Deal on pollution from medium combustion plants

While EU-wide application of readily available emission abatement techniques would reduce NOx emissions from these plants by more than 80 per cent by 2025, the new directive will deliver less than half of this reduction.

In late June, the European Parliament and the Council agreed a compromise deal on new EU legislation to control air pollutant emissions from combustion installations with a thermal input between 1 and 50 megawatts (MW).

The new directive will cover more than 140,000 medium-sized combustion plants (MCPs) now in operation in the EU, which in 2010 together emitted some 554 thousand tons (kt) of nitrogen oxides (NOx), 301 kt of sulphur dioxide (SO₂) and 53 kt of particulate matter (PM).

Binding emission limit values (ELVs) are set for NOx, SO₂ and dust, and are differentiated according to plant capacity, age and type of installation, with the strictest standards for new plants. The limits will apply to all new plants, and will take effect three years from the date of publication, which is likely to be before the end of this year.

The agreed emission standards for new plants are largely in line with those in the Commission’s proposal dated December 2013, which were strongly criticised by environmental organisations for their failure to reflect what could be achieved by state-of-the-art emission control technology. In fact they are even less strict than ELVs that have been in place in some member states for several years, especially regarding NOx control.

Regarding existing plants, the agreed emission standards are in some cases significantly weaker than those proposed by the Commission, especially those for the smaller (1–5 MW) plants.

Despite a widespread agreement on the urgent need to cut emissions in order to improve air quality in the EU, existing installations are given very generous transition periods, up to 2025 for the larger (5–50 MW) plants and up to 2030 for the smaller ones.

On top of these long transition periods, the agreement introduces a large number of derogations, including the possibility for member states to further extend compliance deadlines up to 2030 for district heating plants above 5MW and facilities that burn biomass as their main fuel.

Moreover, member states can exempt plants that do not operate for more than 500 hours per year (as three- or five-year rolling averages) from compliance with the emission limit values.

While the Commission had proposed that countries should apply more stringent emission limit values (called benchmark values, said to reflect the best available techniques) to MCPs in zones that do not comply with the EU’s air quality standards, the final text stipulates only that member states “shall assess the need to apply” stricter limits for plants in such zones.

In order to further reduce the cost of implementing the directive, operators will not necessarily require permits, as is the case for large combustion plants. Instead it is up to the member states to decide if permits will be required or if operators will need only to notify the competent authorities, which in turn will ensure registration. For existing plants, the deadlines for registration/permit application are set at 1 January 2024 and 2029, for larger and smaller plants respectively.

The monitoring and reporting obligations have also been set at a minimal level, only requiring periodic measurements once every three years for the smaller (up to 20 MW) plants and annually for the bigger plants. Member states will need to report to the Commission on the implementation one year and nine months after the compliance dates for existing plants, i.e. in 2026 and 2031.

A review clause has been included, stating that by 1 January 2020 the Commission shall assess the benefits of setting minimum energy efficiency standards in line with best available techniques. In addition, by 1 January 2023, the Commission shall assess the need to amend the emission limit values set out in Annex II for new plants, on the basis of state-of-the-art technologies, and consider the opportunity to set specific emission limit values for carbon monoxide (CO).

The legislation does not prevent member states from keeping or introducing tougher domestic standards than those required by the directive.

The agreed new directive text will be submitted to the European Parliament for a vote at first reading and then to the Council for final adoption.

Christer Ågren

Sources: Council press release 30 June 2015 and European Parliament Environment Committee press release 23 June 2015.

Note: Medium combustion plants are used, among other things, for electricity generation, residential heating and cooling, and providing heat or steam to industry. While they are a major source of air pollution they have until now not been regulated at EU level. Emissions from large combustions plants (>50 MW) are covered by the industrial emissions directive (IED), and emissions from new small (domestic) combustion installations (<1MW) by the Ecodesign Directive.

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