Europe’s coal generation: The final curtain call?

In its quest to meet its energy targets, the EU has been accused of ignoring the fossil fuel sector. [Shinobu Sugiyama/ Flickr]

European Commission plans for the Energy Union, tabled on 30 November, have set the clock ticking for the EU’s coal industry, whose days are now numbered. But proponents of coal say the industry is not down yet and highlight the need for a fair transition to clean energy.

“For the next few years we’ll still need conventional plants in the system for when it’s dark and cold outside,” said Brian Ricketts, secretary general of Euracoal, underlining the reliability of coal as a source of electricity for millions of Europeans. 

Accusing the EU of ignoring the industry in its plans to create an Energy Union, Ricketts fears that the European Commission is moving too fast to meet its 2030 climate and energy targets. 

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The data explains why. Europe’s coal use continues to drop as the industry comes under sustained pressure from policymakers keen to keep their climate change commitments. 

The carbon-intensive fuel faces an uncertain future under global initiatives to cut greenhouse gas emissions, including the EU’s climate and energy targets, which aim at a 40% reduction, compared to 1990 levels, by 2030.

Coal-generated power in Europe has declined by more than 10% since 2013, but it still powers an estimated 25% of the electricity consumed in the EU.

In Poland, the share of coal is now around 87% for power generation, down from nearly 100% according to PKEE, the country’s electricity  association.

“Coal is a reliable source of power,” Ricketts said, emphasising that a total phase-out from coal, although seemingly unstoppable, will take decades.

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Transition to natural gas

According to analysis from think tanks Sandbag and Agora Energiewende, EU power emissions in 2016 fell by 4.5%. Coal generated power across Europe fell by 12%, while gas increased by 20%, highlighting the “fuel switch” from one to the other.

Natural gas is a lower carbon fossil fuel and has been earmarked by EU policymakers as a bridge fuel, as the bloc shifts to a green economy.

Growing competition from natural gas and renewables amid weak electricity consumption means that coal will struggle to maintain its share of generation in Europe. The EU intends to increase  renewables’ share by 27% by 2030.

Dave Jones, an analyst at Sandbag, said, “the large switch from dirty coal to gas is welcome news. It helps the climate, and more importantly leads to cleaner air for Europe.

Europe switches to gas

A relatively abundant, cheap and clean source of energy, natural gas is becoming an increasingly essential part of Europe's energy mix, winning supporters for a variety of uses ranging from power generation, household heating and transport to fertiliser, plastics, and other manufacturing products.

“However, the ingredients to make this happen do not yet exist – few old coal plants have announced they are planning to close, and gas is still more expensive than coal because of a low carbon price,” Jones said.

The uncertain future of coal led Euracoal’s Brian Ricketts to accuse the EU of ignoring the industry in its plans to create an Energy Union, the EU’s flagship strategy to reduce dependence on energy imports and fight climate change.

Ricketts compared one of US President Trump’s campaign slogans: ‘Trump Digs Coal’, to Donald Tusk’s attitude towards the fossil fuel.

“Does ‘Tusk Dig Coal’? – ‘No!’, I hear you say. Well, in April 2014 he wrote, ‘Europe should make full use of the fossil fuels available, including coal’. That was part of his vision for an Energy Union,” he said.

The coal industry’s efforts

Euracoal recently released its 6th edition of Coal Industry Across Europe, a detailed assessment of the coal industry in Europe. 

The study says that the European coal industry invests in health, safety and environmental improvements, while coal users pay for carbon emissions under the EU carbon trading system — the bloc’s main policy tool to reduce emissions.

Euracoal notes that NOx emissions remain too high because of transport, although they were reduced by 55% between 1990 and 2012. NOx, or nitrogen oxide emissions, are contributors of air pollution that can lead to respiratory diseases, such as bronchitis or emphysema.

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The soupy grey smog shrouding Polish cities this winter is one of the most visible symptoms of the EU member’s addiction to coal, a deadly habit forcing many to stay indoors or don masks before venturing out.

The growth of coal use will likely flatten in the future, due to a lower demand from China and the United States, along with the fast growth of renewables and strong focus on energy efficiency, the assessment adds.

Environmentalists push for 100% renewables

But according to Greenpeace EU policy adviser Sebastian Mang, the transition to 100% renewable energy in Europe must happen soon in order to adhere to the Paris Agreement and limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

“For this transition to be fair, the EU must design a fossil fuel phase out plan. This should allow governments of countries with carbon-heavy economies to invest in new jobs and training programmes for fossil fuel workers.

The switch to 100% renewable energy is an opportunity for Europe. According to our ‘energy revolution’ scenario, Europe could have more than 2.3 million jobs in the renewable energy sector by 2050.”

So, how can this plan move forward?

According to Mang, the EU’s current energy plans give the green light for governments to give subsidies, known as capacity mechanisms, to idle coal, gas and nuclear power stations kept on stand-by under the pretense of ‘keeping the lights on.’

EU throws in the towel over national energy support schemes

EU member states have pressed ahead with a variety of schemes to remunerate energy generators for keeping power plants on stand-by, despite warnings from Brussels. It now seems certain that such “capacity mechanisms” will remain a fact of life, at least for the foreseeable future.

But Mang and others believe the Ruhr Valley in west Germany is proof that a transition away from coal is possible.

“Air pollution problems have largely been solved. Major investments have been made to return key rivers back to more natural, unpolluted states. Many environmentally degraded, old industrial sites have been successfully cleaned up and redeveloped, and more brownfield development projects are planned,” reports the Institute for Industrial Productivity.

Germany aims to shut down nuclear plants and replace that capacity with renewable energy, writes Erika Peterson from WFPL news.

“The goal is for 80% of the country’s electricity to come from renewables by 2050. Germany can import coal from places such as Australia, South Africa and the US cheaper than it can mine it in Germany. So the government decided to stop subsidising its hard coal mines,” Peterson reported.

Some countries in the EU will have a harder time than others with the transition. In response, the Commission proposed setting up a modernisation fund as part of its reform of the EU ETS, in order to ensure the transition is socially fair.

The funds are aimed at the ten Central and Eastern European countries, which joined the EU in 2004 and 2007 (Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Slovakia).

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