Mark Sabbatini