The future of clean coal and Europe’s new geopolitics of energy

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Coal currently provides 40% of the global energy supply. [Ben Sutherland/Flickr]

Climate change denialism may have swept the Trump Administration, but the fight against global warming and greenhouse gases remains at the top of the agenda for most other international organisations and governments, writes Nicolas Tenzer.

Nicolas Tenzer is chairman of the Paris-based Centre for Study and Research for Political Decision (CERAP).

Indeed, while the Trump government spent much of its first few days in office silencing renegade government Twitter accounts, the rest of the world’s leaders remained focused on the COP22 commitments agreed upon in Morocco just a few months ago.

Of course, it will take much more than public pledges for Europe to square the COP21/COP22 agendas with its complicated geopolitical and economic concerns. Across the continent, energy independence and security means freeing European customers from dependence on Russian gas supplies while also taking into account the fierce debates over nuclear energy and the need to power the fragile European economy, still reeling from recession. Europe’s overreliance on Russian gas is giving Moscow an extra lever of pressure for geostrategic purposes, but the quest for energy autonomy also confronts Europe with the same challenges faced by Asian giants such as China and India.

For the most part, this conversation has been dominated by the global drive to develop renewable energies and increase renewables’ share in the overall energy mix. However, that focus on renewable energy infrastructure has ignored one inescapable fact: for all the long-term promise of other energy sources, coal power remains an integral part of the energy mix. As the International Energy Agency explained in its recent World Energy Outlook, coal still accounts for 40% of global energy consumption and will still continue growing in terms of total consumption between now and 2040.

Many worry about what this means for greenhouse gases, air pollution, and fine-particle emissions. Those concerns, however, fail to take into account that the technological progress that has been made in the energy sector has also brought cleaner ways of burning coal. The question of coal emissions may finally have an answer that takes into account both climate targets and energy needs, and it couldn’t come at a better time: even in the heat of the renewables drive, every major economy that has attempted to limit coal-based power generation has run into the harsh realities of energy demand.

The main issue when it comes to “clean coal” centres on how to simultaneously remove sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides from coal emissions while also preventing CO2 release into the atmosphere. The key steps in solving this conundrum began in the 1970s with the advent of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies, although the idea of capturing carbon dioxide emissions and forcing them back into the ground has had a hard time convincing clean air campaigners. More importantly, it has also been difficult for energy producers to justify the expense of trapping emissions only to dispose of them.

Fortunately, we are now seeing a paradigm shift from CCS to carbon capture and utilisation (CCU) which is notching up successes in turning those emissions into useful products instead of depositing them underground. There is also the process known as Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC), which could be less energy-intensive and offer a more complete separation of CO2. By concentrating the carbon dioxide at high pressure in a synthetic gas, the IGCC process makes carbon capture even easier.

The main challenge is now to develop these more advanced types of coal-fired plants (whether of the CCU or IGCC variety) widely and at any acceptable cost. The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) has already made clear that these technologies – CCS as a first step for existing coal plants that do not comply with this requirement and IGCC and CCU as soon as possible afterwards) – represent the only realistic way of meeting the goals laid out by the COP22. This is why the European Union is funding and supporting R&D for clean coal and CCS technologies, and an agreement reached by the OECD countries in November 2015 on ending government support for coal power plants specifically exempts these most advanced technologies, which can also be referred to as “ultra-supercritical”.

Making these emissions-mitigating technologies affordable is especially important for the European Union’s newer eastern members (especially Poland, Czech Republic, and Romania), where a premature turn away from coal would not only be a major obstacle to growth but also be a step taken without alternative energy sources available. Poland feels most strongly about its still-thriving coal industry in large part because the only alternative would be an even deeper reliance on Russian oil and gas supplies; as things stand now, the country is already due for an 8-gigawatt shortfall by 2020.

Europe can look abroad for lessons on how to move forward. In India, this technology is already making strides on a local level: a few weeks ago, an industrial plant in Tamil Nadu started using a chemical recently developed by young chemists (with funding from the British government) to strip CO2 emissions by binding them with salt and converting them into valuable soda ash. In Canada, the Boundary Dam project in Saskatchewan is proceeding at a broader scale. China, of course, may be the gold standard: as more than a few experts have noted, “the coal reality has also encouraged the authorities to seek solutions in carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS) technologies… as a result of pro-active policies, China has one of the biggest numbers of CCUS pilot projects in the world”.

With the United States set to buck its COP21 commitments, Europe is once again the most forceful and credible global voice for climate action. However European governments decide to proceed, the clock is ticking for them to use every avenue to find the most cost effective way of reducing emissions while keeping the lights on. They could do worse than look East, where the benefits of CCU in tackling emissions and providing reliable, cheap base load power have been more readily realised.

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