EU pollutant limits threaten large-scale coal plants, says new report

A new report says that many European power companies face the prospect of having to close their older facilities as new EU rules add "prohibitive" costs to their balance sheets. [Thomas Liske/ Flickr]

Stricter European Union pollutant limits could lead to costly upgrades or the closure of one third of Europe’s large-scale coal power plant capacity, a new report showed today (8 May).

On April 28, EU member states approved stricter limits on pollutants such as sulphur oxides (SOx) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) from large combustion plants in Europe which can cause air pollution and respiratory diseases.

To comply with the new rules by 2021, utilities will either have to invest in new technology to retrofit coal plants, restrict operating hours to under 1,500 a year or close the facilities, the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) said today.

“The cost of compliance will be prohibitive for many of these installations, given the market outlook and other headwinds,” said Gerard Wynn, consultant to IEEFA and co-author of the report.

EU clears tighter controls on power plant air pollution

The European Union on 28 April approved new air pollution limits, which could save over 20,000 lives annually through the reduction of pollution from power plants, specifically those which are coal-fired.

Europe’s coal power fleet is already struggling to remain profitable due to low wholesale power prices, weak energy demand and growth of renewables. A record 10 gigawatts (GW) of capacity closed in Europe last year and several EU governments have promised to phase out coal next decade.

To meet EU emissions targets under the Paris Agreement, a quarter of current EU coal capacity needs to shut by 2020 and all of it by 2030, the Climate Analytics think-tank said this year.

Energy and environment economic research organisation IEEFA analysed around 600 installations in Europe which burn coal, lignite and biomass.

It found that 108 of those, totalling 56 GW of electrical capacity and a third of EU coal-fired generation capacity, are responsible for the most SOx and NOx emissions and are at least 40% above the EU limits.

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Polish power companies PGE and Tauron, Italy’s Enel, Spain’s Endesa, France’s EDF, Czech Republic’s CEZ, the UK’s Drax and Greece’s PPC operate more than half of those plants.

These operators will have to use NOx abatement technology which would add €2-4 per megawatt hour to the cost of power generation and/or SOx abatement which would add €6-7 per MWh.

When plants exceed both NOx and SOx limits, retrofitting could add €8-11 euros per MWh to generation costs.

“These costs range from 5 to 30% of expected European wholesale power prices in 2021 (€40), a highly significant burden,” the report said.

“We conclude that in the case of older power plants particularly, these costs are prohibitive, and that it would be more rational to close the installations,” it added.

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